Kevin Starr Calls on Philanthropic Sector to Recognize Development Malpractice

In his recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Kevin Starr — managing director of the Mulago Foundation — reflects upon his trip to Ghana, where he was introduced to a number of different water treatment interventions that had reached the village of Kulaa. While there, Starr met with Saha, a nonprofit organization that addresses the issue of water contamination by setting up entrepreneurial women with the tools needed to sell filtered water for a reasonable price. Two days of clean water for a family of five costs about five cents. The organization adopts a nonprofit model in order to subsidize the initial business cost and provide ongoing support. However, this contribution works out to a modest $13 per person for 10 years of clean water. Saha monitors their businesses and has found the water to be clean and bacteria-free in 99% of cases.

Despite the success of Saha's program, the village of Kulaa was presented with three additional forms of water treatment over the following months. The government provided residents with free ceramic filters, which wound up clogged or broken in less than half a year; an American church group distributed LifeStraw Family gravity filters, which tested positive for E. coli and coliforms; and another NGO offered a filter which was also overly time consuming and contaminated. As Starr explains, “I thought we were going to hear about the difficulties of overcoming long-held customs or the challenges of running a business when you’re barely literate, but instead we sat under a tree talking to a slightly dazed-looking woman who told us of an exhausting uphill battle against the forces of good intentions.” Regardless of their good intentions, these interventions caused considerable harm. They not only threatened the lives of children, but also misdirected resources and attention away from an effective and sustainable solution.

Starr reaches three conclusions from this experience. First, he recognizes that there is a significant cost to failure; the failed initiatives in Kulaa caused more harm than doing nothing. Second, development interventions that require extensive training are likely to fail; Saha’s efforts were most effective in part because they were the most straightforward. And thirdly, develop work requires follow-up; providing an intervention without offering a system for repairs, replacement, and monitoring can result in unintended consequences. Starr calls on those within the philanthropic sector to recognize development malpractice and to act upon it: "If you see something, say something. If you become aware of someone planning/doing/funding stuff like this, talk to them, educate them, dissuade them... Don't let these things happen."

Read more at the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

A Software Revolution for the Social Good

In his recent article for Recode, Benetech Founder and CEO Jim Fruchterman calls for a software revolution within the social sector. Although software development and data analysis have had a transformative effect on commercial products and companies, particularly in Silicon Valley, philanthropy and nonprofits have not experienced similar benefits from progress in technology. However, if a focused effort was made toward the social sector, this same technology could be used to scale successful solutions, identify new opportunities, and demonstrate impact to donors and stakeholders. Software and data could be used, for example, to connect America’s half-million homeless persons with the 100,000 organizations that provide critical social services. Although these organizations conduct extensive on-the-ground outreach, many of those in need remain overlooked and do not get connected to the services that are available to them. As Fruchterman explains, “We need to shift our philanthropic mentality away from funding one-off projects to a model that drives systematic change across entire fields.”

Read more at Recode.

Rotavirus Vaccine Emerges following Gates-Sponsored Study

The New York Times recently reported a major breakthrough in treatment of rotavirus thanks to work of the Gates foundation and Doctors Without Borders. In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a major study which found that rotavirus was a prominent cause of death for young children around the globe. More than 200,000 children under five die every year from rotavirus, with half of those deaths occurring in India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unlike most other fatal illnesses for infants, rotavirus is one of the few that is not causes by bacteria or parasites, which are more easily treatable with antibiotic drugs. The Gates-sponsored study emphasized the importance of developing an effective vaccine for the virus. Last week, a trial conducted by Doctors Without Borders found a new vaccine from the Serum Institute of India to be 67% effective in preventing severe episodes of the rotavirus.

Three hundred medical professionals administered the vaccine to 3,500 children in 132 villages across Niger. The vaccine is expected to be cheaper than current alternatives at $6 for three doses, and can maintain its effectiveness without refrigeration for several months -- aspects that are particularly promising for areas without electricity. The vaccine can be distributed by the United Nations after receiving approval from the World Health Organization.

