I began running my family’s foundation 5 years ago, after working in international public health. I was tasked with creating a strategy, mission and focus for the foundation— an opportunity that was extraordinarily fortunate and daunting at the same time. I spent my first year at the foundation annoying my family with questions about their values, passions and beliefs about the world; questions that ran the gamut from ‘what opportunities were you given that you think were critical to your own success,’ to ‘is there any type of philanthropy that you think is just not useful?’ From the discussions that followed, I was able to build a funding strategy that we felt passionate about as a family and believed in strongly.
We decided to focus the foundation’s initial strategic efforts on India, where my parents are from, while continuing to support work we had been funding for years in my hometown of Houston, TX. For our philanthropy in India, we agreed to broadly focus on the sectors of health and education, and added more specific parameters based on our values, prior experience and data, to further focus our grant-making.
We decided to focus on organizations whose models we believed could scale across the country. This focus has resulted in us funding earlier stage NGOs with great potential, and helped us to consider our philanthropic dollars as risk capital.
We all agreed that measurement was a critical part of assessing an NGO’s progress, and that we would therefore work with organizations that similarly believed in the importance of metrics and measurement.
We also wanted to give in a manner that created opportunity and sustainable change rather than dependency on our dollars or on the organizations we supported. We therefore chose to work with organizations that emphasized the community’s understanding of their context and challenges, and engaged them as leading stakeholders in the process of identifying and implementing solutions.
Clarity on what matters to us as a foundation has helped us navigate the world of philanthropy and shortlist nonprofits for diligence and potential funding that are well-aligned with our giving ethos. But we are also funders who are based in the U.S, supporting work that is half a world away, in a landscape where we are effectively outsiders, despite our cultural ties.
Being confident that we are making the right choices requires trusted networks, open communication, and above all, immersion in the context we are seeking to impact.
Building trusted networks
When I first joined the foundation, we had decided that we didn’t want to have an open application process to identify high potential NGOs. I didn’t have the bandwidth to go through hundreds of applications, nor did I want to require NGOs to craft a specific proposal just for us. Without an application process, I needed to build and leverage my networks to find prospective grantees. I began going to more conferences, joined more networks, and soon found myself in the company of strategic funders who were several steps ahead of me, as well as innovative NGO leaders who were experts in their fields.
Organizations like Dasra allowed me to learn about NGOs in India that had been thoroughly vetted and had immense potential, while also connecting me with funders in India who understood the local context in a way that I didn’t. Conferences like the Skoll World Forum provided me with an opportunity to meet NGO leaders from India who I never would have come across otherwise.
As I built my network, other funders came to know the type of work we funded. Today, I often receive emails from them with recommendations of NGOs doing exactly the kind of work we are interested in. Our work in India has undoubtedly benefited from the expansion of our philanthropic network and the insights we receive from it.
Facilitating open, two-way communication
Deepening engagement with our grantees has also been critical to feeling confident about our philanthropic investments. Consistent, open, two-way communication is key to keeping pace with the NGO, and with the progress or difficulties they are experiencing.
Before signing a grant, we have many conversations with a potential grantee about goals, metrics and agree upon a reporting schedule. We see these conversations as a space for discussion rather than an exercise to mandate what the grantee will report to us. There is an inherent power dynamic in the funder-grantee relationship, but we try to be very cognizant of the fact that the NGO leaders are the ones with on-the-ground experience and expertise, and we want them to be as realistic as possible when setting goals.
Embracing Immersive Learning
In addition to remotely staying abreast of progress made by our NGO partners, we conduct site visits in India at least once a year, which allows us to engage with our grantees’ work in a deeper way, and often troubleshoot and raise questions we would not have otherwise thought about. We are lucky to be able to travel to the locations where our grantees are working, and when this is not possible, we again fall back on our trusted networks of funders and NGOs in India. Other funders and NGO leaders have given us great insights into how our grantees fit into the larger field of health or education, and where they may benefit from additional efforts or program shifts.
I am often asked how I can ensure that an organization is trustworthy before we fund them, or be certain that our grant dollars are going where promised. The truth is that no one can be completely certain that their philanthropic dollars will be used effectively and achieve the desired impact.
There is inherent risk in almost everything we do, including philanthropy.
That said, the approaches mentioned above are some of the key steps we take as a foundation to build trust in the NGOs and leaders we support, and through that entry point we feel confident about investing strategically and consistently in India’s fast-changing development narrative.