Cooperation between foundations and bilateral aid agencies – Still not completely natural?

Andrew Milner

Government aid agencies and foundations are very different institutions and command very different kinds and levels of resources – the Gates Foundation being the exception rather than the rule – and they naturally approach development questions in their own ways. But should they be looking for ways to work together more? Do bilateral agencies see foundations as potentially valuable partners in development?

If so, what can foundations bring to the collaboration, given the mostly much smaller amounts of money at their disposal? And how much do they work together already? Alliance asked representatives of a number of bilateral agencies for their views.

To begin with, to what extent do government aid agencies work with foundations? While most reported some determination, either explicit or implicit, to seek out partnerships with other sectors, the response was mixed.

The current situation

Joao Cravinho, Portuguese Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, says that his department’s civil society partners ‘are predominantly NGOs for development’. They also work with foundations, but so far, he adds, ‘mainly with European, Portugual-based foundations. We are, however, currently developing an interesting partnership with the US-based Carr Foundation, related to conservation and sustainable development in the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.’

They are also taking the lead in a dialogue between European and US foundations, which resulted in a recent conference in Lisbon to strengthen cooperation and dialogue between bilateral donors and foundations working on international development, and to ‘draw conclusions about how future partnerships could maximize effectiveness and accountability for impact on poverty eradication and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals’.

Joseph Zimet at the French Agency for Development (AFD) says that his organization’s strategy emphasizes the importance of partnership with all kinds of institutions involved in development. ‘Our strategy for the years 2007-11 is all about building innovative partnerships through coalitions of actors. In the coming years, 60 per cent of our projects will involve partnerships at some level.’ But foundations, he admits, ‘are still perceived by governments or public aid agencies as “emerging actors” in the landscape of aid’.

‘AFD,’ he adds, ‘has already had successful experiences of cooperation with French, European and American foundations, mainly in the fields of health and environment, through co-funding vehicles or in support of projects directly operated by foundations.’ AFD has also been involved in partnerships with ‘indigenous’ foundations implemented and managed locally. ‘The growing importance of conservation activities has brought up a lot of projects of this kind recently. I believe that next steps would probably involve a more strategic dialogue directly with foundation staff and boards on international development strategies.’

Paul Bekkers at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that his department works a lot with international NGOs and with business but not much with foundations at the moment, but ‘we should do much more’. He adds: ‘Increasingly we focus on private-public partnerships. We are, for example, a long-time supporter of GAVI and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and have recently initiated the Health Insurance Fund. And there we find ourselves on the same level as the private foundations. At present this is our main area of collaboration with foundations.’

Kirk Felsman of USAID says that the agency has a long history of working with foundations. Its Global Development Alliance is the agency’s public-private partnership hub, enabling collaboration with corporations, foundations, NGOs and others. For instance, USAID and the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief are contributing a combined $10 million to a groundbreaking $60 million public-private partnership with PlayPump™ International, the Case Foundation, and private sector partners to bring the benefits of clean drinking water to AIDS-affected communities in ten Sub-Saharan African countries.

Expertise rather than money

All those we spoke to agreed that foundations have an important role to play in development, but they saw that role primarily in terms of particular expertise rather than money, especially in the case of the smaller foundations.

Joseph Zimet stresses that foundations should not be seen by governments as resource providers for the aid system. Cooperation should go beyond resource mobilization, on which engagement between the two parties often tends to focus. ‘Bilateral and multilateral organizations should not behave like NGOs when they want to engage foundations. I think one must look beyond the question of resource and try to engage on broader partnerships with foundations, not just financial deals.’ In fact, he believes, ‘foundations have a lot to bring to the development community. They have accumulated and capitalized a tremendous knowledge, expertise, networks, partners, successes … and failures, and of course innovation, because this is what philanthropy is about, or should be about.’

He adds: ‘We should also keep an eye on what is going on today in emerging and developing countries where philanthropy is burgeoning. Like development aid, global philanthropy is not any more the story of a transfer of wealth from an industrialized north to a developing south. The world of philanthropy is a multipolarized world too …’

According to Kirk Felsman, ‘an important advantage that private foundations have is being able to provide more modest funds but over a longer time period, supporting phases of planning, piloting, implementation, documentation and dissemination. Sometimes, government funding is more time-limited.’

Most of our contributors identified foundations’ flexibility as an important asset in the development process and this was just as true, if not more so, for the small foundations as for the large. ‘They have a considerable degree of flexibility and they have a potential for taking risks, which other development actors may not have,’ says Joao Cravinho. ‘For example, areas of scientific innovation with development impacts are a particularly important area that can be explored by foundations.’

