Perspectives from the United States: Global to Grassroots Philanthropy the West Coast Way

by Taila Mueller

From visiting the world’s largest foundation, to seeing the most highly regarded rehabilitative home for addicts and former convicts and to eating at Bruce Lee’s favourite Seattle restaurant, APC’s 2019 US Learning Journey was a packed and rich immersive experience that brought us to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle in just six days.  Members appreciated seeing both grassroots and global philanthropy initiatives and the contrast in perspectives.  Many said it was a transformative and thought provoking experience for evaluating their philanthropic approaches and activities.

Philanthropy Exchange with Give2Asia, Tides and local philanthropists

Here is an overview of key insights from the trip:

1)  With great size and scale comes great responsibility

The Gates Foundation, with an annual philanthropic budget of around US$5 billion, has an extensive strategy practice that evaluates all of the Foundation’s 36 programmes.  Its 15-person strategy team’s work is vital to its process of being deliberate and effective.  The team works closely with Bill and Melinda to annually review all 36 budget lines.  In addition, the Foundation does a full strategy review every three years to enable course correction.

Meanwhile, the Hewlett Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group focuses on developing a strategy and evaluation process to provide capacity building directly to its grantees to make them stronger. With an annual budget of US$450 million, the organisation has also founded a donor collaborative called the Fund for Shared Insight, with which connects 13 core foundations, the non-profits they support and their beneficiaries with the goal of increasing responsiveness to the input and feedback given by their grant recipients and putting this into practice.

2)  Grassroots philanthropy can be a powerful tool for local giving but requires deep individual commitment and a local presence

Lunch at St. Anthony’s Padua with Bill Sommerville. St. Anthony’s, one of his long term grantees, is a Soup Kitchen that serves daily hot meals for the homeless

In stark contrast to the Gates and Hewlett Foundation, we met inspiring “grassroots” non-profit leaders who have devoted their lives to local communities in San Francisco.  In Palo Alto, Bill Somerville leads the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, a grant-making foundation that addresses the inequality gap in East Palo Alto, and employs a decisive, hands-on grantmaking approach.

Unique to this approach are a 48-hour, paperless grants process, where Bill relies on trust and on-site accountability to validate the need for critical community-based grant support.  Some of the projects he has supported include Dignity on Wheels, a mobile hygiene facility that offers free shower and laundry facilities to the homeless to access other social services with dignity.

Our delegation at the entrance of the Delancey Street Foundation, which we toured with Mike, a former felon and now a guide for visitors

In San Francisco, we visited the Delancey Street Foundation, a non-profit organisation that provides residential rehabilitation services and vocational training for substance abusers and convicted criminals to help them achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Started in 1971 with just four residents, the founder Mimi Silbert encouraged residents to develop their own solutions by leaning on each other.  One such source of funding for the organisation was a moving company business.

From there the non-profit has grown to run its own restaurant, auto shop, and other businesses.  Mimi strived to encourage residents to use their own “sweat equity” to build housing and common facilities that we visited, in one of San Francisco’s well known waterfront neighbourhoods.

3)  There is a growing intermediary sector and portfolio of tools that help philanthropists to develop, grow and revitalise their portfolios

With over US$400 billion in philanthropic contributions in 2017, the U.S. is one of the most generous societies, but there is still a lot of latent giving amongst the affluent.  The Raikes Foundation, whom we visited in Seattle, is developing an online giving portal known as the Giving Compass to unlock giving amongst High Net Worth individuals, 70% of whom are still “chequebook” philanthropists.  The tool allows accountants, lawyers and advisors to develop a giving portfolio.  It aspires in the future to provide deeper information about sectors and impact.

At Stanford PACS, we heard from renowned author and practitioner, Paul Brest, who is developing a series of toolkits to assist wealth and philanthropy advisors to work with individual givers on starting and cultivating their philanthropic missions and strategies.  These toolkits codify lessons learned and can also be used via a peer-peer strategy.

4)  In global health, technology and innovation can make a huge impact but this requires significant time and investment to ensure breakthroughs work in underserved markets

At PATH, a global non-profit with a mission to address health inequity in developing countries through innovative tools, we visited their innovation lab and were shown some of their groundbreaking innovations.  These included low cost tubing for syringes, a silk diaphragm and a safe drinking water filter that uses energy from a car battery.  PATH takes products from idea to full development.

Their goal is to make tools using a human-centered design approach, and these are prototyped in specific health system contexts.  PATH is keen to transfer the technology and pull in manufacturers early.  It sells its innovations to companies and then negotiates subsidised price points in prioritised low income countries to ensure impact.

The Gates Foundation also develops health innovation through their Maternal Newborn Child Health Discovery & Tools team.  We saw a new ultrasound tool that enables portable scans using infrared that can be plugged into a smartphone.  Since this product was not developed to be a non-profit product, Gates Foundation invested in the company that will sell it in low- and middle-income countries.

Left: Low cost ultrasound tool that connects with a smartphone to enable remote diagnostics at Gates; Right: Low cost syringe tubing machine at PATH

5)  There are innovative ways to co-create and co-fund philanthropic projects that can be asset light and administratively less tedious

Two funding models were particularly interesting.  One was Mulago Foundation’s Big Bang Philanthropy, a donor collaborative that consists of funders who are giving at least US$1 million a year in international poverty funding, and are willing to fund five organisations a year in common with other members collectively.  Donors get together for two days a year to align their grantmaking with the aim of maximum impact with minimal effort.  The group delineates specific principles for investing, and shares data and due diligence from site visits to enable others to co-invest in similar grantees within their common pool.

Battery Powered (BP) is another giving programme at a private members club in San Francisco.  Members donate funds into a large collective that will be sub-granted to six organisations at the end of the selection process.  Each year, the members choose three relevant issue areas and spend six months understanding the issues.  This is then followed by four months of interacting with experts and researching potential grantee organisations.  BP then helps members pick 12 organisations and they vote at a final event on the last six.  In each themed issue area, two organisations receive a grant of roughly US$200k – 350k each year.  The Battery Powered has 600+ members and one full-time and two part-time staff.

6)  Philanthropists in Asia have a lot to learn and emulate but also a lot to contribute and share with their global counterparts

While we learned from some of the world’s the most experienced and mature philanthropic organisations, we also realised that intermediaries like APC have a unique position to play in connecting global philanthropists to our region through knowledge sharing, convening and co-funding platforms.

At a collaborative philanthropy exchange with Give2Asia, Tides and local philanthropists that have an interest in Asia, we discussed hosting a “reverse” learning journey, where our members could host interested foundation leaders and philanthropists to learn about a specific sector and geography where they are based.

Our members bring a local perspective on the nuances in dealing with public, private sector and community based entities – all vital to the sustainability of philanthropic initiatives.  Larger public forums such as the Global Philanthropy Forum are also interested in bringing their gatherings to Asia, in collaboration with partners like APC.

For more information or to learn more about the specific partners or projects visited please contact taila@asiaphilanthropycircle.org