A Learning Tour (Without Leaving Your Desk)

Strategic Philanthropy
Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nearly a year ago, Eliza Petro, Program Director for the Izumi Foundation, went on a learning tour to understand the values and processes that characterize today’s landscape of global health and development philanthropy.  The journey was part of the Foundation’s strategic planning process and involved interviews with two dozen smart and engaged foundations, philanthropists, and philanthropy experts throughout the country to gain a better understanding of how funders locate, assess, track and evaluate grantees.

  Eliza generously shared these findings with a group of us at the Opportunity Collaboration in Mexico and I’m delighted to pass them along.

Created in 1998, the Izumi Foundation gives assistance to the world’s poorest people by supporting programs that improve health in developing countries.  It provides resources to organizations that share its commitment to delivering lasting, cost-effective improvements that build local health care capacity and supports projects in five areas: infectious diseases with high morbidity and mortality, neglected tropical diseases, malnutrition, maternal and neonatal health, and health care infrastructure.  In order to maximize the impact of its giving, the Foundation restricts its geographic focus to Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

This fall, the Foundation released the results of Eliza’s learning tour in a report, “Trends Among US Grantmakers – Achieving the Most Impact Abroad,”  which discusses finding the right grantees, assessing and selecting grantees, length and type of funding, achieving and measuring impact, and overall grantmaking philosophy. Below are some key takeaways from the report, which I believe funders and grantees will find useful and be sure to check out the full report if you’re looking for more details in a specific area.


  • Develop Strong Networks for Finding the Right Grantees

Identifying grantees through networks is a good way to find an appropriate funding match and can often minimize the cost and time of vetting new grantees. Allowing some space for letters of inquiry (LOIs) ensures that good grantees who do not have access to donor networks are still considered for funding.

  • Focus on Leadership and Organizational Structure to Gauge Success

Many donors look for strong leaders that they believe in and extend this trust to their organizations. Considering the structure of an organization is an important counterbalance to ensure that the work of the organization is not entirely dependent on one person.

  • Consider Both the Advantages of Focus and the Benefits of Risk Taking when Selecting Grantees

While focusing grantmaking to a specific region or theme can increase impact due to improved networks and partnerships, inclined donors might want to be open to a degree of experimentation and risk taking in their grantmaking, as serious problems seldom have clear-cut solutions. Funding the occasional organization or project outside of one’s normal country or idea focus can yield impressive, unanticipated results for those willing to take some risks. At the same time it is important not to get off track of an organization’s mission.

  • View the Grantee-Donor Relationship as a True Partnership

Remember that grantees are the ones with expertise in the field and carry out the work on a day-to-day basis. Donors should view themselves as partners, asking grantees what help they need most rather than directing the work from above. This recipe will have the best chance of achieving real impact.

  • Minimize Grantee Workload to Make Time for “Real Work”

Donors should be aware of the numerous reporting demands made on grantees by multiple funders. Accordingly, they should do their best to make things easy for grantees, rather than burden them with requirements and restrictions that consume time they could be spending in the field.

  • Work with Grantees to Mutually Define M&E Indicators

Allow grantees to take the lead in determining which indicators will be measured to assess a program’s effectiveness. This will minimize the time grantees spend reporting on different indicators for different donors, and will also yield results that are most useful to the grantee in modifying their own work, ultimately increasing their impact.

  • Recognize the Value of Overhead and General Support Grants

Once you have established trust in an organization and believe in their work, be generous with overhead, recognizing that organizations need overhead to operate on a day-to-day basis. If every organization refuses to pay their fair share of overhead, then who will cover the costs of things such as time spent in writing the reports required by donors? Consider the benefits of General Support Grants.

  • Appreciate the Value of Longer Term Funding

Educate yourself on the relationship between time and results in development work, understanding that social change does not happen over a one year grant. Critically examine your own motivations for funding and consider whether you might offer longer grants even if it is less exciting to work on the same projects over time.

  • Consider Non-Financial Ways You Can Increase Impact

Think about all the assets you have as a donor and the ways in which these can be useful to grantees. Might you provide them with some technical skills that they are lacking? Could you host an event featuring their work or introduce them to another donor who might want to support them? Could you help them get to conferences where they can gain experience giving presentations, network, and learn from leaders in their field? Keep in mind that while all organizations need funds, they can also benefit extensively from other assets that you can bring to the table.