Philanthropy’s superpower!


Catherine Brown


The session on Funding Systems Change in Asia was a powerful call to action for philanthropy to provide more risk capital to test and develop solutions to tough social and environmental challenges, with real potential to lead to systems change. The ability of private capital to take risks was described as its superpower. This extends to capital held in foundations of all types.

The session canvassed models that are relevant to philanthropy around the world, especially as we respond to the COVID-19 crisis and recovery.

James Chen from the ChenYet-Sen Family Foundation described the Clearly Campaign, a systems change program which works to improve vision around the world. He highlighted that good sight is a Sustainable Development Goal Accelerator: good vision leads to improved learning through reading and more work opportunities, which then leads to less poverty. He noted that women are less likely to have treatment for poor vision, exacerbating gender inequality. Private philanthropy has played a catalyst role in the Clearly Campaign, working with the UN’s Friends of Vision Group and other health collaborations. ‘Private donors can step up and provide more risk capital,’ James Chen.

The other wonderful quote from the session was from Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham Education Foundation in India. ‘You have found your tiger!’ This means that a systems change collaboration has found the key indicator that will demonstrate to funders and partners that systems change has been achieved. The problem being addressed must be visible and ‘tacklable’. If collaborations can place outcome(s) at the centre of the systems change work, then impact will more readily be understood and demonstrated.

Continuing on the theme of philanthropy providing risk capital, the session on Catalysing Philanthropy through Innovative Approaches highlighted philanthropic investment in Disaster Tech, with an insightful presentation by Don Kanak of Prudence Foundation on the Safe Steps Disaster Tech Innovation Program. Disaster Techs are technological solutions which protect lives before, during and after natural disasters. The pitch program led to three prizes including an early warning earthquake system and inventories to enable quick recovery plans.

Risk was also a lens for the Climate Leadership Initiative, presented by Lindsay Austin Louie of the Hewlett Foundation. This is a collaboration of six foundations with a shared purpose, an agreement on how to measure results and a shared understanding of risk. Lindsay highlighted the importance of learning and flexibility in innovative project collaborations.  She quoted the great saying ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’ – and (my comments) agree where you are going, how you will measure progress and your shared risk appetite!

The discussion on agreeing and measuring outcomes continued in the Aligning investors on impact management session in the Impact Investment stream. This was a practical and thoughtful session presented by the Impact Management Project, GIIN and SEAF and chaired by Kevin Teo of AVPN. Everyone in the impact value chain has different needs but everyone wants to know the change that is intended, how outcomes will be measured and whether the impact does occur. Iris + and the SDGs were presented in some depth. The conversation went beyond investing financially. Investors can add value by using their expertise, networks and influence to improve the impact of social businesses or systems change projects.

I completed my PhD last year on the topic Unlocking the innovation potential of philanthropic foundations. It was, therefore, a real joy to listen to foundations from around the world all innovating their practice and supporting innovative solutions to test and scale. Thank you AVPN!

Catherine Brown is CEO of Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation

Tagged in: AVPN Covid-19

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