Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat: A new way of doing philanthropy

Jennah Scott

The Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat (LPS) is a model of philanthropy focused on improving the lives of Liberians by encouraging collaboration between government and philanthropists and foundations from all over the world to coordinate their efforts.

LPS’s initial goal was to help facilitate the support that philanthropists were providing in the country.  This is still the main focus, but there have been some changes in how LPS operates. Limited resources and working in a government-based environment means that we have to be careful to protect the integrity of the programme, making sure that the projects we support are for the benefit of the Liberian people and not politically motivated or promoting personal interests. At times this means saying no to a government official or philanthropist when a project is outside our scope of work. We are clearer about the initiatives that we can support or promote and we are learning to say no. We have been pleased to learn that most people understand this. One of the great things about working in Liberia is that all stakeholders can easily agree on what the needs are; the challenge is finding the right solutions.

The ownership of the programme, which is housed within the Office of the President, created some confusion. Are we a government agency or an NGO?  We definitely straddled the fence for a long time, assuming a government or NGO hat where convenient. This went unquestioned in the early days, but as Liberia is developing so is the programme and we had to draw the line and answer the question.  So, no, we are not a government entity, but we work closely with the government of Liberia. We also work closely with foundations and philanthropists and civil society. The key word here is with and not for. The priority is ensuring that Liberians benefit from the programme. Most government officials and philanthropists understand this and give us the right support and space to do our work.

When we initially started the programme, we saw ourselves as just a door opener, introducing philanthropists to key opportunities and people in Liberia, hoping that the relationship would ride off into the sunset without a glitch. That has not been the case. In order to keep the doors open we have had to pay attention to the after care, and we found ourselves becoming more of a fixer.

The relationship between foundations and NGOs has been relatively easy to intervene in. NGOs typically reach out to us where they need help advocating support for a particular cause or a change in direction of grant funding. But the relationship between philanthropists and government has proved more challenging. The collaboration between government and philanthropy is a new one, a result of global economic changes that have led to today’s situation whereby insufficient revenues are forcing governments across the globe to seek new partnerships and new mechanisms in order to meet the needs of their citizens. The Government of Liberia has been very favourable to philanthropy as an opportunity to meet the needs of Liberians.  However, getting donors is where the challenge lies. In our office, we help the government advocate its initiatives and encourage philanthropic support where plausible. We also raise awareness about the demands of private funders. LPS strives to strike a neutral and balanced perspective so that both philanthropists and government officials feel comfortable sharing ideas with us. We take a personalized and direct approach to this, coordinating one-on-one meetings, letters and phone calls between philanthropists and senior government officials, experts and other key stakeholders in the country.

The next five years will see even more changes. LPS is currently working on a macro outlook plan, which we hope will help to produce greater economic sustainability in Liberia. The focus has moved away from just matchmaking to more targeted support for key developmental initiatives. I share the vision that Liberia can become a middle-income country. For this to happen, the government, Liberians, corporations, donors, civil society ‒ all stakeholders ‒ are going to have to think strategically and work towards that goal. We want to encourage philanthropic support on this route.

Jennah Scott is director, Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat. Email
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