For Kirk Felsman, small foundations ‘can more closely observe solid capacity building within their partners and focus on demonstrating, documenting, and disseminating sound practice. The flexibility of smaller foundations may be especially valuable in difficult operating environments or situations of rapid transition and change. In addition, smaller foundations can work collaboratively on essential objectives. For example, Van Leer and Firelight have worked quite successfully on HIV/AIDS issues with children.’

Clare Shakya of the UK’s Department for International Development makes a similar point about the ability of foundations to adopt a narrower focus: ‘Foundations have an ability to support smaller activities – collecting evidence, developing good practice, supporting studies that will have an important impact in the long term. You might not necessarily have the space to do this in a large government department with significantly more resources and few people working on a particular issue. They can also champion issues too sensitive for some donors, such as abortion.’

The danger of fragmentation

Paul Bekkers also sees the value of smaller foundations but cautions against what he calls ‘fragmentation, the dilution of certain goals we want to achieve’. ‘We shouldn’t have too many of them,’ he stresses, ‘or we will have fragmented aid – and that’s exactly what worldwide I think we do have a problem with – too many organizations, too many donors, and they all want to plant their flag and I think we should really be careful with that.’

For Bekkers, the solution lies in always trying to ensure that work is done by the organization that is most fitted to the task. The Dutch government, he explains, is against having too many bilateral programmes; instead, they focus on finding the partner with the greatest ‘added value’. ‘We should concentrate on making others able to do what they’re good at. If we’re talking about children, UNICEF should take the lead, it should actually be one of the very few players; UNDP and the World Bank shouldn’t be involved. And we should just sponsor UNICEF, not have any bilateral programmes – except if there’s something nobody else sponsors.

‘We need to know what is our specific added value,’ he says. ‘And the same goes for smaller foundations.’

On occasions, the approach he describes – putting money in and letting others with the expertise do the work – applies to their work with foundations: ‘In the case of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, we consider them similar to an NGO we support. Because they have the specific expertise, we say we shouldn’t do it, let BvLF do it. Take, for instance, the Joint Learning Initiative on Children and AIDS. They can take the lead, they know the people that should be involved. We give them the funding subsidy, but we shouldn’t do the work, we don’t have the expertise.’

Clare Shakya echoes Paul Bekkers’ point about fragmentation. ‘Foundations as a whole have a slightly different modus operandi. There are consortia of NGOs that work together on specific issues, and not all the foundations would necessarily be part of such consortia, so you have to deal with them one by one, which can be time-consuming.’

Shakya is clear that foundations could contribute more to development if it weren’t for the disparate character of the sector: ‘My feeling is that foundations as a group offer an opportunity to do operational research and evidence development that government departments, as large donors, very much need. The trouble is that each foundation currently produces its own reports and tries to develop its own thinking. If they were networked together, they could easily be developing joint messages, say around AIDS, and becoming more of a notable force, working more effectively together or with other organizations.’

The Gates factor

According to Joseph Zimet, the Gates Foundation, because of its size, occupies a ‘strategic corner of the landscape of aid’. ‘The role of the Gates Foundation in global health has been significant,’ he says. ‘We are now looking with great interest at the foundation’s first steps in the field of rural development, which is a very complex, and neglected, issue.’

Paul Bekkers agrees about the special role of Gates and other large private donors: ‘I think large foundations and high net-worth individuals are going to be able to make a large contribution in the future. They are bringing in a large amount of money that accelerates the impact of our common efforts tremendously, and that’s important.’

But, he emphasizes, they also bring new thinking. ‘Because they are new, they do not have the history of all the thinking about development aid – and I think that can be an added value. They can be innovative, they are open – that’s something we should make use of. I think we should team up with Gates, with Richard Branson, who’s new in the HIV/AIDS area, with the Clinton Foundation. This is a direction I want my government to go in much more. I see a major future for that.’

Clare Shakya also comments that the Gates Foundation ‘has done some innovative work mobilizing the private sector, using their leadership and flexibility to raise the profile of key issues’.

Learning from each other?

Kirk Felsman feels that ‘to the extent that private foundations are generally nimble organizations, they can complement government agencies by demonstrating new approaches. In addition,’ he says, ‘I have often been impressed with the time and commitment that private foundations devote to documenting the voice of local beneficiaries.’

