Global Philanthropy Forum 2014 (3): Keeping a balance between global goals and citizen solutions


Peter Laugharn

Peter Laugharn

Peter Laugharn

This is the last of three blogs from this year’s Global Philanthropy Forum. Yesterday I focused on citizen abilities to help families and communities organize, thrive and adapt and to hold institutions to account. Today I look at citizens’ role in providing big data and quick feedback on social initiatives; and in driving innovation.

Citizens’ ability to inform

One perhaps overlooked role of citizens in this age of big data lies in their ability to provide comprehensive feedback and rapid response to government (and foundation) initiatives. The World Bank’s Sanjay Pradhan called this part of his ‘third frontier’, and noted that governments are realizing that citizen preferences and emphases are no longer important only during elections, or at moments of marked conflict or debate. Citizen reaction to government action is now available immediately, 24/7. This in turn means that government’s ability to hear, to discern patterns, and to respond becomes increasingly important.

Governments are not the only actors being informed by citizens. The private sector has been quicker than government to recognize the importance of paying closer attention to customers. It was clear at GPF that crowdfunded non-profits such as Watsi (a global fundraising platform for medical operations that patients could otherwise not afford) are getting a lot of data and feedback from thousands of small donors, and that they are paying meticulous attention. In effect, their microdonors may have a larger aggregate influence than ‘big-chunk’ foundation donors, because the microdonors provide more data, more frequently.

Foundations have been getting used to getting grantee feedback over the last 15 years. The next frontier for foundations is likely to be rapid beneficiary feedback. Technologically, this is already possible – a recent survey by Firelight found that 100% of our grantees are using text to communicate, and 80% of their beneficiaries are doing so as well. As GPF founder Jane Wales said, ‘We have a real opportunity for beneficiary feedback in forms that really invite candour and nuance, and that help us make more effective interventions. Why would a beneficiary “show up” to give such feedback? If it’s cheap and easy, and if it would change their lives.’ This is a space to watch.

Citizens’ ability to innovate

Foundations that keep their eyes on both global goals and citizen solutions can be somewhat schizophrenic. The ‘global goals’ part of their consciousness often leads them to look for broken links in supply chains, to emphasize the ‘science of delivery’, and to focus on what’s known to work – it brings out the technocrat in the philanthropist. But the ‘citizen solution’ part leans towards a more ‘hundred flowers’ point of view.

New Ford Foundation president Darren Walker expressed this lens admirably in a very engaging talk he gave on the second day of the GPF. ‘Philanthropy,’ he said, ‘creates the space for people who have the ideas we can’t imagine …

How would you create a logic model with the predictive capacity to see Nelson Mandela walk out of prison and become President of South Africa?’

The challenge, of course, is to ensure that the space created is well used, since the global challenges in question are critical, and the accomplishment of each global goal is of high importance to hundreds of millions, or billions, of people.

Individuals and smaller groups are often more innovative than governments and large lumbering organizations. Citizen groups will be stronger on social innovation – replicable, affordable ways of overcoming common inequities and obstacles to social development – than on technological innovation. Citizen solutions in this area will often be about rethinking the social relations, roles and obligations between actors. If done well, this can be a very important part of the ‘science of delivery’.

In our own experience at Firelight, we have put out a number of requests for proposals to Tanzanian NGOs looking for innovative family- and community-based approaches to improving children’s primary school learning outcomes. But we found that the first round of concept notes featured pretty conventional ideas – both funder and applicant are usually better at problem description than at imagining distinctly new solutions. We have found that it takes a sort of ‘breakthrough conversation’ to create the space Darren Walker was talking about, and to get funder and applicant to start talking about real social innovation.

Keeping the balance

It is the nature of the GPF, and the spirit of globally engaged foundations, to be simultaneously ‘looking up’ towards global goals and ‘looking down’ to identify and support citizen solutions. In this age of rapid technological change, global challenges, and the emerging 2015-30 Sustainable Development framework, it will be important to balance these two perspectives dynamically and well.

 Peter Laugharn, is executive director of the Firelight Foundation.

Tagged in: Global philanthropy

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