Around the Institute

Global Philanthropy Forum Highlights: “Sustainability and Scale”

April 21, 2010  • Josh Weissburg

We start this final session with a “grassroots” view of how the poor grapple with something intensely practical: the management of their money. Stuart Rutherford notes that it is precisely because people are poor that they need financial services. “If you are poor, your income is not just small, it is unreliable and comes unevenly. Thus, you must hold some money in reserve to get through the times when income dries up – you need a savings mechanism.” We should remember that the poor must manage money, and when donors help meet those needs, they are creating value for the poor in a sustainable way.

Brian Trelstad of the Acumen Fund urges us to think carefully about what donors mean when they talk about scale – do we mean that our organizations become large, or that their mission becomes pervasive? He notes that mission is what causes people to participate around the country in activities like Girl Scouts and youth sports coaching – activities that the market would never support at large scale. In other words, your mission can help take change to scale by making it pervasive.

Marisa Lago, the Assistant Secretary for International Markets and Development at the US Department of the Treasury, is speaking about the comparative advantage that philanthropy holds vis-a-vis government. She notes that whereas government must be held to account publicly for failures, philanthropy can take the risks needed to find sustainable solutions – and remain free to fail.

One example is the area of small and medium-size enterprise finance. Within the next few months, says Lago, we are likely to see an announcement from the U.S. government inviting philanthropy and the private sector to contribute ideas about how to grow these enterprises, which serve as a base for both scaling social change solutions and making them sustainable. Thus, policy will be shaped by the insights of philanthropy, helping to bring the ideas to scale.

Several of the panelists agree that scale should only come when an effort has a strong foundation on which to build. But once a strong model exists, it should be a prime candidate for others to seize upon and scale in other places. Trelstad and Rutherford agree that there are plenty such opportunities, ranging from microfinance innovations to alternative energy.

…And now we are finishing up with a wonderful performance from Vocal Motion 6. GPF participants are singing acapella together! Philanthropy is indeed a mix of head and heart.