Bellagio Initiative: when measurement becomes our new best friend


David Bonbright


David Bonbright

What do you get when you convene a conversation with 40 or so philanthropy and development professionals from 20 or so countries about the future of their fields, all over two days?

The Rockefeller Foundation, Institute of Development Studies and Resource Alliance team that are curating this conversation are balancing the challenge of providing structure with creating open space for participants to bring their own perspectives. Participants are simultaneously:

o      tracing the topography of trending ideas and approaches within organized philanthropy – such as venture philanthropy, impact assessment and social investing; and

o      considering the Bellagio Initiative’s organizing theme of well-being (or dignity or social justice) as a new orientation for development and philanthropy practice; while

o      resisting (or not resisting) the tendency to assert their own mental models and experiences.

The resulting stew of ideas can often feel haphazard and unfinished. But looking back on module 3 of the Bellagio summit, quite a few things struck me as signals of welcome trends.

Thanks to the Arab Spring, no one can ignore the importance of citizen activism as the bedrock of democracy and human freedom. Barbara Ibrahim from the John D Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University of Cairo has a programme of civic education that is being taken up enthusiastically by the Tahrir Square generation, who are self-consciously fashioning the tools and habits for what they know to be their own unique and permanent struggle for democracy.

Akwasi Aidoo of Trust Africa illuminated how philanthropy is an end as well as a means of development. When we see philanthropy as development we recognize the webs of mutuality – and the values expressing our common humanity – that underpin philanthropy. This awareness raises our game as we wield philanthropy as an instrument.

Sheela Patel of Shack Dwellers International and SPARC embodies how professionals can serve the poorest. Her life’s work is a veritable manual on how to subordinate the status, power and capabilities of ‘professionals’ so that they can be truly useful to social movements.

Jennifer Gill of ASB Community Trust in New Zealand told us the story of a painstaking multi-year dialogue process with the Maori community that has transformed that trust. I was inspired by her story, which brought to mind the oft-ignored wisdom from Australian Aboriginal Lila Watson, ‘If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’

Taken as examples, these observations echo an important theme that emerged from module 1 of this initiative – that we need a fundamental rebalancing in philanthropy and development from ‘supply side’ to ‘demand side’ investments. This means investing more in enabling citizens to define and lead their own development. Such investments in people and institutions are understood by Bellagio participants as the best way to ensure that the useful innovations that come from supply side ‘projectized’ investments in things like genetically engineered micronutrients are effectively utilized.

Evaluation, impact assessment and performance management are often wrongly associated with the supply side of philanthropy. One exciting insight highlighted in module 3 has been the idea that if we really aim to close the gap between listening to people (something everyone agrees we must do) and acting on what we hear (regrettably, seldom done), then measurement is not another donor-imposed burden but our new best friend!

Philanthrocapitalist chronicler Michael Green asked an important question: ‘Forty years after the emergence of participatory methodologies, why do we think it is going to really make a difference now?’ The answer is that now, for the first time, we have the tools to measure it, as Hewlett Foundation senior fellow Fay Twersky shows in a recent articlein the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Keystone Accountability and a number of other organizations have developed a new generation of tools that rigorously measure constituency voice in philanthropy and development. They work. They are inexpensive to apply. Now what we need is the will and discipline to land those measures of constituency voice in ongoing performance management. The plan of action emerging from Bellagio Initiative module 3 issues a call for this. Encouraging indeed!

David Bonbright is chief executive of Keystone Accountability.

Tagged in: Arab spring Bellagio Initiative Civil society evaluation Impact measurement Well-being

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