Gates Foundation Philanthropy Program Update

Sean’s Note: As someone who cares deeply about the field of philanthropy, I’ve long tracked the activities of the Hewlett Foundation’s philanthropy program. In recent years, the Gates Foundation has focused more time and attention on their own philanthropy program under the leadership of Darin McKeever. I’ve asked Darin for an overview of his program’s activity. Rather than our typical "guest post" format, this is an in-depth program update by him. Read Part II.

By Darin McKeever

Darin_McKeeverThree years ago I joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where I inherited a small, but important grants portfolio called the Charitable Sector Support (CSS) initiative. CSS grants typically supported some of the charitable community’s principal associations and valued research institutions in the U.S. – members of what some call the “infrastructure” for the sector. The effort had been launched in 2004 and, after four years, it was time to step back and consider what the next phase of the work would be.

Describing the Moment
Designing or refreshing a strategy at the foundation first involves developing a perspective on the landscape of opportunities. We research promising or proven efforts, available measures of success and impact, major institutions and thought leaders, and key policy or other drivers for change.

During this phase, we noted several trends that could have dramatic impacts on the sector:

  • The fiscal outlook in the U.S. and beyond would contribute to a time of great risk and opportunity for the charitable community. It would not only constrain important government budgets that supported charities, but would very likely spur policymakers to review rules governing tax-favored institutions, including foundations and charities generally.
  • Information technology and social media were making the capture and sharing of data, information, and knowledge easier and cheaper. In the sector, this could potentially lower barriers for collaborating and measuring impact and alter assumptions around the costs and benefits of transparency.
  • A growing and global cottage industry of philanthropic advisors, donor education and affinity groups, and online giving platforms were joining the ranks of more traditional "philanthropic intermediaries," such as United Ways or community foundations. The result was reshaping the landscape of advice, information, and giving opportunities available to donors. We believed this collection of institutions might alter the way charities attract supporters and raise funds and the way donors identify causes and research charities.

Clarifying the Opportunity
In the next phase, we look for opportunities that align with our mission and board’s interests, leverage our capabilities (e.g., in technology), and have the potential for transformative impact. To accomplish this, we do “deep dives” on several options to explore their potential benefits and risks. We rule out some choices, and consider maintaining other options. We construct a "theory of change" that lays out our assumptions and expectations.

What did we discover or observe?

  • The quality of the U.S. policy environment for the charitable community would depend substantially on the ready availability of both accurate, timely data and sound analysis regarding the potential (and the limits) of the sector.
  • Some of the very data policymakers called for in their deliberations were what some donors sought for their charitable giving choices: the relative performance and impact of various organizations and causes.
  • To make this data and research accessible, our sector would need a high-functioning set of "translators": strong advocacy groups and associations to bring actionable knowledge to policymakers and practitioners, “philanthropic intermediaries” to do the same for donors.
  • Despite much talk in recent years about how grantmaking and grantseeking might evolve into something more akin to a true "capital market," there was limited, independent evidence to confirm the assumption behind that expectation: that donors’ giving could be substantially influenced by information about the relative performance and impact of charities.

Landing on a Strategy
Ultimately, our planning resulted in three primary initiatives, summarized as follows:

Policy Advocacy & Research: To foster a policy environment that supports the effective functioning of the charitable sector.

Data, Standards, and Tools for Collaboration & Measuring Impact: To increase the ability of the charitable sector to broadly identify, and direct capital to, the highest impact organizations and activities.

Behavioral Research on Charitable Giving: To generate new evidence on whether higher-quality and more accessible data improve the allocation of capital and increase the amount of funding directed to issues of inequity.

To pursue areas of learning that could inform future grant strategies and to access benefits for foundation employees, we also have a modest budget for memberships, conference sponsorships, and "special initiatives."

In Part II, I’ll delve more deeply into the three primary initiatives, including lessons learned and our accomplishments as well.

Read Part II.