The president of a foundation in Europe recently shared with me a conversation she had about “strategic philanthropy” where she questioned whether the concept was anything more than the affirmation of common sense dressed in fancy words. The same may turn out to be the case for the notion of “leverage”— a term that I hear increasingly to describe how foundations can achieve the greatest social change. Be that as it may, if we can find ways to increase the impact of philanthropic resources, it merits discussion.

Searching for points to leverage

Looking back at our 2009 strategic planning process at the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, a private foundation based in the Netherlands focused on early childhood development, we frequently discussed the idea that solutions to the problems many children face are not always found in the obvious places. We tried to expand our stakeholder map and explore a broader range of ideas. Our program officer for Peru, for example, explained that the main obstacle to scaling services for children in the Amazon jungle was transport. We saw that there were distribution channels—points to leverage—that we could use to solve the problem, including the Peruvian Navy, Coca-Cola, a beer brewery, and a network of evangelical churches. Today the Navy transports child development workers to remote villages they otherwise couldn’t reach.

We often find ourselves working with new groups to help generate civic demand for attention to children’s needs. To better understand our own practice and the most powerful points to leverage, we reviewed 398 investments we made since 2011 and identified 24 examples of support to advocacy networks. These networks fell into three categories:

  • Unexpected partnerships: We leveraged 10 existing networks that did not have a prior focus on young children.
  • Unexpected stakeholders: We helped create seven new networks, drawing on unexpected stakeholder groups who provided political weight not available in the landscape of child-focused organizations.
  • Pre-existing networks: We supported seven pre-existing networks already focused on advocacy for young children.

On average, the cases from the first two categories have been more impactful. This points to the importance of a robust exploration of unexpected allies as part of any program. However, as this work is not led by grantmaking—the mainstay of most foundation program officers—it also raises the question of how to empower staff to spend more time building relationships with unexpected allies.

To help answer this question, we looked at a variety of cases. One case involving preschoolers and land rights activists in Odisha, India, offers a good example of how foundations might encourage their staff in this direction.

What preschoolers and land rights activists have in common

From 2007, we have worked to advance multilingual pre-school education for the 1.4 million tribal children aged 4 to 6 in the state of Odisha. Prior to 2011, the portfolio included model pre-schools, a longitudinal impact study, and support to an advocacy coalition of non-governmental organizations. The boxes in our theory of change were checked, but progress with policymakers was scant.

At the end of 2011, we hired a new program officer, who concluded that we had not selected the right partners for advocacy and that no child-focused organization had the political weight to achieve the desired policy change.

She decided to look beyond organizations focused on children and identified a network of tribal activists who had spent 20 years working to secure land rights. She approached the group and discussed how multilingual pre-school could serve their existing goals. She talked about the preservation of language, culture, and identity; the science of brain development, and the opportunity to put tribal children on par with their non-tribal peers. She took them to visit pre-schools, where they met star teachers like Shanti and star pupils like Subhadra. She showed that she understood their viewpoint and found common ground.

She then provided a small grant for meetings and transport to mobilize network members, who in turn spoke with parents and public officials from villages to the state capitol. Within months, the state issued a notification indicating its intention to shift to multilingual pre-school education. In less than two years, the network’s counterparts in 16 other Indian states followed suit, and the government introduced a statement on multilingual pre-school into the national education policy. Today, we are developing a partnership with our grantees and the Indian government to help scale up in Odisha and ensure that we can replicate the good practice developed there across the country.

Managing for leverage

My primary insight from this experience was not about grantmaking strategy, but about our foundation’s human resources and the bureaucracy in which they operate. Here is what worked:

Setting big expectations
Our new program officer arrived at a moment of internal transformation. We were trying to promote a culture of entrepreneurship and risk-taking. We emphasized the pursuit of ideas that were “too big for our budget” and consistently discussed the importance of finding new points to leverage as a core responsibility of program officers. Senior leadership began to articulate a theory of change about partnership and coalition building, using grantmaking as a tactic.

Hiring changemakers
The new program officer was inclined to build alliances and instinctively understood power dynamics. She knew the network of activists and that a grant to work on children’s issues was not the way to start a relationship. She cultivated the relationship by translating evidence about child development into terms that motivated the network.

Subhadra completed a multilingual pre-school and is now attending primary school. (Photo courtesy of People’s Rural Education Movement)

From a hiring perspective, this may mean that foundations weigh social networks and characteristics such as entrepreneurship, persuasiveness, and perseverance more heavily than technical expertise in a specific field.

Empowering staff
We had decided to experiment with placing the new program officer in India as opposed to at our main office in The Netherlands, which required that she have greater autonomy. There was no way to manage her effectively other than delegating increasing levels of authority, especially regarding decisions about the increasingly demanding, public-facing aspects of the job.

For management practice, this means ensuring that there is clarity on goals and strategy, but then devolving decision-making as much as possible and hiring staff who are enthusiastic about and excited to take on this responsibility.

Flexible administrative support
The fact that our program officer was based in India was a critical success factor, because it allowed her to have more in-person engagement with stakeholders. However, we were not set up for remote working. We overcame this, thanks to motivated and flexible support staff, and the integration of new communications technology.

For business administration, this means enabling remote working and reducing transaction costs associated with activities such as small convenings that require significant time and administrative support, but limited financial investment.

Positioning for leverage
Despite these advances, we have yet to make as significant strides in using our knowledge and institutional position to help cultivate new points to leverage.

Recognizing that our foundation’s unique value proposition was our experience investing in children globally for more than 50 years, our program officer frequently requested simple, non-technical examples of best practice from other countries, adaptable briefings on child development, and other pieces of knowledge to help establish the foundation’s credibility. Ultimately we solved this, but in an ad-hoc and often incomplete manner—we were not accustomed to this kind of demand.  This illustrates additional challenges that we can’t resolve with grants alone. As a result, we are now working to improve our ability to generate and communicate our knowledge and institutional position to a wider range of constituents who can help create sustainable social change.

As foundations try to position themselves for leverage, they should explore the range of non-financial assets at their disposal. Some may discover that their networks are under-utilized, while others may find the need to more effectively use their knowledge or reputation to achieve their social goals. Regardless of what we find, deploying these resources requires that we look beyond our grantmaking strategies; it requires that we understand what foundation management can do to cultivate new points to leverage and, in doing so, create greater impact.