Donors & Do-ers

April 21, 2010

What the world needs most today is an awareness of its own unity. So said Conrad N. Hilton in a quotation repeated at last night’s dinner for his foundation’s Humanitarian Prize, awarded by the foundation’s President and CEO Steve Hilton at the Global Philanthropy Forum. The largest prize of its kind, the Conrad N. Hilton award grants 1.5 million dollars to an organization that has done extraordinary work to alleviate human suffering. Members of the GPF were privileged last night to join jurors and past prize-winners in celebrating the 2010 recipient, the Aravind Eye Care system. This India-based organization is now the largest eye care provider in the world. With a business model inspired by the McDonalds fast-food franchises, Dr. Venkataswamy replicated quality and efficiency worldwide in eye care at one-fifth the cost of traditional eye hospitals.

The moving event, designed by the Hilton Foundation’s Judy Miller, was made all the more powerful by the remarks of Bill Foege, MD, who, along with D.A. Henderson, led the successful effort to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. With a mixture of humor and pathos, Bill reminded the assembled philanthropists and activists of the importance of and motivation for their work. The award was accepted by the late Dr. Vs sister and brother in law.

Energized by the celebration of the night before, GPF members started this morning with a new format for the Forum: two “fishbowl” sessions in which principals of family foundations looked on as social entrepreneurs pitched to investors, and analysts presented their findings on outcome measurements to foundation presidents. In the first fishbowl, leaders of four young enterprises made their case to the three VCs and social investors seeking both financial and social returns. Matt Bannick of the Omidyar Network noted that investors place as high of a value on the talent of the leadership team as they do on the viability of the business plan. MayField Fund Founder Gib Meyer urged entrepreneurs to maintain their passion for their work–but to find balance in their lives.

Our second fishbowl brought together leaders who have built consensus around shared metrics in different issue domains: Jeff Edmondson of Strivetogether, Marion Godfrey of the Cultural Data Project, Valerie Threlfall of YouthTruth, Brian Trelstad of Acumen and IRIS, Elizabeth Boris of the Urban Institute, Kat Rosqueta of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, Roxie Jerde of the Greater Kansas City Foundations DonerEdge, Kathleen Enright of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, Brad Smith of the Foundation Center and Mark Kramer of FSG. When moderator Jeff Bradach of Bridgespan asked whether shared metrics move the needle in terms of how money flows, many agreed that, while they had confidence in their ability to find agreement among practitioners as to what constituted appropriate measures of success, they were less certain of their ability to communicate those results in ways that influence donor choices. Paul Brest of the Hewlett Foundation put philanthropic evaluation on a spectrum – with the randomized control trials of MITs Poverty Action Lab as the gold standard on one end and more qualitative assessments useful in the arts at the other. To this point, Marian Godfrey noted that some donors asked how one can measure joy, “the truth of the imagination”. Carol Larson noted that language of evaluation may create unnecessary divides. Foundations may not all make “evidence-based decisions, but they do make evidence-informed decisions”. And Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen noted that principals of family foundations that lack staff can gain from the knowledge resident in staffed foundations so as to match their passion with rigorous pursuit of results. In her view, GPF members can and do “set the example for fellow individual donors.”

Both the Hewlett and Packard Foundations have made big bets on highly developed strategies with clear measures of success, such as the climate change mitigation and adaptation programs of the regranter ClimateWorks. Its president, Hal Harvey had spoken the afternoon before at the GPF along with Stanford’s Rosamond Naylor. Hal’s approach is to offer a menu of funding options that address the key sources of greenhouse gas by country and by sector. His messages: do the math, focus on policy and know your grant-making venues well. He noted that organizations in India, China and Brazil are coalescing around shared or complementary approaches.

Methods for achieving scale — and “mashing up”– were explored by many, including Megan Smith of who joined Kari Dunn Saratovsky of the Case Foundation in mounting a “fashion show” of social media tools.

Throughout the past three days, we have heard from donors who are doers, for whom the late Conrad Hilton’s call for unity resonates. While each brings a different approach to advancing social goals, they are joined to one another by their ambitious goals and their deep humility.

Serving them is a joy.

Thank you to all who participated and contributed this time around, and we look forward to welcoming new members in the year ahead.


Jane Wales
President & Co-Founder, Global Philanthropy Forum


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