On April 14th, we spent 90 minutes in the presence of a Breakfast Club of thinkers and doers—ruminating on the topic of philanthropy. These women have revolutionized the fields of journalism, philanthropy, impact investing and policy. And they gathered to debate the deep rifts and challenges that currently exist within philanthropy—and why getting more wealth in the hands of women is key.
Below is our conversation.
Alix Lebec (AL): Welcome everyone. Today’s topic is an important one—and it really strives to bring three big pillars together: First, there is an urgent need to increase the number of women in leadership and decision-making roles—in corporate boardrooms and across the hallways of government. Second, we need to change status quo philanthropy—which, today, is not reflective of the level of capital resources that are available, alongside the level of need and opportunity that is out there. And third, tackling these two issues is essential to solving some of the largest, most intractable issues of our time—including global inequality, and the water and climate crises.
A Power Structure that Needs Overhauled
AL: I’d love to start with you, Ellen. We’re seeing disheartening statistics around how poorly represented women are in leadership and decision-making roles. Can you share your thoughts on what needs to happen for transformation to take place?
Ellen McGirt (EM): “As a journalist, I won’t bury the lead. This is a conversation about power, and about the mistakes that people like me—those in media—have made. We have a problem that runs deep, and explains all of the systemic barriers that we see today. One of the biggest issues is that funders tend to put their own priorities before the priorities of the individuals who actually need help—and we fail to learn from those mistakes.”
During her time at Fast Company, Ellen experienced this firsthand, having reported on a project called The PlayPump—an innovative idea at the time that was supposed to make a broken infrastructure system more efficient. The idea was that a mechanism would be added to working wells in rural parts of Africa, and would enable locals to pump water into a nearby tank. The pioneering part was that the pump mechanism doubled as a merry-go-round. This meant that children could play and simultaneously pump water, which allowed women to dedicate time to other necessary tasks. This enabled communities dependent on water wells in emerging markets to get water more efficiently.
It was amplified by new technology, particularly by an app on Facebook called Causes—created by a well-meaning investor, and piled into by techies looking to prove a greatest-use case for new technology. The goal was to show that great ideas which are simple and powerful can scale very quickly if we all know about them, even if they don’t have a track record. But unfortunately, the story didn’t have a happy ending. The PlayPump failed and broke several wells, ultimately creating more work for the women it sought to help. And there was little accountability for it.
EM: “We didn’t learn anything from it. We just went on to scale the next idea that made us feel good. This stuck with me because it became clear that philanthropy is for the people who bestow it—it’s not for the people who need it. In too many instances, it overly focuses on a philanthropists’ need to look powerful. This is often what we see in philanthropy—a need to admire a handsome celebrity, or a venture capitalist, or a CEO—rather than to admire and focus on the people who actually understand the problem and need the tools to transform their own lives. It’s a type of philanthropy that we’ve become accustomed to—one that is often used for personal goals, and occasionally even for nefarious reasons.”
We see this all the time in corporate philanthropy, she says, which tends to focus on the feel-good marketing that is only peripherally related to actually solving the problem. It’s not linked to a truly powerful theory of change, and doesn’t welcome people who actually understand what’s happening into the conversation. As a result, there is a wasteland of abandoned initiatives out there.
AL: “Exactly. Meanwhile, there’s a community of successful non-profits, social entrepreneurs, and social enterprises that have made remarkable progress and have a strong track record, but can’t get the funding they need to scale. This is often because philanthropists are focused on the next new thing, or endlessly doing due diligence on proven ideas to exert more control—when, instead, they should be making big bets on these ideas that are ready for scale and responding to a demand from people living in poverty.”
EM: “As people of privilege, power and means, if we are to really reshape philanthropy, realign power, and reshape the conversation, we need to embrace our ignorance as a strength. It gives us an opportunity to learn with grace and never make that mistake again. Look carefully at data, foster real relationships, be patient, and be in service to people who really want to transform their reality—because it’s their world that we are messing with.”
Liberating the Receiver, Not the Giver
AL: “ In essence, philanthropy should be about removing obstacles for people living in poverty. This is the culture we need to see, and it speaks to how we need to build partnerships between funders and grantees—in terms of how we observe and approach these issues. Niagara Bottling is a shining example of this.”
Over the years, Niagara has helped remove the financing barrier for Water.org—the leading non-profit bringing water access and sanitation to emerging markets primarily through microfinance—by giving $20 million in unrestricted funding and then passing the baton to the organization with full trust. This has allowed the organization to really scale, innovate, and create systemic change, helping over 34 million people to date. This is exactly the kind of giving that really moves the needle on major issues—something we don’t often see across mainstream philanthropy.
