According to president and CEO Jamie Cooper-Hohn, in a recently published interview for Alliance, two things make the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation’s (CIFF’s) approach ‘a substantial divergence from the norm of development funding’: first, the fact that they look at their funding as an investment, so they insist on real clarity about impact from the outset. The second is their business approach, which means accepting that nothing ever quite works out as it did in the business plan, so they may have to constantly course-correct to get to the end goal.
The June issue of Alliance will have a special feature looking at opportunity and risk for foundations, focusing particularly on opportunity and what we are calling ‘high risk/high gain’ activities. One thing that particularly interests me here is the relationship between this ‘clarity about impact from the outset’ and the likelihood of a foundation taking risks. Cooper-Hohn insists this does not make CIFF less likely to undertake risky funding, just more careful about making decisions. ‘Clarity about success is something we can’t do without in any field,’ she says. In the past they’ve ‘done it the other way and had it all go wrong’ … ‘we know it’s because we didn’t spend enough time on understanding whether our goals were realistic or not.’
She also stresses that you can’t look at their portfolio and argue that they don’t take risks. She cites one of their first investments, which was providing antiretroviral care in agreement with the government in India before the national government had a policy of care. ‘People talked about it as taking out a mortgage that we could be stuck with forever.’
The cover of the June issue of Alliance has a picture of Christopher Columbus’s ship on its way to discovering the ‘New World’. As Rebecca Adamson, founder of First Peoples Worldwide, and I write in our joint editorial, we see the explorer’s fragile ship as providing ‘an apt analogy for the sort of ‘high risk/high gain activity that the special feature encourages foundations and philanthropists to embrace. While risky philanthropic ventures do not involve personal risk in the way that the early voyages of exploration did, they can involve great ambition, unknown outcomes, and the danger of failing totally – though not dying in the process.’ Foundations ‘should push themselves to identify the most promising opportunities and take risks to attain them’, concludes guest editor Peter Laugharn of the Firelight Foundation.
So does embracing opportunity mean taking extra risk? Or, as Cooper-Hohn maintains, is clarity about success something we can’t do without in any field? The June issue of Alliance brings together a great collection of foundation leaders and commentators to address this issue, plus the views of a wide range of other development actors on what they want from foundations in the global development arena.
Caroline Hartnell is editor of Alliance.