Interview – Jane Wales

Jane WalesThe new ‘On the Grapevine’ column in the September issue of Alliance wondered whether Jane Wales was the most powerful woman in global philanthropy. So Alliance went straight to the source and asked her about it – and about other things, too, such as what her four jobs involve, how much they complement one another, and – inevitably – how philanthropy will respond to the current financial crisis.

Are you the most powerful woman in global philanthropy?

I think among the strengths of philanthropy is that by and large it does not attract power-seekers but rather those who want to empower others, giving them the tools and resources they need to be most effective. The Global Philanthropy Forum was founded for that purpose and exists to build the community of philanthropists and to inform and enhance the strategic nature of their giving.

Your first job was CEO of the World Affairs Council of Northern California?

Yes, I’ve been CEO at the World Affairs Council for ten years now. While I was there, I founded, along with the funders who provided the start-up funds, the Global Philanthropy Forum. It was something I had intended to do in my own time, on the side. However, its success was almost immediate and such that it needed an organization, not just Jane at the end of an email.

Our goal was to build a community of 200 new philanthropists in a one-year period. At the time, I thought that was an overly ambitious goal, but in 14 months we had 583 members. It became clear at that point that we needed an infrastructure to support that kind of growth.

I should also say that the Global Philanthropy Forum does not belong to any organization or individual. It belongs to the philanthropists who join it. The World Affairs Council trustees have respected that relationship. For example, there’s a firewall between the database of the Council and that of the Global Philanthropy Forum.

What are the World Affairs Council’s aims?

There’s a great synergy between the Council and the Global Philanthropy Forum. The Council’s objective is to engage the public in an exploration of global issues and the Forum is one way to take the public – or a subset of the public, the philanthropists who are able to participate – from ideas to action. The Council does nightly programmes on issues ranging from the problem of weapons proliferation to climate change and I have a weekly radio show on public radio. Sometimes we do feature the Global Philanthropy Forum in that programme. So that’s an example of the synergies that exist.

And what does the Aspen Institute job involve?

Walter Isaacson, President of the Aspen Institute, asked me to come in as vice president to introduce a programme on philanthropy and society and also to revamp and refresh the existing programme on the non-profit sector and philanthropy. We have undertaken a strategic plan for that programme, which will refocus it. It   will be called the Aspen Institute’s programme on Philanthropy and Social Innovation.

We will be focusing on leadership development both for philanthropists and for leaders in the social sector, NGO leaders as well as leaders of social enterprises. We will also be focused on issues that either divide or may eventually unite the grantor and grantee communities. We will be offering planning services, in particular helping foundations and NGOs to develop metrics for measuring and evaluating their advocacy programmes. Finally, we’ll be launching a communications platform that is designed to allow networking and knowledge-sharing online as well as in person. As you can see, much of it complements the Global Philanthropy Forum’s work very well. We also will turn to the members of the Global Philanthropy Forum to ensure that the work we do at Aspen reflects the true needs of practitioners – and is not only useful but used.

Do you think that’s part of the reason you were invited to take that role?

It’s interesting you’re asking me to put myself in the shoes of those who reached out to me! I think they wanted someone experienced both in the non-profit sector, particularly in considering the non-profit sector’s policy role, and in philanthropy, to create a bigger presence in both spheres for the Aspen Institute. As it’s turned out, while the Global Philanthropy Forum and the Aspen Institute have distinct functions, they are functions that complement one another.

The Global Philanthropy Forum, I think, is an effective effort to expand and inform philanthropy, particularly among those committed to international causes, and the strength of the Aspen Institute is as a neutral forum in which problems can be solved. As I said, there are issues that divide the grantor-grantee communities and issues that potentially unite the two. Both would greatly benefit from a collaborative look, and that is the direction that the new programme will take.

Can you give me an example?

I’ll give you one from each side. On the one hand, there are methodological issues that divide these two communities, such as the question of how to devise and apply metrics. On the one hand, this is something that is required by philanthropists; on the other hand, those running the programmes know how to define and measure success. The key is for them to understand how best to communicate success to the donors. I think it would be useful for the two to come together and develop a shared view of what constitutes good methods and appropriate benchmarks. What level of standardization can we achieve? And are there things that cannot be standardized?

The issues that unite are challenges they both want to meet, for example the need for community financial institutions at a time when political leaders need to rescue and sensibly regulate the financial services sector. That’s an issue on which the philanthropic community and the grantee community – those in the field of community development – can come together. They need to talk about ways to bring the industry to scale to meet the needs not only of the existing poor but of the newly poor or soon to be poor.

On the metrics question, isn’t the Aspen Institute associated with a newly launched metrics tool along with Acumen and Google?

Well, the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs is a new network of intermediaries that provide funding for small and growing businesses in the developing world. One of its members, the Acumen Fund, has undertaken an effort to develop standard metrics and reporting systems for evaluating what constitutes an investment-ready small business under these circumstances. It has worked with Google engineers to develop this online mechanism. This can be a very important tool for the community as a whole and it’s an example of where Aspen can play an enabling role and help share knowledge developed by others.

One criticism I’ve seen of this tool is that it doesn’t attempt to directly measure social value. What’s your view on that?

My view is that it is an experiment in the making and it will evolve. While social science or the field of economic development can agree on measures of economic development impact, the question of social impact is a lot harder. Again, that’s an example of an issue that would benefit from a collaborative look.

Finally, you’re leading the poverty track at the Clinton Global Initiative?