AL: “Kristen, as a funder, in your role overseeing philanthropic giving at Niagara Bottling, can you share why you took this approach, along with any other insights you might have? You’ve talked previously about how giving should not be about the giver, but about liberating the receiver.”
Kristen Venick (KV): “Absolutely. When our CEO at Niagara sat down with me about seven years ago, he charged me with creating a program that would have lasting systems change. While I felt so blessed to be a steward of Niagara Bottling’s philanthropic funds—my thought was that we would never have enough to create the kind of sustainable impact we were hoping to have. So, we had to be innovative, and collaborate and partner with people who knew what they were doing—social entrepreneurs—to figure out how to use each philanthropic dollar in a way that would really catalyze additional capital, and support solutions that were proven and could multiply and magnify the impact we wanted to have. I asked myself: How do we work together to achieve that?”
Recognizing that she wasn’t an expert in any of these systemic global issues, Kristen and the team at Niagara set out to find innovative social entrepreneurs who had been on the ground, doing this work for a number of years. They thought about it as building partnerships—investing in people and organizations who were the experts. After doing their due diligence, Kristen and her team’s goal was to fuel these organizations to scale their work instead of focusing on individual projects. For instance, Niagara Bottling went on to fund each chapter of Water.org’s and WaterEquity’s innovation journey for the next seven years, helping the organization transform $200 million in philanthropy into $2.6 billion in investment capital. This allowed them to help millions of women and their families gain access to micro-loans to meet their water and sanitation needs.
KV: “It’s not my job to micromanage how they go about their work. Once our due diligence is done, it’s my job to help propel these organizations forward so that we can collectively unleash the greatest level of impact.”
Taking Off the Training Wheels
AL: “This is exactly the kind of venture philanthropy we need to see more of today. We’re trying to address trillion-dollar issues, and we need funders to back us with full trust—and fund us as organizations rather than projects. In line with that, we want to bring you into the conversation, Sylvana, as an entrepreneur who is living this every day. You started an organization that has satisfied every possible metric, you’ve clearly succeeded—and yet you continue to be impacted by many of the fundraising challenges we mentioned today. You’ve seen firsthand where the gaps exist in philanthropy and impact investing. Can you talk to us about your experience? What needs to happen for transformation to occur?”
Sylvana Sinha (SS): “First of all, we need both men and women at the table to help us solve this problem. But Ellen said something very important earlier—that if you invest in women and girls, it changes entire communities. In the healthcare industry, 13% of CEOs in the U.S. are women. And yet, in the home, 65% of health workers are women, and 80% of healthcare decisions are made by women. So, there’s a disconnect. We need women in management positions, who can make decisions that can better serve women as the health decision-makers for their families.”
Sylvana went on to explain how most allocations of philanthropic funding and impact investments are going to developed nations like the U.S. and Europe, rather than emerging markets. And yet emerging nations—like Bangladesh—need it more than ever. For this reason, she intentionally started Praava Health as a for-profit business.
SS: “Too often, philanthropy is a Band-Aid—it’s training wheels—to help countries stand themselves up. But in a country like Bangladesh—which has been a real success story, and has grown from poverty to become a middle-income country—we’re at a stage where we now need private investment. We need private investment solutions. And we need to prove that this can work. Because when you throw money at a solution before you understand what a community really needs—like the PlayPump scenario—you waste money. But when you are held accountable to building businesses that serve communities and generate income, you end up coming up with solutions that make more sense for those communities. Countries like Bangladesh, Kenya, and Brazil don’t need us to save them. They need us to help them save themself.”
AL: “I would add here that philanthropy can be so powerful when it’s really catalyzing markets and responding to local demands. It’s helping create an ecosystem where global capital markets can then step in. But there needs to be a lot more synergy if we really want to see change happen in the world.”
SS: “Yes. And another important point is that microfinance and microlending is, without a doubt, a great tool. But once women take those businesses to the next level, there’s nobody there to fund those businesses. For me, that’s the real problem—and it goes back to power. So, women have some economic independence, but without being able to build and access wealth, they can’t build and access power. That’s where private investment is so crucial.”