Paul Bekkers talks in general of the expertise accumulated by bilateral donors and of the Dutch Government’s experience of operating a large development programme. ‘We’ve been working for decades on development aid,’ he says. ‘We know what works, we know what doesn’t work, we learn from that. Foundations, big and small, should make use of that experience. On the other hand, we should use their specific expertise, openness, willingness to look into new financing mechanisms, and work together. We can learn from each other.’

Towards more fruitful partnership

The word openness, in fact, was a key one for the people we spoke to when it came to considering how foundations and bilateral agencies might work together better. All our respondents saw foundations as having a number of advantages that could be harnessed to the general benefit of international development efforts: they are more flexible, both in how they operate and in the kinds of support they provide; they are able to be innovative; they can work on smaller projects; and, as Joao Cravinho puts it, they are ‘usually more active directly on the ground and therefore closer to the beneficiary and more aware of the actual needs’. But while there is a general willingness for, and sometimes actual practice of, cooperation, obstacles remain.

‘For a start we should be more open to each other,’ says Paul Bekkers, which means spending time together. If they are to work more with the Gates Foundation, for example, ‘We have to sit together, just for half a day, and work out where we can cooperate with each other and what is the added value of each. Forget about the necessity of having the Dutch flag – or the Gates flag – but just look at how we can cooperate so one and one makes three.’

Clare Shakya admits that ‘it’s taken a long time for the donors to recognize the role foundations have. But,’ she says, ‘their importance is being increasingly recognized. On the foundation side, they need to be more effective communicators, to work together more effectively, to demonstrate their good practice or the evidence they’re collecting – but through less disparate means, acting as a group more proactively, putting over a common message and delivering that. On the donor side, we need to be more open and to be more effectively engaged with foundations as a separate group as distinct from NGOs.’

Joao Cravinho points out that both types of organization have their own ways of operating and that increased cooperation will involve some adjustment on both sides. But, he argues, this ‘does not mean that a fundamental change in either is required. It is not necessary that each should become more similar to the other. It is, however, important that each should understand the other better, and that there should be greater circulation of information.’ He also specifically mentions ‘becoming more goal-oriented’ as ‘a useful objective, since it enables a better notion of impact on the ground. As we have seen at the Lisbon Conference, this is a shared goal that ranks high in the priorities of both.’

What is also needed, argues Kirk Felsman, are more concrete examples of how cooperation works to achieve shared objectives. ‘For example, we all need to develop more efficient models of monitoring, evaluation and reporting, increasing the actual resources that reach the intended beneficiaries without compromising the programme effectiveness and accountability that we and our partners are committed to.’

Sitting down together

Joseph Zimet notes a growing tendency among bilateral agencies to dedicate staff to engage with the philanthropic community but still feels that cooperation between foundations and traditional donors is ‘not yet completely natural’. He goes on: ‘I notice that when foundations and development agencies sit around a table, instead of instinctively looking for common ground and how they could cooperate, because they feel uncomfortable about each other, they often tend to hide behind their own strategies and programmes. I should not generalize but this is something that I’ve seen happening many times.’

So how can they be brought closer together? In a paper he wrote for the World Bank, Zimet produced recommendations to bridge the cultural gap between foundations and development agencies. ‘First, I think we desperately need data. More data and better data. Our understanding of foundations’ international activities is still very poor. We know very little about how they work and operate, where and who they work with in the developing world. …

‘Second, we need more meetings and conferences where foundations officers and staff from development agencies sit around the same table and talk about their work. This is not a very popular suggestion given the amount of time and money already spent on international conferences but I still think that it is necessary for people to create personal links through such events. It is very often personal links that bring cooperation between two institutions. …

‘This leads to my third proposal: we need staff exchanges between foundations and development agencies in order to share each other’s culture. Each organization has its own culture, procedures, methodological cycles. … Staff exchanges can help.

‘Fourth, strategic meetings at headquarters must be shared with local staff. I am often very surprised to learn that the representatives of my agency and the representative of a large foundation working in the same country and living in the same city never took the time to meet and discuss their strategies and activities. It is a pity: they have so much to share!’

Alliance would like to thank the following for their contributions to this article:

Paul Bekkers AIDS Ambassador of the Netherlands and Head of the Department of Social and Institutional Development, Dutch Ministry of Development Cooperation
Joao Cravinho Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Portugal
Kirk Felsman Senior OVC Technical Advisor, HIV/AIDS Office, Global Health, USAID
Clare Shakya Social Development and Livelihoods Adviser, Global AIDS Policy Team, Department for International Development, UK
Joseph Zimet Program Officer, French Agency for Development

Andrew Milner is Alliance Associate Editor. Email

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Special feature to read

Needed: healthy competition in the global philanthropy market

Matthew Bishop