Al Kags

Why the reality of philanthropy confounds me.


Note from me: I usually write about work stuff on the websites of the organisations that I represent – and that is because necessarily the views that I blog about there, align with the views of the organisation that I represent. This, however, is my home in which I say things that may not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation that I represent or that I use to engage in discourse or debate. So, these are my own personal thoughts that I am sharing.

Yesterday I got into a discussion that I found to be confounding. I was hanging out socially with a number of great professionals in the non-profit sector and we were having a whale of a time engaging in great polemics. We debated such issues as Trump (the man), we discussed rights based approaches and Generation Y, the SDGs and how things are changing in Africa – and importantly how our organisations needed to change. In the course of things, I had the opportunity to discuss in detail the work that we (Open Institute) are doing in Lanet Umoja together with Chief Francis Kariuki, the famously known “tweeting chief”.

These friends of mine were suitably impressed with the work that we were doing and we were able to engage in some healthy debate about data collection and whether citizen generated data has a real place in development – my position is that it is a cornerstone to development. The more scientific data guys were not so sure – bias and accuracy being major concerns among them. In such discussions I choose usually to show and tell – wait until I have done something that I can put on the table, especially because these are uncharted waters. In yesterday’s conversation I borrowed from my sensei Bitange Ndemo, who just this week said (I paraphrase) that we should release data as outrageously inaccurate as it may be, because it allows for accuracy to be generated through verification out in the open.

It was a wonderful time that passed by far too quickly.

The bit that confounded me came when I was asked a question that has become fairly common. “Who is funding this work.” I explained, much to my friends’ consternation that we received some support from the MCC-PEPFAR partnership and that most of the work has been funded from the pockets of OI’s funders, Jay Bhalla and myself. Now anyone who knows the Open Institute well, knows that while we have some loyal and close supporters we are still a very small organisation that is barely funded and that is usually bootstrapping with our own resources. Such is the price of passion.

My friends, some of whom have worked in the industry for decades did not mince their words. “Idiot,” I was called severally. They let me know that it was irresponsible of me to have allowed my team to do so much work, to go so far in piloting the programme without external funding. What we should have done, I was told, is to do a small baseline, the report of which we should publish and then do a concept note which extrapolates what impact the work we are doing could have (maybe pad the numbers a bit, I was told) and find the donor that would fund the work before starting off to do it. “What if you don’t find a donor who will get behind your project and you run out of resources? You will just have wasted time!” one close friend exclaimed. I was told that there are donors who would even fund the research phase of our work, especially at the time that they are suffering a slow “burn rate” (which refers to them having too much money not given away than they had budgeted for).

I was advised that having gone so far as we have, I should be making some seriously major claims about what we have achieved in terms of changing lives – instead of being conservative in saying that we are still learning from this project as we slowly scale it up. I was given examples of several organisations that are generally known to have done little actual work, but who hyped their impact so much that donors who so loved their presentation skills funded them to the tunes of Millions of Dollars. In some cases, the hype was so outrageous (we watched youtube videos of such presentations that people had bookmarked for benchmarking practices) that it was laughable how donors might have believed the work to be truthfully having that kind of impact. But they did.

I explained why we would be comfortable spending the little money we have to continue moving on this project that we are so passionate about – so much that we risk our monthly paychecks.