The Dirty Secrets of Philanthropy
AL: “Eve, you’ve looked at these deeply entrenched issues wearing multiple hats—on one hand, as the Founder of Philanthropy Advisory Group, and most recently as the author of your book, Fair Play. So, my question is: Do you think we will see more transformation if there are more women with more wealth, and in all levels of leadership and decision-making—across government, in financial institutions, businesses, and non-profits? What if we’re living in a society that values equal participation from both women and men in childcare? Give us your insights.”
Eve Rodsky (ER): “One of the dirty secrets of philanthropy is that nobody gives to poverty, in terms of percentages. Most of the family philanthropists, at least in the U.S., are giving to their alma maters—to endowments. And they’re doing it so their grandkids can get in. 80% of philanthropy from the U.S. goes to universities and hospitals—and only 20% actually goes to poverty. So, if we want to talk about how to perpetuate wealth, there’s not much altruism happening in philanthropy—and I’m saying that as someone who’s been working in it for a decade. Not many resemble what Jeff Skoll has been able to accomplish.”
She highlighted how this country has been built on the backs of women—particularly black and Hispanic women—who take on a disproportionate amount of unpaid childcare and labor. Addressing this, and ensuring more women have wealth, is where she sees hope and the potential to change things.
ER: “I want more women to have access to wealth. That’s the only thing I care about. That’s what centers me. And to get women to a place where they have access to wealth, we have to increase their labor force participation rates.”
In talking with a German politician, Eve discovered something that had been done previously in Munich, Germany—a simple requirement that school kids come home from school for lunch. This wasn’t an attempt to directly discriminate against women. However, it did just that, ultimately lowering the labor force participation of women by a staggering degree.
ER: “If you think about it, we just did that same exact thing, due to COVID—on a global scale—undoing all that we’d accomplished over the past three decades. We lost 30 years of women’s labor force participation in one year.”
Eve’s point is this: At the end of the day, this is not going to be solved by philanthropy alone. It’s certainly a piece of it, but it’s not all of it. In order to get women to have access to wealth, we need men to equally participate in this invisible, unpaid childcare and housework that women currently take a majority of the responsibility for. If we can do that, we’ll begin to see women step into their full power outside the home.
The Multi-Generational Impact of Microfinance
AL: “Turning to Mandira—in the decisions you’re making at Capricorn, you’ve started to get creative in terms of how capital can be utilized to make much bigger investments in global issues, particularly in organizations who are ready for that. Just recently you and the team approved a first-of-its-kind mission-related investment (MRI) for WaterEquity’s $150 million Global Access Fund, to impact five million people. While foundations are increasingly encouraged to use a greater portio of their endowment to make these types of investments, not many are doing so. The current 5% payout allocated by foundations for investments and grants is hardly enough for what the world needs—and to scale ideas by social entrepreneurs that are working. Tell us a little about the factors that helped influence you and your team’s decision to make this $10 million MRI.”
Mandira Reddy (MR): “At Capricorn, we’ve been making impact investments long before some of the mainstream asset managers recognized the relevance of impact investing. And one thing I’ve found and want to highlight is that the power of microfinance should not be underestimated.”
She shared a personal anecdote of her father—who came from a small, water-starved village in south India. He was fortunate, in the sense that he had access to a very tiny amount of capital—likely akin to about $1 back then—which allowed him to move on to the next town and continue his education beyond the fourth grade. He went on to study medicine, and today he’s a doctor who lives a comfortable life of service.
MR: “The reason I share that is to demonstrate that the impact of something seemingly so small is truly multi-generational. It impacts entire societies. If my father hadn’t had access to that tiny amount of capital, the social and economic outcome for him would have been dramatically different. By extension, that outcome would have been very different for me and my entire family.”
Social entrepreneurial organizations who are out there doing work to change the system in a responsible, scalable manner are creating impact far beyond what first meets the eye, she says. Microfinance borrowers have access to capital at a reasonable cost, while investors can generate acceptable levels of risk-adjusted returns—making it a sustainable, long-term model.
MR: “It’s not just the nice thing to do. It’s also the smart thing to do. Particularly because this capital disproportionately impacts women. They historically have not been able to access capital at the same level that men have. As a result, they don’t have access to basic education. When you don’t have access to education, you don’t have access to a formal job—which means you cannot contribute to the economy. And that impacts generation after generation, creating a vicious cycle of poverty for millions of people. But this is where the capital really has the power to break the cycle and help people move forward. That is one of the critical factors that influenced our decision to invest in WaterEquity’s fund. Not only was there a strong track record that spoke for itself, but there was also an opportunity to scale a successful approach globally to help millions of women get access to affordable financing—and ultimately meet their water and sanitation needs. This was an opportunity to invest capital in a way that tangibly yields both financial and social impact returns. So, the question is: Why would we not invest?”
