When a big idea fails: lessons in effective philanthropy from the Gates Foundation

Jul 25, 2018

A report published a few weeks ago shows that The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation failed to deliver education outcomes through one of its initiatives. This article reflects on the learning from this, and how you can use it to help you co-create effectively with your donors.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wanted to improve student outcomes in the US...

...particularly for students from low and middle income households. Their theory of change focused on quality education, with a focus on access to effective teaching.

All the elements of the programme were implemented successfully. But it didn't work

What went wrong?

This June, the Rand Organisation published its evaluation of the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Initiative, noting that:

'with minor exceptions, by 2014–2015, student achievement, access to effective teaching, and dropout rates were not dramatically better than they were for similar sites that did not participate in the Intensive Partnerships initiative.'

The findings show that if you don’t get your theory of change right, or identify the right ‘levers’ for change then you can do everything perfectly and still not have the social impact you want. If you don’t want to dig through the detail in the full report, you can find out more in their shorter research brief.

The provocatively titled blog Why do rich people think they can tell us how to run schools?may say more about strength of feeling than finding a way forward. But it does raise an important question.

How far do your transformational donors have the capacity to co-create solutions with you?

Philanthropists can suggest using business principles and approaches as levers for social change. This often reflects their own experience as successful entrepreneurs, financiers or leaders of large companies.

But successful approaches and ways of working won’t always translate from securing shareholder return to delivering strong social outcomes.

The Gates Foundation talked of using one such lever: 'to employ compensation and career ladders as incentives to retain the most-effective teachers'.

However, taking a typically 'corporate sector' approach to incentivising performance may have been one of the reasons that outcomes were not achieved. The evaluation report noted that:

'Using teacher-evaluation measures toward different goals might create a conflict. The [school] sites found it difficult to navigate the underlying tension between using teacher evaluation to help teachers improve and using it to make high-stakes decisions about compensation, tenure, and dismissal.'
Philanthropists want to make a difference. It is down to the organisations they support to help them do this well.

Many philanthropists have a wealth of experience, skills, networks and ideas they want to bring to their partnerships with the charities they support financially. However, a fundraising leader at one of the UK's highest profile youth charities noted that:

'… an individual or family may not have experience in this area – they are less able to do co-creation well. There is the risk of strategic disagreements where the donor wants something that isn’t right for [the people we serve].'
It is a fundraiser's role to facilitate effective partnerships that can deliver the greatest possible impact for the people and initiatives their organisation serves.

If your organisation co-creates solutions with strategic philanthropists, you need to be able to have robust conversations if they want to use an approach that is unlikely to have the strongest outcomes.

This isn’t about sticking to 'how we've always done things' or what feels culturally comfortable for your organisation. Rather it is about providing evidence for which interventions are best suited for the specific problems you are solving together.

To co-create well, you need some key capacity and competencies within your philanthropy team and the organisation

This includes:

1. Why solve the problem this way? Your strategic framework and evidence-based theory of change can provide a 'co-creation space' within which you can develop solutions with your donors.

2. Demonstrating impact/learning from your mistakes: effective programme evaluation is a requirement for successful co-creation as well as programme delivery.

3. People: fundraisers who can build and navigate complex co-creation partnerships

    • have a strong strategic/cultural/political awareness
    • are able put themselves in the mind of the donor and understand the limits of what they can do with donor interest internally.
    • who have the confidence/credibility with donors/internal stakeholders to have difficult conversations well.

What would you like to achieve through partnering with philanthropists? What challenges are you facing in doing so?

Whatever opportunities and issues you face in building your philanthropy programme, I hope these insights from the Gates Foundation are a useful conversation starter.

If you have any questions, or would find it useful to take some time to think through the challenges you're facing, email me at clarebaker@true-leadership.co.uk to arrange a quick call to find out if my free 90–minute diagnostic session would be of value for you.



About Clare

Clare Baker is a fundraiser, professional leadership coach and trained mentor with experience of helping leaders, teams and organisations create lasting impact for their community and society. She supports organisations at both the strategic and operational level to build the foundations for sustainable income growth from high value fundraising.

Over a successful 10-year development career, Clare has worked in small, mid-sized and global charities, giving her an understanding of the organisational development and change needed for high value fundraising to succeed. She has helped senior leaders in investment banking, FTSE100 organisations and media companies build partnerships with non-profits to fund world-leading medical research and international development programmes.

When Clare isn’t working, you’ll find her hiking in the world’s wild places.

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