Read more at The New York Times.

The “Trump Effect”: Funder Priorities and Responses to the Trump Administration

In the fifty days since Donald Trump took office, we have seen a myriad of responses from both large and small funders across the country. Inside Philanthropy has recently compiled their articles on the “Trump Effect,” which examine how Trump administration policies have affected funders’ priorities and reactions. The Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW) recently announced 29 new grants totaling $50,000 toward its 100 Day Fund, which aims to provide a rapid-response to Trump’s first one hundred days in office. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spoken out against the “global gag rule,” which prevents foreign NGOs from receiving US government funding if they counsel, perform, or promote abortion practices. In response to Trump’s recent executive orders regarding immigration, the Robina Foundation awarded $25 million to the University of Minnesota Law School — the largest gift in the school’s history.

The recent shifts in donor giving have enabled nonprofits to scale their efforts and engage in innovative approaches. The ACLU announced this past weekend that it will be spending millions of dollars on a grass-roots “People Power” campaign, which aims to direct citizen attention toward Trump’s policies, rather than his persona. As Executive Director Anthony Romero explained, “We’ve seen this exponential growth in people becoming card-carrying members of the ACLU… They’re younger. They’re in every state around the country. The biggest danger was in not doing something like this, where people get apathetic and they fall asleep.” The ACLU has tripled its membership and raised over $80 million since the 2016 election. People Power hopes to mobilize this base to resist Trump policies at a local level.

Read more at Inside Philanthropy, The Washington Post, and

Hewlett Foundation Publishes Study on Use of Philanthropic Knowledge

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation recently published a report that examines the ways in which funders and foundation staff respond and adapt to new information and knowledge. The Hewlett Foundation has been a longtime funder of organizations working to create and disseminate such knowledge across the philanthropy sector, including the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Nonprofit Quarterly, The Bridgespan Group, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, and The Philanthropy Roundtable. Although Hewlett understood the numeric reach of these grantees through subscriber and visitor metrics, they wanted to have a clearer picture of their real-world effects.

Hewlett brought in two outside firms to conduct a collaborative field scan, compiling information across 11 major knowledge producers and publications in philanthropy. The field scan included a survey of 738 funders and foundation staff, interviews with 75 board members and funders, and four in-depth case studies. The 738 survey respondents were affiliated with 528 staffed foundations. Thirty-seven percent worked for independent foundations, 32% family foundations, 28% community foundations, and 3% corporate foundations. The size of the foundation ranged from one staff member to 50+. Half of responding foundations gave less than $10 million annually.

Their research yielded the following findings:

  • Foundation staff primarily seek knowledge from their peers and colleague (92%), followed by conference (83%), newsletter (77%), and interaction with grantee (67%).
  • The survey asked participants o list their trusted sources of information. No specific organization, association, or publication was cited as a trusted source by more than 25% of respondents.
  • Funders are overwhelmingly interested in learning more about evaluation and assessment (44%). No other topic was identified as critically needed by more than 5% of respondents.
  • nders tend to feel overwhelmed by the volume of provided information.
  • Knowledge lone does not result in change. While information can help encourage a new idea or practice, it must be accompanied by a wide variety of other factors including trust, accessibility, peer and leadership support, and organizational readiness.

hese findings illustrate that knowledge production tends to be driven through largely informal processes such as conversation and email exchange. There is no paramount source of information; funders gather knowledge from a wide variety of sources and publications. Funders have a strong desire to become more outcome-oriented, but struggle to effectively measure progress and results. Although funders have a desire to use knowledge to inform their philanthropic practice, they often feel overloaded by the volume of provided information. And finally, the study demonstrates how information must be accompanied by institutional support to result in substantial change.

Read more at the Hewlett Foundation and the Stanford Social Innovation Review.