Bellagio Summit: if foundations are not there to take risks, what are they for?

 

Caroline Hartnell

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Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

The title of the whole initiative of which the recently ended Bellagio Summit was part is The future of Philanthropy and Development in the Pursuit of Well-being. Going on the title alone, the two questions that seem to call for answers are: how do philanthropy and development relate to each other? And how does the concept of well-being work as a call for action?

First, the relationship of philanthropy and development. This question needs to be re-formulated as ‘what role can philanthropy best play in development?’ Both the philanthropy people and the development people at the fourth and final module of the Bellagio Forum were keen to come up with an answer to this. Philanthropy and foundations mean resources, and anyone committed to development will naturally want to work out how best these precious resources can be used. In addition, the whole initiative is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation which, approaching its centenary, is asking the question: ‘what will our work look like in the next 100 years?’ So the Bellagio Initiative is at least partly their attempt to ‘pull together the right group of people to help us understand the rapidly changing ecosystem’. The aim for Rockefeller is not just to talk about issues but to develop some ‘actionable ideas’.

One thing that emerges clearly is that the different players in development need to know and understand each other better. Many people who have spent a lifetime studying development have only a hazy idea of what foundations are – not to mention the newer buzzword ideas like impact investing. And I’m sure the lack of understanding in the other direction is just as great. People stressed that the two groups need to get to know each other before jumping into collaboration for its own sake. Greater trust and transparency will be needed. Having said that, Pesh Framjee of Crowe Clark Whitehill (UK) expressed himself as pleasantly surprised by the readiness for change and acceptance of ‘the need to abandon some things we do in order to make changes and to keep on doing what we do well’. Lawrence Haddad of IDS described philanthropy and development as ‘intertwined tribes that have slightly different languages but much more in common than not’.

One of the issues most preoccupying the Forum was how philanthropy can best contribute to development. Comparative advantage and complementarity are terms that kept cropping up. Understanding the different skills and resources each group of players brings to the table is ever more important. Philanthropic resources may look enticingly available and attractive to the resource-hungry, but in the overall scheme of things they are small and need to be well used.

On the face of it, it seems that the comparative advantage of philanthropy is to be agile, nimble and able to take risks, given that foundations and philanthropists have independent, secure money and are accountable to no one. But this wasn’t how other players perceived them, nor how the foundation representatives appeared to perceive themselves. Several people suggested that the emphasis on risk tolerance and the emphasis on impact and effectiveness undermine each other, with foundations aiming for impact unwilling to risk failure of any endeavour. There was a surprising suggestion that government aid agencies might find foundations difficult to work with because of their unwieldy due diligence processes and slowness to act.

Rachel Turner of DFID expressed herself surprised by the extent to which foundations accept the judgement that they are risk averse, and that no foundations came forward to challenge this. But she was also pleasantly surprised by the degree of ambition, the sense of urgency and the willingness to take up advocacy.

Malcolm Bruce, Chairman of the UK’s House of Commons International Development Committee, posed the question of risk starkly: if foundations are not there to take risks, to do things that others can’t do, what are they for? Taking risks in dialogue with other players could bring real results, he said. ‘Dealing with foundations is difficult,’ he said, ‘they can be precious and tend to be bit players. But maybe we’d be missing a trick if we don’t make the effort.’ Zia Khan of the Rockefeller Foundation picked up on this idea of taking risks in dialogue with other players. Knowing whether there was interest in scaling up successful innovations could be important to guiding foundation investments, he said. For example, if a foundation was told ‘if you can find a good model for schools, we will scale it up’, it would make testing innovative but unproven school models more attractive, knowing that the investment could yield greater leverage down the road.

In Pesh Framjee’s view, one problem for foundations is the lack of a common language to address risk management. In general foundations focus on the downsides, notably the risk of failure, and fail to consider the ‘upsides’, the potential impact, the missed opportunities – in contrast to venture capitalists, who will accept failures as long as there are some really big wins. New frameworks for risk management are needed, he said, and these need to be part of the process of decision-making about grants.

What about well-being? Well-being can provide an umbrella of shared values but not too tightly defined. It introduces a people-centred rather than economic focus. Nilda Bullain referred in her blog to her fears about such an umbrella – that as soon as it starts to rain there will be people around the edges who get wet – while Barry Smith expressed doubt about the idea of subsuming ‘the vivid realities of poverty, inequality, social alienation and exclusion, human rights and social justice’ under the ‘well-being’ banner.

Another way of looking at well-being is to see it as an ‘organizing concept’: you position say ‘well-being of youth’ in the middle of your thinking and try to identify all the different players contributing to this who you might then work with to achieve specific aims. Seen this way, it is more an organizing concept than a banner for action. But the different players are not necessarily equally important. Sheela Patel of SPARC stressed that the relationship between the nation state and its citizens is central to sustainable well-being. Other actors are subsidiary players and must act to strengthen the central relationship.

What will come out of the Bellagio Initiative has yet to be seen. The Rockefeller Foundation is looking for ‘actionable ideas’ for itself and for the wider field of philanthropy. This is the beginning of a process, Zia Khan stressed in closing.

Caroline Hartnell is the editor of Alliance.

Tagged in: Bellagio Initiative Development Foundations Well-being


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