  1. It is uncharted territory: The fact is, most people (including ourselves) do not quite understand what the best model is for doing data driven work to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. As we have progressed, the hypothesis has become clearer and as we continue to work with the community and with the local administration, the model is getting clearer. Donors, we agreed, generally do not in fact fund stuff that isn’t understood well, unless it is proposed by a seriously big person like Sir Tim Berners Lee (the maker of the internet).
  2. Donors are often not open-minded or flexible: Recently in New York, another friend of mind told me that I needed to change the narrative as I attempted to seek seed support for this programme. He told me that I needed to sell some hypothesis, using buzzwords and concepts that the donors already click with. He told me that I needed to table in my proposal a concrete plan of action that the donor can identify with – “make it easier for the donor to give you money.” Donors, I was told, only give flexible money to proven concepts and works – or to people that they have known personally well. The fact is, this is true. This project needs utter flexibility as we will have to change directions and approaches often in the theme of course correction as we apply what we know and learn what doesn’t work. It is a true “learning on the job” endeavour.
  3. Funders often try to change/control direction: Often, donor representatives, who are usually not necessarily subject matter experts themselves, receive concept notes or proposals and take a heavy hand with their advice of how the projects should be structured – usually as we were told, with a view to making the project a “sure fire”. So projects that are new in how they are done or that have a “strange” direction, well, usually fall by the wayside. Working with the chief and the community we are learning and we are setting direction on the ground together. Hindsight, with the help of our M&E consultants, Considr, will help us know whether what we did was right or effective.
  4. There is real change that we can make: In this particular project, we have seen strong clues that we have come upon something that can make a real difference in people’s lives from the perspective of getting them involved as citizens in the governance of their countries. Playing games for funding purposes, could compromise the quality of work we do. Rakesh Rajani taught us not to be afraid to fail – in fact, he taught us how to welcome it and use it. But we don’t want to fail because we were over-hyping our work. This is a project that we care enough about to bet a lot of what we have in. In fact, all our chips are in for this one.

As I thought about this blog post – debating with myself whether I should post it at all, I became aware of David Sasaki’s contribution to the great debate happening globally about the role of philanthropy in development. That blog post is, in my view, required reading for anyone in this industry. David says the below in part:

I will argue that Big Philanthropy is uniquely suited to support three broad areas of benefit to society that are often neglected by the public and private sectors. First, philanthropy’s long time horizon enables the support of innovative, risky research and experimentation that, if shown to be effective, can be implemented at scale by the public or private sector. Second, philanthropy is uniquely positioned to support arts, culture and journalism that do not receive public or private funding. Finally, philanthropy can improve governance and strengthen democracy so that there is wider public participation in establishing the rules of society.

Yeah! Quite right. I have since reading this post had cause to ask myself whether this is in fact happening in reality in my context. My friends from last night were cynical about it. I don’t have enough experience with philanthropists to take a view more than the above – which is based on real experiences that I have had in the past couple of years. One of the things that David says is a prominent uniqueness in the philanthropy sector is their lack of accountability, which in his words, presents a unique advantage:

It means that foundations don’t have to think about the next election or quarterly earnings. Nor do they have to market their activities to the aspirations of customers or pander to voters and campaign funders. Private foundations have a much longer time horizon to work on solutions to thorny problems, which is what appeals to most of us that work in philanthropy.

I certainly think this is true with many philanthropists. I also think it is true that this lack of accountability also breeds a subjectiveness and bias that causes many donors to be whimsical and closed to all but popularly driven directions. This in turn causes us, potential grantees, to feel a lot of pressure to pander to donors’ perspectives and to engage in hype centric work, thinking that the end justifies the means (the end here being the weight of our projects).

I was told that in wanting the kind of funder that we are hoping for to support this project – an open minded one who is prepared to walk the journey with us to see whether or not the model we are developing will work, one who is prepared to watch how we change directions in the course of the work and one who will have the humility/conservativeness to resist making grand impact announcements too quickly – we ask for too much.

“You might as well hope for a pet unicorn,” One of my friends, an accomplished NGO Executive Director said, adding, “The real truth is that like in the grown up world, honest people do not thrive – accountable people might thrive, but honest ones don’t in our industry.”

Now do you begin to see why I am confounded by all this? I continue to learn and think.

2 thoughts on “Why the reality of philanthropy confounds me.”

  1. Al, thanks for the shout-out and kind words. I think you're absolutely right that, in general, most donors don't practice what we preach. A major problem is that most organizations, not wanting to hurt their chances of getting funding, don't ask hard questions or point out donors' hypocracies. I hope you and Jay continue to ask tough questions of donors.

    And another advantage of bootstrapping is that you focus your energy on those you serve rather than those that fund you.

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