What could Foundations add to the aid mix? A conversation with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation

Foundations are increasingly important players in the aid scene, spending the interest and/or capital from monster endowments set up by philanthropists. Some of the CIFF logobest known (Ford, Rockefeller) have been around for a long time, and as their names suggest, have an American feel – the big Daddy is the Gates Foundation, which spends some $4bn a year (by comparison, DFID spends £8bn ($13.5bn)). But earlier this week I spent a pleasant Chatham House rules evening chewing the fat with a little known, but large (fund of roughly $4bn and rising) British-based outfit, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF).

I decided to build on Owen Barder’s excellent talk to CIFF’s board a couple of months back. Owen stressed that Foundations have lots of freedoms that conventional aid organizations lack – in particular they can take risks and think long term. But in practice, they are often very cautious, and behave more like the rest of the aid biz (logframes, insistence on illusory levels of certainty on impact etc etc). It’s a curious phenomenon: in government aid ministries, politicians who in their political lives know all about taking risks, seizing the moment after shocks etc, suddenly turn into logframe-obsessed bean counters on arriving at the Ministry. In Foundation land, freewheeling, risk taking entrepreneurs suddenly come over all conservative when it comes to giving away their cash.

Which is a particular shame, because the aid business is in crying need of some risk taking and long term thinking right now. Two examples: systems thinking; and how Foundations could develop new approaches for the rest of the aid sector.

Systems Thinking: aka What do you do when you don’t know what will work?

Real life, societies, politics etc are complex – with so many connections and feedback loops that knowing what will happen when you intervene with a large chunk of money is largely unknowable, and when something does happen, attributing it to your particular project may well be a fool’s errand. Aid needs to rethink its linear, cake-baking approach for such systems, and who better placed than the Foundations to:

  • Manage aid like a venture capitalist – fund multiple start-ups, knowing that a large percentage will fail (indeed, if you have too low a failure rate, you probably aren’t taking enough risks). What matters is getting better at identifying failure early, and then shifting resources to more successful experiments.
  • Fund work that responds to shocks and windows of opportunity. Aid thinks (and funds) in terms of continuous change (implement the programme over 3 years; grind out the workshops or the vaccines; measure impact). But change often happens in spikes, linked to disasters, scandals and meltdowns (economic, political, environmental). Foundations could show the rest of us the way by demonstrating how to deliberately fund agility and responsiveness, for example in advocacy around climate change.
  • Positive Deviance: In large n systems, when you don’t know what will work, an alternative approach is to stop, look around and identify the positive outliers. Then go and research why they are doing so well, tell everyone your findings and maybe see if they could be the basis for some useful programming.
  • Enabling Environment: you may not know precisely what works, but you can create an environment that encourages good stuff: healthy, educated people are more likely to do well than sick, uneducated ones; legal systems that respond to poor people; access to credit; respect for rights. These may not be as easy to sell to the public as bednets, vaccinations or water points with your logo on them, but Foundations don’t have to worry about that – they’ve got enough money already.
Go on, take some risks....
Go on, take some risks….

Role of Outsiders

The aid business is in serious need of new thinking in a range of areas where Foundations could be ideally placed to help

  • Counting What Counts: Measuring impact, thinking through causation and attribution etc are essential to learning and getting better. But we need to ‘count what counts’ – if you are interested in women’s empowerment, better to try and develop ways to measure that directly, even if they are time consuming and expensive. Foundations could invest in developing those methodologies.
  • Long term funding: lots of change processes take decades, but aid funders typically have short time horizons of 3 years or less. That reduces the space for experimentation, learning from failure and getting it right and pushes aid organizations towards the safe (if unoriginal) bet. Some of the most interesting programmes I’ve seen in Oxfam have come from organizations like the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation taking 10 year time horizons. Could Foundations develop the business models for long term funding?
  • Picking high risk, unpopular issues: Foundations don’t need to court popularity, or to worry about bad headlines. So they could tackle the politically difficult stuff (safe abortions, migration). They could do the boring-but-important (building statistical capacity). Or they could tackle those Cinderella issues I go on about at regular intervals (road traffic accidents, tobacco, obesity, alcohol).


Will Foundations step up on any of this? Hard to tell, but one thing is certain: in the end it will all come down to the political economy of the donor, as it always does. But in this case that is easier to pin down – it’s the attitudes and incentives of a handful of people on the Foundation’s board and senior management. Get the theory of change write to influence them, and it’s game on.