Creating a Relay Instead of a Race
AL: “That’s such an important point. That level of capital that comes from capital markets is crucial. It’s catalytic. And it’s definitely the key to solving these intractable global issues. Shivani—you’ve looked at this issue from so many different perspectives. You’ve talked to several Skoll Social Entrepreneurs; you’ve been a principal; and you’ve also helped shaped the Skoll Foundation’s newest global strategy. What’s your view?”
Shivani Patel (SP): “It feels important to circle back and discuss the intended purpose of philanthropy. For me, it’s about supporting the solutions and innovations that can meaningfully and positively change communities. Solutions that have the potential to be absorbed by the broader system, impacting the people and planet at a scale beyond what any one organization or entity can do alone. So, if that’s the promise of what we can fund, then philanthropy’s role is to provide that enabling environment for these social innovations—ideally providing catalytic risk capital. Moving with the urgency of the challenges we’re collectively hoping to address. And using the power that we ultimately do have to help connect dots to accelerate progress.”
She believes that a big part of this is reframing how we view risk.
SP: “We have to think about who we fund, how we fund, what proof we need before making a decision, how fast we can make a decision, and what we ask of people as funders.”
At the Skoll Foundation, Shivani often finds that doing the due diligence to really understand the work of social entrepreneurs is key—so that they can effectively tell their stories and become credible champions of their work. Ultimately, this will help them connect the dots between funders, partners, media, and other stakeholders.
SP: “The big question is: How do we create a relay, instead of a race, for funding? In the case of Water.org and WaterEquity, we know that these two organizations are striving to meet an $18 billion market demand from families living in poverty, who need access to microcredit loans to respond to their water and sanitation needs. Meeting that demand could ensure 600 million people in emerging markets have access to safe water and sanitation. And given the track record of these two organizations—we knew it was the right time to make a $10 million MRI in WaterEquity’s latest $150 million fund. Given the fund’s innovative structure, we were excited that this investment would unlock an additional $100 million in institutional capital to address the global water crisis. Economists estimate that solving the water and climate crises alone by 2030 carries a $1 trillion price tag. So, for us this catalytic approach made a lot of sense.”
Shivani pointed out that while systems change can be hard to measure—in the case of WaterEquity, for example, their investments have already demonstrated four years of a strong track record, and have impacted 1.7 million people. This is what catalytic risk capital is all about.
SP: “We thought it would be easy to bring along other foundations under this model, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, we found resistance and barriers that shouldn’t exist. So, if we as funders—like Kristen—can come back to our “why” of our work, then perhaps we can re-evaluate the “how” of our work. It’s also important to consider the “who”—and it’s so important to support more of these social innovators and grant workers. They certainly have the wisdom and firsthand insights to shift these systems.”
AL: “Thanks to all of these inspiring women for their insightful, igniting conversations today. We heard three key solutions that can tip the scale in philanthropy and impact investing:
- First, we need to put more capital in the hands of women. We need to ensure more women can generate greater wealth—and that starts with increasing women’s labor force participation, and ensuring men equally participate in childcare and domestic responsibilities.
- Second, we need more women in key leadership and decision-making roles.
- Third, philanthropy needs to be guided and inspired by the receiver—not the giver. This has been a big topic in philanthropy for decades. We need to learn from our past mistakes, and change power structures and dynamics in philanthropy. That starts with funding social entrepreneurial organizations that have a great track record, demonstrate innovation, respond to local demand, ensure more women from diverse backgrounds are in leadership roles, and make larger private-sector investments in communities, businesses, and emerging markets which have graduated from philanthropy. This is where transformation and systems change happens.
We’ll be continuing this conversation in the coming months on our podcast and YouTube channel: Philanthropy Unleashed. Check back on the Lebec Consulting website for further updates in June.”
About Lebec Consulting
Lebec Consulting is a female-led firm that specializes in advising corporations, foundations, high-net-worth individuals, financial institutions, and entrepreneurs on how to achieve their greatest social impact through strategic philanthropy and impact investments. With sustainability, innovation, and systems change at the center of our strategy, we think outside the box and look beyond traditional philanthropy. Our goal is to provide these key stakeholders with the best possible roadmap to achieve impact in ways that will truly reverse the tides of global inequality.