Effective philanthropy: Am I getting better?

The first thing you must do in philanthropy is to define the big goal, and write it down on a piece of paper for absolute clarity,” Zarina Screwvala says

Updated: Oct 3, 2017 09:56:17 PM UTC
Photo: Shutterstock

Today, Giving Tuesday in India, is a good day to reflect on how to make the best use of philanthropic dollars. Philanthropists ambitious for results want to know just how much impact their philanthropy has had. This involves knowing where they and their grantees stand in relation to what they want to achieve.

Swades Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are two, among many, that are actively working to understand and improve the impact of their work.

Zarina and Ronnie Screwvala’s Swades Foundation has a goal of “lifting one million people from poverty every five years and then exiting [the target region].” Measuring against this goal has helped streamline and energise all of their efforts.

“The first thing you must do in philanthropy is to define the big goal, and write it down on a piece of paper for absolute clarity,” Zarina Screwvala says. “Then define what is the delta—the change—you want to achieve and just keep measuring.”

At the Dell Foundation, led in India by Debasish Mitter, the ambition is on moving all underprivileged children closer to the opportunities any child deserves in life. The foundation wants to ensure it can measure this progress.

“We strongly believe in measurement.” Mitter says.  “It matters. Whatever gets measured, gets done.”

Yet, due to the complex nature of the problems philanthropy is tackling, the results are rarely black and white. So instead of focusing on perfect metrics, these philanthropies are also asking themselves – are they getting better in their work?

For success-driven philanthropists, this question can act as a reminder and a reality check to propel themselves and their grantees.

Here are a few simple steps to foster improvement over time: •    First, give thought to how you will know whether your philanthropy is heading in the right direction. Reflect on your own strategy to understand the connections between your activities and the outcomes you expect. This can help you identify where learning matters most—and how to learn best with and through your grantees.

For Zarina Screwvala, progress is related to the change she wants to achieve and the time it takes to get there.

“You need to identify the ‘change’ in all your goals, sub-goals and mini-goals,” Screwvala says. “Change is the single most critical thing. What percentage change do I expect in the first year, in the second year? What studies do we have to undertake to support it?”

•    Second, think about where measurement can help. The key is to focus on what data will directly inform decision-making, and to be realistic about what numbers can tell you and what they cannot.

Zarina Screwvala thinks about how each of the changes she desires can be measured in all areas of her foundation’s work, even where measurement may be difficult. From specific hard facts, like the number of computers used by children to softer outcomes like mindset changes (measurable through approaches like focus group discussions), she believes everything can and should be measured.

Similarly, the Dell Foundation is realistic about data’s limitations, yet firm in the belief that even imperfect measurement techniques can provide insight.

In its education portfolio, Dell Foundation uses learning-level assessments to measure grade- and subject-specific competencies. It fully understands that such assessments do not measure everything required to confirm quality teaching and learning. Yet, in the absence of a more comprehensive measurement system, it concentrates on what can be measured, and uses the data as feedback to refine approaches.
“Data is not perfect,” Mitter says. “But we strongly believe we should not make perfection the enemy of the good.”

•    Third, brainstorm ways to learn from your experience. Without the test of shareholders or pressure of competition, philanthropic excellence is self-imposed. An approach to philanthropic self-discipline can involve acknowledging and learning from “failures,” learning from others, and investing in experiments to test approaches.
Mitter, in line with the guiding principles of Dell Foundation, focuses on working in the real world and learning from the foundation’s experiences.

For example, the foundation funded an organization that works to improve assessment of student learning in affordable private schools.

Initially, the organization evaluated each school on its overall performance, assuming that schools would assess their students by grade and class. That assumption proved false. With support from the Dell Foundation, the assessment organization shifted to interacting with parents, who were extremely interested in their children’s outcomes, and who demanded that the schools conduct student assessments. And the schools then did.

Adapting a “market” approach not only allowed the assessment organization to increase its impact, it also provided insights that the foundation could apply across its portfolio.

The desire for social impact is the main reason behind the remarkable surge in philanthropy in India. To sustain momentum, philanthropists will need to ensure ways of measuring their impact—and of increasing it over time. Giving Tuesday (#Giving Tuesday), which this year anchors India’s Joy of Giving Week, provides an apt moment to think through how.

Soumitra Pandey is a partner with The Bridgespan Group, and advisor to nonprofits and philanthropy,  and head of the firm’s Mumbai office and author of the report  “Why Indian Nonprofits are Experts at Scaling Up.”

Pritha Venkatachalam is a partner with Bridgespan in Mumbai and author of the report  “Building the Bench at Indian NGOs: Investing to Fill the Leadership Development Gap.”

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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