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William Foster became The Bridgespan Group’s managing partner in September 2021 and first joined the organisation in 2002. During his recent visit to India, we asked him about all things philanthropy—including shifting patterns in the Indian social sector and the potential for endowments and community-driven change to have significant social impact globally.
You’ve researched and spoken widely on endowments, terming them a “stodgy tool for a radical purpose.” What potential do you see with endowments in the Global South, particularly in India?
Endowments have been used for significant institutions, such as universities or museums, for a long time. The first literally structured endowment was in the Roman Empire, so setting up positions of endowed learning goes way back, and it’s not really viewed as innovative. One of the things that’s most important and radical in our work is trust-based philanthropy. How do we shift the fundamental power dynamic of the donor having all the influence and NGO leaders being supplicant?
There’s a lot of sophisticated talk in terms of how we do it—the different ways to get community voice into donor decisions—and our Mumbai office’s recent report on community-driven change in the Global South reflects that. I recently met with the Swades Foundation, a group we’ve profiled in some of our community-driven change work, and they spoke a lot about authentic community ownership of changes. So while they work on technical issues like sanitation and clean water, having active input from the community helps not only to structure but also to position things differently. It creates an ownership of caring that goes on after the infrastructure work is done. For instance, they work with more than 1,200 village development committees (VDCs) across the Raigad district. These VDCs comprise volunteers with a shared vision of better development of their villages. It’s not a sophisticated intervention, but it’s a critical first intervention.
The “radical” part of endowments is that you’re taking the money and putting it in control of the NGO. When the money goes from one party to the other, it’s the most radical act of trust, because you’ve just put the perpetual capital returns in the hands of the social change leader. And in the Indian context, as the philanthropy market matures, I wonder whether there will be an openness to that. Most social problems are not going to get solved on a five-year strategy plan—it takes decades and sometimes generations to have an impact, and you need strong NGO institutions that can navigate it. The only way to ensure that is an endowment. I would imagine that our team can sketch out four dozen key institutions in different fields that India would want well funded for decades to come.
Read the full interview about big bets in Indian philanthropy at The Bridgespan Group.