Council on Foundations: a network-based strategy for the global arena?


Peter Laugharn

Peter Laugharn

Peter Laugharn

With the advent of its new network-based strategy, the Council on Foundations has done a significant amount of reorganizing. Part of that reorganization included the downsizing of its global programme staff and the disbanding of the CoF global philanthropy committee in mid-2013.

CoF’s goal in introducing the network-based strategy was to be less ‘transactional’, less of a ‘vending machine’ for specific members needing specific services and more of a catalyst for the building of broad networks both within and beyond philanthropy. CoF introduced ‘network managers’, essentially regionally based positions throughout the United States, and ‘network developers’, based in CoF’s Washington DC headquarters, who work on topical issues rather than within geographic areas. In other words, CoF has adopted the sort of geographic-plus-thematic matrix structure that has been common in multilaterals and international NGOs for years.

In the global arena, the thematic ‘network developer’ role may well make sense, covering topics such as health and education and environment. However, the regional ‘network manager’ role does not easily map onto the whole globe with anything like the high-touch relationship building that the US-based managers will be aiming at.

CoF staff, with the help of many of the former members of the global committee, have been working on developing a new global strategy that matches the overall CoF networking emphasis, but is also well designed for the global development ecosystem. This strategy should be shared with larger groups of CoF members and stakeholders over the coming months.

Challenges for the new strategy
The new strategy is likely to face a couple of significant challenges. The first is staffing. One network developer will have a hard time keeping on top of the headlines of the post-2015 global development goals, let alone the strengths and gaps of individual foundations and the specific coalitions that could be built. It seems likely, therefore, that the global committee will be reconstituted in some form, which would be in keeping with the idea of working through networks. In a real sense, the global committee is CoF’s ‘inner network’, with each of its members in turn connected to several or many other networks.

The second challenge is that there are probably three distinct ‘bands of engagement’ of foundations regarding global philanthropy. The ‘high band of engagement’ comprises foundations set up to work internationally. They are structured and staffed for global grantmaking, and are likely to be sophisticated and well connected with other development actors. The ‘medium band of engagement’ is concerned about global philanthropy, but secondarily to domestic programmes. Its boards, executives and staffs are less experienced and may need initial or refresher trainings about how to grant globally. Their global rolodexes are smaller, and they may be more focused on individual projects than on trying to make a structural dent in a particular global issue. The ‘low band of engagement’ is frankly not interested in global grantmaking – until the day after a tsunami in South East Asia or an earthquake in Haiti, when they want to be able to make a rapid, impactful, duly-diligent international grant to a reputable organization on the ground.

These three bands have very different needs, and ask different things of a philanthropic platform like the Council. The high band would like to see the Council serve as a platform for deal-making with other actors like multilaterals, bilaterals and national governments – indeed this is in line with the heart of the Council’s new networking strategy. The global committee membership tended to be drawn from this band.

The medium band is often looking more for the ‘transactional services’ that the Council is trying to move beyond. What are the mechanics of international grantmaking? What are the tax rules? How does due diligence differ when it is nine time zones away rather than in the same county? Much of CoF’s earlier international grantmaking initiatives focused on this band.

The low band requires nothing at all from the Council global programme most of the time, but does require rapid ‘morning-after’ assistance in the wake of disasters. In some ways this is the easiest group to service, if there has been thoughtful advance planning for disaster response beforehand.

If that were not complex enough, there is also the question of what other development actors want from foundations, and what they look to the Council to do.
The ways that foundations and multilaterals look at one another are succinctly outlined in a November 2012 publication produced by the Council, the European Foundation Centre and the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS) entitled Building On Strengths. Most frequently, multilaterals and bilaterals will be looking for ‘high band’ foundation partners with long-term commitment to specific development areas and the ability to fund nimbly and creatively.

Where does CoF’s comparative advantage lie?
Finally, there is the question of comparative advantage. As the Council realizes in its new strategy, it is not the sole philanthropic actor in most fields. In the global arena, there are other philanthropic platforms, such as the Global Philanthropy Forum and EDGE Funders, which are much more focused on global issues than the Council. The Council’s comparative advantage lies in the breadth and diversity of its membership and its wide geographic coverage of all parts of the US. This breadth and diversity reside mostly in the medium and lower bands of engagement, which include many more foundations than does the high band.

It is not simple to devise a strategy that optimizes all these aspects. The Council has adopted a networking strategy that will be beyond its means and scope if pursued on a global scale, so it needs to depend more on networks without network managers. The Council also needs to be attentive to at least three distinct groups of member foundations (and probably several others). Finally, they need to realize that while the high band foundations attract the interest of multilateral and bilateral partners, they may not actually be the most distinctive comparative advantage of the Council in the global arena.

It will be fascinating to see the Council’s global strategy tackle these elements over the coming months. Stay tuned!

Peter Laugharn is executive director of the Firelight Foundation.

Tagged in: Council on Foundations network-based strategy Networks

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