March 06, 2014
(Heather Grady most recently was vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation and currently is serving as an advisor to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. As a member of the Rockefeller Foundation executive team, she provided vision, leadership, and direction to help the foundation achieve its goals of building resilience and promoting equitable growth and also managed a diverse group of professionals in the U.S., Asia, and Africa working in a a range of areas, from climate change, agriculture, and health to transportation, impact investing, and employment. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)
Venture Philanthropy in Development (90 pages, PDF), a new report from the OECD's NetFWD, charts the directions that many foundations and individual philanthropists are taking to tackle today's social, environmental, and economic challenges. While the term venture philanthropy has been around for almost half a century (credited in the report to John D. Rockefeller III, who said it was "the imaginative pursuit of less conventional charitable purposes"), it is seen as an emergent field, and there is little enough agreement on the term itself that the originators of the report gave scant attention to precisely defining it.
At a panel I moderated on the occasion of the report's launch, common dimensions of venture philanthropy were easily identified: high engagement with the grantees supported within any particular portfolio; provision of non-financial as well as financial support with a targeted group of grantees (e.g., convenings); an entrepreneurial start-up approach; a blending or even blurring of the lines between grant contributions and investments for financial return; working at a systems level to influence a combination of practice, policy, markets and even public opinion; and focusing on a positive enabling environment to achieve success.
The report is based on research from which the authors conclude that those sharing in depth their venture philanthropy experiences (the Rockefeller, Lundin, Shell, and Emirates foundations) were on a transformational journey, one that was not a "from-to" path but a much more inclusive and – as I read it – meandering one. As an integrative approach, it provides new opportunities for foundations to work with their grantees differently, and also for coalitions of foundations, civil society organizations, governments, and businesses to enter differently into shared ventures, not unlike the collective impact approach.
I learned a new term when one of the main researchers, Alexandra Stubbings, told us that the approach may force foundations to do a "drain-up" review. While that sounds fairly unpleasant, philanthropic institutions do need a good shaking out now and again.