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9 Responses to “What could Foundations add to the aid mix? A conversation with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation”
  1. Makarand

    Good pitch Duncan. Hopefully someone will listen.

    Foundation or traditional donor, ultimately it boils down to the metrics they are using in order to define their own ‘success’ and / or ‘contribution’.

    IF success is always defined in logframe terms, THEN risk taking is bound to be low. Where is this aid bureaucrat who will put her / his career on the block by taking risks in supporting programming in complex environments where traditional success (reach, spend) is not guaranteed?

    OTOH IF success is defined as innovations spawned, THEN someone may go with radically different ways of doing things.

    There is no doubt that huge disruption is required at all levels in the aid sector. What you are proposing is a great start.

  2. Patti Petesch

    Duncan, Your blog today is chalk full of valuable guidance. In my own work, I have often seen how “shocks/windows of oppty” can be associated with good change for underdogs. And from the outliers in my large community-level datasets, I have learned so much about what drives empowerment and improved well being for poor women and men. But while an understanding of these dynamics (which provide valuable entry points at various scales for pro-poor aid schemers) may help improve framing and tactics, they seemingly sidestep the issue that the private foundation world is as deeply political as any, and potentially in ways that quite varied constituencies might not necessarily deem pro-poor or democratic or just. And as their fortunes and overseas appetites for philanthropy grow, I see models of insertion that could potentially be more debilitating than that of the aid civil servants, who are supposed to have some notional accountability at least to the citizens of their own country. Our aid industry, perhaps like my U.S. healthcare system, has become impossibly bureaucratic and sprawling, but darn right proud to be miserly in what it will actually offer a poor woman and assess on the ground. How can foundations really escape or improve this culture, one that its board members likely admire and have thrived in? But alas, your advice on this is likely the best there is to offer right now. And trying so darn hard not to be cynical. With deep admiration for your tireless sharing and hard work on the blog, Patti

  3. Alan Hudson

    Worth a look at this recent piece by Ruth Levine, head of the Global Development and Population Program at the Hewlett Foundation about grant-making as hypothesis-testing, a close cousin of risk-taking.


    and this, also from Ruth Levine, encouraging grantees/potential grantees to ask donors about their (donors) strategies rather than let the donors ask all the questions


  4. Elise Howard

    thanks for this Duncan. I’m just working on an evaluation for a small NGO which is funded through foundations and they would benefit from learning from some of your points. They want an evaluation after just two years of operating in a community where poverty is extreme and alcohol use is very high and the remoteness of the location means its hard to get the simplest things done. Wondering if there’s any good references that you know of around the “change takes decades” statement and appropriate time frames for evaluations?

  5. Innocent Nkata

    Great Duncan this is really thought provoking. The 3 year cycle kind of thinking is one thing that has always frustrated me a lot. If it took more than half a century for the effects of the Industrial Revolution to be felt and seen, why do people think they can now change people’s lives within 1000 days? I aver that one of the main reasons for this lies in one of the key drivers of aid: the interests of the giver are foregrounded ahead of the interests of the receiver. The classical question ‘Whose agenda is it anyway?’ This is more so in the bilateral and multilateral aid sector where foreign policy objectives have become the alpha and omega with developmental aid serving instrumental objectives. If someone thinks this sounds academic then they have to explain to me what recently happened in Melbourne. I wish I could believe that foundations have the wherewithal and will to step into this void and put poor people first. But unfortunately as you rightly point out Duncan in comparing Gates to DFID, their resources are only a fraction of what governments are capable of spending on changing poor people’s lives. But then maybe foundations can really make that count. Maybe think about changing one poor person’s life at a time instead of trying to change the world in 3 years. That way funding start ups can make sense and we can put the inevitable failure rates into context.

  6. MJ

    “Systems Thinking: aka What do you do when you don’t know what will work?”

    Also, what do you do when you know that what you do know how to do won’t work?

  7. Nicholas Colloff

    The three year time horizon does have a certain logic to it as it represents the median time horizon against which, on average, people feel comfortable about anticipating their own futures (according to research) so it is a natural default: this is the boundary against which I can operate ‘responsibly’. If it is an ‘imposition’ it is one generated more by psychology than power.