In November, leading philanthropist Bill Gates and his wife Melinda joined Jeff Skoll to announce the creation of Co-Impact, a philanthropic venture. The collaborative will pool the resources of many philanthropists to make a concerted impact in developing parts of the world. To start, Co-Impact will invest $500 million in initiatives that focus on improving health, creating new opportunities for education, and expanding economic opportunities. The organization has already emerged as a model for collaborative philanthropy. While many of the donors who are already involved could effect considerable change independently, Co-Impact aims to build partnerships in the public and private sector to create systemic shifts.
Co-Impact has announced a plan to make up to $50 million in grants for the coming five years and to do so in a manner that would prove impossible for most philanthropists. Very few initiatives that now exist look beyond the short-term, partly because most gifts are less than $10 million. Smaller initiatives are critically important for figuring out what could work to effect lasting change. Once that groundwork is completed, Co-Impact plans to come in and help scale proven approaches to change with a focus on major systemic growth. While the organization will not begin making grants until early 2018, its collaborative model is causing a great deal of excitement in the philanthropic world.
Placing Importance on More than Just Money
The chief executive officer of Co-Impact is Olivia Leland, who formerly served as the founding director of the Giving Pledge. The collaborative, which is primarily comprised of those who signed Gates and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, requests that the billionaires who join promise to give away half of their wealth in their lifetime. While the Giving Pledge primarily focuses on numbers, Co-Impact is less concerned with the amount of money given and focused more on how the money is given. The organization’s emphasis is on collaboration and long-term support through partnerships with members of local communities, as well as business, government, and aid leaders. The push for collaboration grew out of Leland’s own experience.
After leaving the Giving Pledge, she spoke with hundreds of donors and leaders in the field of social change and discovered that the two groups did not match up in terms of their expectations. Based on these conversations, Leland published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that identified three central problems. The problems include small and fragmented giving, a lack of strategy in changing systems, and a disconnect among philanthropists across international borders.
Co-Impact was designed to address each of these three issues. Leland developed the idea in her capacity as a managing director with the Rockefeller Foundation, which serves as the core institutional partner of the organization. In addition to Gates and Skoll, Co-Impact has already attracted Richard Chandler and Romesh and Kathy Wadwhani to its mission. Essentially, Co-Impact is about collaboration between donors at all levels and the people in the community who understand that change is necessary and that it can be successfully implemented.
The Meaning of Collaboration to the Co-Impact Founders
Major systemic shifts have had the largest impact on developing communities across the globe. The shifts include microfinance for jump-starting businesses, community-based natural resource management programs, public sanitation, and school lunch programs. While a systems approach to change is not new, it requires an understanding of the complex systems that already exist, an acknowledgement of existing opportunities, and an appreciation of the challenges. No one person can handle this sort of change, nor can any single organization. Typically, the best experts are those closest to the problem, which means that there must be constant communication between funders and grantees about impact and needs.
Moving forward, Co-Impact aims to figure out how funders can successfully engage with the development community through partnerships with development organization, governments, and other players. While this sort of collaboration may seem obvious, it is not business as usual in the philanthropic world. Most scaling efforts today focus on growing a singular effort rather than building networks between similar programs that will provide the greatest amount of support possible. These networks are what will lead to systemic shifts—not individual efforts. The question of how collaboration can happen most effectively is a timely one given the uncertainty that now exists for the future of governmental development assistance.
This idea of collaboration will face many challenges moving forward. With big names behind Co-Impact, how will the organization ensure that the voices of smaller players are heard, particularly among the people on the ground? Who will have the final say in how the organization’s money is invested? The initial grant amount of $50 million is meant as a test, according to Leland, who also acknowledges the importance of implementing mechanisms for measuring success. By paying attention to the results, Co-Impact aims to learn while doing and dive headfirst into the work.