Supporting the ‘best’ or the small and new? How to ensure value for money?

Mari Kuraishi

Our mission at GlobalGiving is to catalyse a global market for ideas, information and money that democratizes aid and philanthropy. And the hallmark of markets is efficiency. Translated, we want to get the highest value – which in this context is synonymous with impact – for every donation dollar placed in our trust. Now that more than $100 million has flowed through GlobalGiving in the last ten years and close to $20 million a year on average is now flowing through the platform, our challenge is to ensure that each dollar counts. How best to do this?

There is a clear tension between supporting the ‘best’ organization and supporting small, new, local organizations without a track record – much current thinking about funding favours the first approach, among grantmakers and of course impact investors. This was the dilemma we faced when drafting our strategic framework for the next ten years.

Many people expect that we ensure value for money by limiting the GlobalGiving platform to the best and the brightest social entrepreneurs we can find. This is, however, an approach that clashes with at least two of the fundamental beliefs that GlobalGiving is based on.

A belief in openness …
One is the belief that great ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time. That’s why as an organization we hold our staff to the value of being Always Open – we assume everyone is worth our attention, courtesy and consideration. It’s a normative value, but one that is based on the hypothesis that the world will be richer tomorrow if we can create a welcoming environment for people who aren’t veterans of their fields, who come at problems at oblique angles, and who might otherwise not get supported. There is considerable empirical research, starting with Mark Granovetter among others, showing that innovation flourishes in the periphery, not the centre – and focusing on the best and the brightest amounts to drawing upon the centre.

… and in tinkering and experimentation

The other belief that this idea of finding and supporting winners runs counter to is our belief that winning products evolve into being, rather than being born. It’s enshrined in our mantra: Listen. Act. Learn. Repeat. Where you fall on this spectrum depends on whether you see someone like Steve Jobs as a genius whose ideas emerged fully formed, or whether you see him as an incessant tinkerer, continuously and relentlessly implementing improvements, even in details like the packaging for an Apple product. At GlobalGiving, we believe in tinkering. We continually experiment. We fail quickly and productively. And we use data and feedback to guide our course.

So we couldn’t start channeling all donations going through GlobalGiving to the best and the brightest without fundamentally upending our theory of change.

Ultimately our theory of change is based on a dynamic rather than a static view of excellence. We believe that what will prove to be excellent tomorrow will not be immediately evident today. We also assume that we have no special insight into discovering the Mohammed Yunuses of tomorrow.

A system designed to scale

But we do know that we have built a system that is designed to scale – to serve an increasing number of users without a concomitant increase in cost. We have done this in part because our business model demands it: if our core income of 15 per cent per transaction is to fund our operations, we cannot continue to grow without continuously capturing economies of scale. In financial transactions, we do this by continuously automating aspects of our work, by driving down costs paid to credit card companies as higher volumes flow through GlobalGiving, and by using data patterns to detect potential fraud. In our programme work, we do this by leveraging our network: as we bring more organizations and individuals into our community, they increasingly ask our social entrepreneurs to be our ambassadors, our teachers, our eyes and ears on the ground.

Twesigye Jackson KaguriOpening up our referral system
More than seven years ago, we invited Twesigye Jackson Kaguri (pictured with two students; photo © Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project and GlobalGiving) to join GlobalGiving. He is the founder of the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project in Uganda, which provides free education and other services to children who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. At the time our acquisition channel for social entrepreneurs was strictly through referrals from a select group of partners. The Nyaka school was one of the first organizations that joined GlobalGiving outside of this strict referral process, through an open voting competition – we had decided to experiment with an open competition precisely because we realized that the referral process we had designed meant we were reaching the same social entrepreneurs that everyone else was. And we were proved right in Jackson’s case. In the last eight years, Nyaka has grown from 120 students to close to 700 students, and much of the support that has made this possible has been because of his exposure on GlobalGiving.

This exemplifies how we want to contribute to the ecosystem. We can’t promise that every social entrepreneur on GlobalGiving is a future Ashoka Fellow. But we also don’t want to stand by while we watch the roulette wheel spin. Increasingly, we believe we  can maximize our chances of supporting a future Nobel Peace prize winner today by giving them access to a set of tools and enabling them to learn. We are developing tools for every social entrepreneur in our community to track their performance and to learn from peers. And because we are a funding platform, we can structure a series of incentives for those organizations that engage in behaviours we associate with  learning. For instance, an organization that uses our real-time feedback tools will get points that go towards their ranking on GlobalGiving, which in turn translates to greater visibility on the site as well as automatic inclusion in employee giving or corporate philanthropy partnerships.

So we are willing to bet that if a GlobalGiving project leader demonstrates an openness to learning, she will be readier to seize the opportunity than someone who isn’t. Put another way, we’re looking for people who not only enshrine Always Open and Listen. Act. Learn. Repeat., but combine it with a readiness to question the rules, change them for the better, raise the bar, play a different game, and play it better than anyone thinks is possible. In other words, Never Settle.

Mari Kuraishi is co-founder and president of GlobalGiving. Email

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