To measurable impact and beyond; an evolving perception of philanthropy


Patricia Samman


As various stakeholders gathered at the American University of Cairo for the Arab Philanthropy Forum; core pillars of Arab Philanthropy were highlighted, showcasing a shift in how the world perceives the philanthropic sector.

In his opening speech, Dr. Ahmad Dallal, president of the AUC claims that: “Global Philanthropy is at a decisive moment” as it increasingly looks towards measuring its impact and letting evidence guide its funding decisions. 

Panel discussions and workshops during the AFF seem to have one key insight in common; philanthropy is not charity and we should stop treating it as such. In fact, philanthropy seems to be moving beyond traditional charity and modes of social change towards a data-driven culture. The days are behind us where funding decisions are made based on good intentions, as these, alone, are not enough. Just like in banking, entrepreneurship, private equity and other sectors, philanthropists too ought to make calculated decisions on what to fund and where to invest. 

Funding what works 

This brings us to what was painted as a core pillar of philanthropy; making funding decisions based on evidence. As Mr. Badr Jafar; CEO of Crescent Enterprises and founder, of Pearl Initiative puts it; 

Without quality data, we are blind and we cannot make fully informed decisions“.

Like everything else in the world; from the smallest purchase to the biggest investment, data is what truly feeds human behaviour. We buy a certain product because it’s been tested and we are able to see figures of the number of people it has worked on. Just as so; philanthropies ought to invest in a certain program because we have evidence of it working elsewhere. 

For example, ‘Targeting the Ultra Poor’ is one of the biggest social protection programs that aims to scaffold ultra-poor households out of poverty pioneered by BRAC in Bangladesh. This approach has been piloted and scaled up in over nine countries and has generated rigorous evidence. This has allowed for its replication in Egypt by the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development (SFSD), in collaboration with two local NGOs – Giving Without Limit Association (GWLA) in Assiut and the Human Development Egyptian Association (HDEA) in Sohag.

Similarly, we need to find interventions that were rigorously evaluated and found to have a positive impact. Conversely; we need to stop funding and implementing those that have a demonstrated negative impact. 

Finding out what works 

There is another side to this coin; what if we don’t know what works and what doesn’t? What if; there is not enough data yet to help you direct your funds?

Noura Selim, executive director of Sawiris Foundation reflects on the Egyptian philanthropic organisation’s previous lessons learned and admits that “One of our biggest mistakes is that we did not invest enough to collect data; we have to invest in data so that we’re able to influence policies for the benefit our society “.

In an anecdote shared during a panel we asked ourselves; “why are we so ready to take risks in business but not in philanthropy?”; the answer was simply that people do not trust the process. 

This highlights to us the need to invest in the process of finding out what works and finance the development and generation of data. 

In fact, the results of evaluations and the generation of evidence will inform policy reforms and provide policymakers with sound data to advocate for a certain program with a successful impact. Moreover, these efforts feed into the strategy of philanthropies – the more we learn what works and what does not, the better we are able to align our strategic directions to new findings. In fact, M&E sectors that generate learnings ought to continuously feed and potentially redirect our strategies.

How can we practically implement this?

On the last day, the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development (SFSD) shared a practical method for prioritising ‘evidence-based’ philanthropy. In its annual project cycle, SFSD’s new projects are given funding depending on whether there is evidence that backs up a certain intervention or not. For example:

  • Track A; is for innovative projects on which we have no evidence of the impact. In this track, NGOs are put in contact with Personal Investigators and research centres to design an evaluation that allows us to know if this project works. 
  • Track B projects are those already supported by scientific evidence that are being replicated and contextualized to the Egyptian context. These are eligible for funding between 20-30 million EGP for the duration of three years and can be scaled up to 80 million EGP, lasting between 5-6 years.

It is expected that SFSD will allocate 80% of its funds for evidence-based projects (track B) and the other 20% to generate evidence and test new ideas (track A). 

Patricia Samman is the Strategy Officer at Sawiris Foundation and has taken a key part in leading the exercise of compiling information and developing the new strategy. Patricia holds an undergrad in Public Administration from the Erasmus University of Rotterdam and continues to be passionate about translating research into policy to serve the Egyptian people more efficiently.

Tagged in: #AFFAM2023

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