Yes, I’m chair of one of the Clinton Global Initiative’s four tracks. The chairs and the  teams we assemble put together the programme and work with those who sign up for CGI to help them develop the commitments or new initiatives that they will be announcing there, so that they have the greatest impact. This year’s CGI was very clear that the commitments needed to be new and their impact needed to be measurable.

So that when they come to the CGI they’ve got something fully formed?

In most cases. There are always some who come wishing to use the conference itself as a way to develop their thoughts and identify the priorities that they would like to pursue. So some of the work carries on afterwards, and that is why it’s a year-round undertaking.

And how does this role relate to the others?

It’s a way to serve a different part of the philanthropic community. There’s some overlap between those who participate in the Global Philanthropy Forum and those who participate in the Clinton Global Initiative. However, as you know, while some of the philanthropists who came to the Global Philanthropy Forum are very well known – Peter Gabriel, Jeff Skoll, Richard Branson, Larry Page – many prefer to remain unknown. They want a safe haven to try out some ideas for size, think aloud, learn from the grantee community as experts, not as grantseekers. We don’t allow fundraising at the Global Philanthropy Forum.

At the Clinton Global Initiative it’s quite the opposite: fundraising is encouraged, and the philanthropists are required to make a public commitment. So it often attracts those who feel that their cause will benefit from a public announcement.

Do you think the Clinton Global Initiative was attracted by your experience of working with donors and non-profits at the Global Philanthropy Forum?

I do have a broad network of philanthropists and non-governmental leaders, particularly throughout the developing world, and one of the things that the Clinton Global Initiative wants to do is bring together a substantial community of stars from the developing world. My job is to identify stars that are not yet known by the group of philanthropists who are likely to come to the Clinton Global Initiative or the Global Philanthropy Forum. As you know, at the Global Philanthropy Forum we don’t just feature the very well known leaders but also emerging leaders who have not yet had the benefit of a large multi-year grant.

Also, President Clinton does have a history of hiring as his chairs people who have served as senior directors of the National Security Council or senior directors of the National Economic Council in his administration and I fall into the former category. We work well together in part because of this shared experience.

Is there any intention for these roles to be more closely linked or networked with each other?

I think network is the right word for it. The Global Philanthropy Forum is one of the forums to expand philanthropy, the Aspen Institute is another, and the Clinton Global Initiative is a third. I think for the field to be healthy, it will be closely networked.

And how is this possible? It sounds like you’re going to be doing four full time jobs?

Your ‘On the Grapevine’ column asks if I will give up sleep altogether. Well, I already have! Seriously, one learns how to do each task with greater efficiency and to ensure that this is doable.

And where will you live? East or West?

I divide my time between Washington DC and the Bay area. A tremendous amount of innovation in the philanthropic sphere is taking place in Silicon Valley, so if you care about the evolution of philanthropy it’s important to have a foot here. At the same time, Washington DC is where large slices of the non-governmental community congregate, as well as being the centre of policy-making. So there is great benefit to being there too.

Can I finish by asking you how you think the present financial meltdown is going to affect philanthropy and non-profits?

I think we have already seen in the UK and USA a situation in which the government has begun to shift responsibility for the provision of some services from the public sector to the social sector without shifting resources. In the USA, this process will accelerate because both the federal government and state and local governments are short on resources and the federal government has been engaged in deficit spending for a very long time. This will occur at the same time as the needs in the community increase and the portfolios of foundations contract. As a result, there will be far greater emphasis, we think, on collaboration so that sources of finance for the social sector do leverage one another and find efficiency.

Will foundations have to decide whether to cut their payout or maintain it by digging into their assets? And which do you think is most likely?

The policy of foundations tends to be to determine the draw-down, and therefore the payout from their endowment, based on a five-year average. So you are not going to see a sudden and abrupt change in funding patterns, but a gradual one.

But what I have already seen is a tendency to narrow the number of grantees, so the great risk is that we will find ourselves in a winner-take-all situation. If that is the case, one of the topics I anticipate taking on at the Aspen Institute is how to scale NGO activity, starting with the question of how to scale the whole field of community finance. There are models for scaling and for efficiency that I would love to explore with my colleagues at Aspen, perhaps taking a look at cooperatives as they exist in the private sector and seeing whether they could apply to the non-profit sector.

How do you apply efficiency models to community organizations involved in advocacy?

Advocacy is something we want to expand because the more voices there are, the more effective you are. But with the cooperative model, my colleague Kirsten Moy is thinking more in terms of joint purchasing, for instance. Look at the power of coming together as a group on questions that affect your capacity to get health insurance for your employees, things like that.

What about back office efficiency?

I don’t know that sharing a back office is actually producing efficiency so I think this is something to study.

Anything else you would like to add?

We were talking about the effects of a financial meltdown. I should mention that the Global Philanthropy Forum in Washington in April will focus on five crises that are facing political leaders around the world. These are crises that can’t be resolved by governments alone. They will need the agility of the private sector and the inventiveness of the social sector, so there are opportunities to collaborate or complement one another’s activities in order to find solutions. The crises are poverty, including new poverty both at home and abroad; climate change; access to healthcare; access to quality education; and, finally, the need for post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction so as to avert state failure. In each of those areas, all sectors will have very important roles to play.

Jane Wales is President and CEO of the World Affairs Council/Global Philanthropy Forum and Vice President of the Aspen Institute. She chairs the Poverty Alleviation Track of the Clinton Global Initiative.

For more information

Comments (0)

Next Interview to read

Interview – Matthew Bishop and Michael Green

Alliance magazine