“I am not a great fan of philanthropic foundations.”

by Stephen Tall on June 27, 2014

This speech from Owen Barder is well worth a read in full – but it’s his justifiably provocative opening section which grabbed me:

… let me begin with a confession: I am not a great fan of philanthropic foundations. I have nothing against foundations in principle.

I was utterly persuaded by Mike Green and Matt Bishop’s book, Philanthrocapitalism, that foundations have a unique contribution to make. Because of the way they are funded and governed, they can do things that official aid agencies struggle with. They can bring business-like project management and partnership skills to development projects. They can be guided by rigorous evidence rather than politics. They can invest in unpopular and un-photogenic but important interventions, such as access to safe abortions, or funding statistical agencies or public policy. They can take risks, admit failure and learn.

So why am I not a great fan? Because in my experience few foundations do any of these things. Some foundations (you know who I mean!) obsess far more about their brand and public relations than any public donor I have ever encountered, even though they don’t depend on public support for any of their funding. Foundations typically employ staff from the same talent pool as donor agencies, so they don’t actually bring any particular business experience or expertise. They appear to me to be just as likely to make decisions based on hunch and emotion as any public donor. They seem just as risk averse, often more so, and just as unwilling to identify and learn from failure.

On the whole, I just don’t see foundations making the unique contribution to the development ecosystem that Mike Green and Matt Bishop rightly say they could.