Interview – Jane Wales

Alliance magazine

Jane Wales founded the Global Philanthropy Forum ten years ago, with the aim of building a community of donors and social investors and enhancing strategic giving. Since then, the forum has grown from its Silicon Valley roots to encompass donors from around the world. Have the last ten years been as she expected in terms of both the forum and wider philanthropy, asked Caroline Hartnell, and what developments can we expect to see in the coming years?

This year you’re holding the tenth Global Philanthropy Forum – has it achieved what you hoped, in terms of the annual meeting and building a community of new global philanthropists, which I know was the broader aim?

We measure the success of the forum by a variety of metrics, but what matters to us most is that 83 per cent of members report that they rely on one another for informal brainstorming as they develop their strategies for giving. It’s that metric that tells us that a learning community has indeed emerged, and is growing. We started with a core of American philanthropists, but we’re now increasingly international.

What proportion of your members comes from outside the US, and what’s the range of countries?

Our current membership includes philanthropists from Asia – China, India and Pakistan – Europe, southern Africa and Latin America. Some come to us through the referrals of partners such as Synergos and the Institute for Philanthropy, both of which serve philanthropists around the world and do so in a high-touch way. Other philanthropists learn of us through word of mouth. Even without a systematic outreach effort, overseas donors comprise 10 to 12 per cent of our membership. We expect that number to grow as we work with on-the-ground partners to replicate our model.

Looking ahead, what are you still hoping to achieve?

As long as our purpose is to build and continually refresh the community, we will be committed to extending that community’s reach and depth. We are trying to achieve these goals through the partnership model, a network approach, rather than by building a large stand-alone organization.

We’re extending our reach by replicating our model elsewhere, and here we have a focus on emerging economies, starting with India. There’s a new breed of philanthropists emerging in India, and they share many of the attributes of our current members – they’re young, they’re mid career, they’re inventive, they’re engaged, they’re results-oriented. We’ve partnered with the Confederation of Indian Industry and Aspen India. And we are considering a partnership with another organization that works with NGOs and social businesses to improve their capacity. We’ll be co-hosting a conference in India as well as a travelling seminar this coming winter, during which our members will meet with their counterparts as well as well-vetted grantees and leaders of social businesses.

How will you go about extending your depth?

We’re extending our depth by offering our members strategic advisory services with an emphasis on matchmaking. But rather than matching grantmaker to grantee, what we do is match grantmakers to one another, so they have peers from whom to learn and colleagues with whom to collaborate.

It’s pretty common for philanthropists to come to us and say, ‘I would like to achieve the following objective in the following region, but I’m new to both and would love guidance’. They benefit from connecting with fellow philanthropists who are doing a particularly good job in that area and/or region. So we are real believers in the peer learning model.

So you broker that for them. Is there any sort of online forum where they can put out posts to other GPF members direct?

They can also make contact through GPF Connect at the annual conferences, and we’re now looking at launching an online forum to make GPF Connect a useful tool throughout the year.

What we currently do when we respond to a member’s query is to think about potential partners whose approaches are complementary or otherwise aligned, and then make the introduction with the interests of both parties in mind. We do not yet know whether GPF members will respond as readily to an online inquiry. But we do know that useful exchanges can take place online.

The forum remains remarkably vibrant as a community, and as philanthropy changes it creates new tools. The GPF is a wonderful venue for philanthropists to both learn from and teach one another. We will experiment with ways to add value through online vehicles.

You’ve mentioned GPF reflecting changes in the field. What do you think are the main changes now compared to ten years ago when you started the forum?

Perhaps the most important is that the definition of philanthropy has broadened to include all private means of financing social goals. Rather than limiting themselves to grantmaking, philanthropists can now invest in businesses that provide a social and financial return. They’re employing new mechanisms like impact bonds, and many are working to assure that social change is intrinsic to their company’s value chain. I think an impact economy can become a reality and will be a powerful social innovation.

At the same time there are technology innovations that provide a larger set of tools for the social change toolbox. The most of important of these is the combination of smartphones and automated translation. You don’t need to speak English, French or Mandarin to access the world’s knowledge on the internet. All the languages of the developing world will be available to the user. This combination can fundamentally change our world.

An impact economy and connective technology can help to improve lives on a large scale, thus advancing goals that many philanthropists share. They also can be used to increase the impact and amplify the value of the work of philanthropists and those they support. The coming Global Philanthropy Forum [in Redwood City, California, 13-15 April] will focus on the turning points that are offered by those innovations. We believe that this is a moment of inflexion, when an old order can be swept away by the new, depending on choices made.

