Exploring ‘aggressive humility’: Eroding siloes between foundations and government


Kasey Oliver


“Just because you are the CEO doesn’t mean people will take your call,” said Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar, CEO of Al Ghurair Foundation.

This was not what I expected her to say in the middle of our discussion on how government and philanthropy can work better together. But then again, I had asked each panelist to focus on practical advice, and they were not shy about it!

In fact, everyone I met during my first time attending the AVPN Conference was eager to ask questions and share advice. After all, it’s what the conference is known for — that, and making meaningful connections.

For an all-too-short hour at the end of the first day, an audience of more than 60 people and I, the moderator, asked the CEOs of two global foundations and a leader of the Emirates Red Crescent to list the ingredients of a successful partnership between philanthropy and government.

First, understand that each partner has a role to play, one that best fits their strengths and characteristics. Government is responsive to its citizens, and while it cannot make decisions as quickly, it has the resources to exponentially scale good ideas. Philanthropy, on the other hand, can be quick, nimble, and experimental, but it lacks the reach and the scaling capacity of the government.

Even when the roles seem clear, the simple truth is that we don’t see more collaboration, in part, because the right people have not been connected. It’s not easy to find the appropriate person in a government agency to discuss a new project.  How many foundations list the emails and phone numbers of their program officers? (Answer: Not many.) Donor convenings invite private donors to collaborate and sideline their government counterparts. Government-led convenings are often similarly narrow in their invite lists.

It’s an issue that Tim Hanstad, former CEO of Chandler Foundation and currently Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors, tackled head-on by physically showing up in the offices of the governments the foundation wanted to support. While Dr. Sonia engages in extensive outreach via phone—an effort each panelist was familiar with—Reef Al Khajeh of Emirates Red Crescent meets government leaders almost always during times of crisis. (A different challenge for the start of a relationship, for sure.)  “Persistent” is how each panelist described themselves as they worked to open the first door—sometimes literally.

Gaining access is just the start. Foundations and governments have different motivations and often, must report on different metrics. Each panelist had the experience of negotiating what would be tracked and why. Tim described “aggressive humility” in these conversations: the ability to identify what is critical and to be flexible on the rest. Alignment of a few critical metrics between philanthropy and government is often the outcome—and it’s enough.

If I could summarise the conversation, it would be this: Relationships make collaboration possible. This is something my colleagues and I at Geneva Global know firsthand. It is not about making simple connections, but rather, it is the process of truly understanding one another—combined with the ability to strike the right balance between standing firm where needed and being flexible in everything else.

Foundations and governments that partner do so because they make the intention and put in the effort. Relationships and collaboration both take persistence, humility, and time.

Kasey Oliver is a Senior Director at Geneva Global. 

Tagged in: #AVPN2024

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