What do you see as the main issues in the coming years for the field of philanthropy?

I think we need an environment where experimentation with these new methods can become more widespread – and this requires four things. We need government policies and practices in place that welcome and encourage these innovations. At the Aspen Institute we’ve launched a new initiative to advance government policies to enable the emergence of an impact economy. This could be regulations, tax treatments, OPIC-style guarantees to share risk – a whole range of practices within government that have been beneficial to enterprise generally, and could now be applied to social enterprise.

The second requirement is an infrastructure of services so that when philanthropists decide to make a social investment they can turn to experts with the knowledge and tools needed to identify smart investments. Some within the GPF community are working with wealth managers to build a cadre of smart social investors.

The third requirement is a set of clear standards so that you know success when you see it. These are the kinds of tools that enable impact investing and initiatives. GINN [Global Impact Investing Network] is moving the field towards this important goal through its Impact Reporting and Investment Standards, known as IRIS.

And finally it requires colleagues from whom to learn and with whom to collaborate. This is where you see the popularity of learning networks like the Global Philanthropy Forum for donors or TONIIC among angel investors or ANDE [Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs] among the intermediaries that are sourcing the investment opportunities. This is a growing field and that is a very good thing.

Talking about the ability to recognize success when we see it, and agree among ourselves, how much progress do you think is being made in the field of measuring impact?

We used to gather as much data as possible in search of evidence of impact. Not only was that approach onerous for grantees but it often failed to produce useful results within the timeframe needed. But the field has matured enormously, both in the world of grantmaking and in the world of social investing. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been an intellectual leader when it comes to M&E [monitoring and evaluation] in grantmaking. And the Rockefeller Foundation has played a similar role when it comes to social investing.

At the Aspen Institute’s Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation (PSI), we’re trying to capture the evolving norm of ‘decision-based’ M&E, which starts with its core purposes – informing decision making and enabling continuous learning – and then designs an M&E system that meets both needs. It allows grantmakers and grantees to move away from evaluation as audit towards evaluation as learning. And, importantly, it provides opportunities for field-wide learning, by making non-proprietary data publicly available.

The Aspen Institute is currently working on an edited volume that will explore the attributes of a ‘decision-based’ approach and include chapters authored by foundation presidents that describe the ways it can be applied in various contemporary settings.

In social investing, you see the importance of a community of intermediaries such as ANDE or GIIN. Each provides a platform for a community to learn together and come to a consensus. And, through the Global Philanthropy Forum and other platforms, they can do so along with the grantmakers who support this kind of work.

When we last spoke in November 2008, I asked how you thought philanthropy would respond to the financial crisis, so can I ask you now how you think it has responded? In particular you said you thought there would be a far greater emphasis on collaboration so that sources of finance for the social sector would leverage one another and find efficiencies – has this happened?

Collaboration is very much on the rise and I think it’s a trend that will continue with or without a financial crisis. Today’s philanthropists are ambitious in their social goals and they’re taking on very large problems – no single donor has got the money to achieve these goals on their own. So they’re going to leverage one another, and they’re going to leverage other sectors to achieve the impact they seek. You see this in virtually every issue domain.

I think the sector coped well with the crisis. Obviously there are some things that philanthropy cannot address, things that are roles for government such as developing a regulatory structure that works. But, even there, philanthropists have supported think-tanks that have contributed to that process. We often see coalitions forming around communities that are in distress. For example, in the US, there has been a real collaborative effort to address the problems that exist in the city of Detroit, which was particularly hard hit.

When we last spoke you mentioned five ongoing crises for the world: poverty, climate change, access to healthcare, access to quality education, and the need for post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction, so as to avert state failure. How is philanthropy dealing with these ‘crises’?

I think there are heartening developments in each of these fields, for example, a disease such as polio may soon be eradicated, and school systems that were in rapid decline are now making great strides. States, localities and private sector enterprises are working around governmental inaction in the field of climate change mitigation. In poverty alleviation, we see new financing methods being tested, which if successful can be brought to scale. And, of course, some countries have even met their Millennium Development Goals.

Having said that, it will be a long time before victory can be declared in these areas. And, when it is, new goals will be set. That’s the nature of philanthropy. That’s why it’s so important for philanthropists to learn from each other to find clear measures of success, to commit to continuous learning, to share their knowledge, and never to fall victim to the short-termism that is prevalent in other sectors.

Jane Wales is president and CEO of the World Affairs Council/Global Philanthropy Forum and vice president of the Aspen Institute. Email

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