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Could aggregated philanthropy be a catalyst for large-scale change? Olivia Leland, founder of global donor collaborative Co-Impact, is betting yes.

Olivia Leland believes there is power in numbers. As the founder and CEO of Co-Impact, a global donor initiative that not only pools funds but knowledge, she is at the forefront of a growing trend of collaborative philanthropy working to build partnerships that are greater than the sum of their parts. The goal of this model is systems change: Co-Impact aims to improve education, health and economic opportunity for millions of people in Africa, South Asia and Latin America over the next five years. But its legacy could also stretch beyond that. For Leland, who was also founding director of the Giving Pledge, it has the potential to mark the start of a new blueprint for global and impact-focused giving.
Q. Can you tell us how Co-Impact developed, and your path to collaborative philanthropy?
My entire career has been spent in the social sector, mainly working around how to drive more impact in the world. The Giving Pledge began life as a half-page memo, and it took a year and a half to really build it out and to launch it. One of the questions that came out of that process was, once people commit to philanthropy, what more can be done to drive more effective giving? I was interested in the next phase after commitment, and in identifying the infrastructure that would be needed to support it.

I was funded by two Giving Pledgers to look into that question, and I spent a year interviewing everyone I could find and reading everything I could to understand what more could be done to drive more effective giving. The idea for Co-Impact really came out of that.

What we know from the Giving Pledge experience is that by learning from other leading philanthropists and piggybacking on their experiences, we can translate that into impact for millions of people.

Q. What were the findings that helped shape your thinking?
I had hundreds of conversations with nonprofit leaders, people in government and philanthropists all around the world. Some of the points we landed on were that philanthropists – especially individual philanthropists or those with small family foundations – found it challenging to identify opportunities and develop and support them. One philanthropist said: "I would love to have a way that I could write a significant cheque, but I don’t know where or how I could do that, and I have four people on my team."

When I asked nonprofit leaders what they’d like to see from philanthropy, it was longer-term funding, and support that went beyond financial resources. Most of those I spoke with – even those with proven and impactful models – said they were reaching only one or two per cent of the people they felt they could be. So the question became: how do we pivot in order to ensure philanthropy is better suited to supporting large-scale change?

Q. How does Co-Impact’s model aim to answer those questions?
The premise of Co-Impact is firstly, to benefit millions of people in low and middle-income countries by supporting proven initiatives in the areas of health, education and economic opportunity. And secondly, to create a global community of philanthropists, social change leaders, governments, businesses and others, who are focused on driving systems change. We’re bringing people together around a joint goal.

Q. And what does that engagement look like?
So there are three ways philanthropists can engage: core partners typically put $50m over 10 years into the pool, and they also select the opportunities we support and advise on our strategy. Then we have co-investors, who support individual opportunities. They can be philanthropists, foundations, bilaterals or multilaterals, and other types of funders as well. Then we have the Co-Impact community, which is a much broader group of funders from around the world who typically commit $500,000 a year for a three-year term, and they also vote on the initiatives we support. That group tends to engage quite deeply on the learning side too, through our webinars and our learning trips.

We’ve intentionally built Co-Impact as a flexible platform, recognising that philanthropy is deeply personal and people come looking for different things, and because having others at the table is hugely helpful in terms of what we each can bring. It’s very important that we have global reach.

On the programme partner side of things – our grantees - we’re looking to support initiatives working to bring about systems change.

Q. Co-Impact launched with a remarkable list of partners – from Jeff Skoll to the Rockefeller Foundation – and planned funding of $500m. Why has it resonated so strongly with philanthropists?
I think there’s two things: philanthropy in itself has huge potential, but at the same time we have to recognise that it can’t do everything. Our partners see value in coming together to drive more impact in the world and they see the role collaborative philanthropy can play in making that happen. It’s a model that allows for larger-scale efforts continued over the longer term – and it also allows you to push and learn from one another. I think there’s a real desire for that. We’re starting to see our community members going out and talking to their peers about why they value being part of Co-Impact, how it’s helping them, and getting the word out about collaborative philanthropy. We’re excited to see the community grow in that way.

“Philanthropy in itself has huge potential but at the same time we have to recognise that it can’t do everything.”

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Co-Impact funds proven initiatives delivering long-term and sustainable development gains to people in low and middle-income countries. Photo: Getty Images.
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Discover more: Curbing a crisis

Co-Impact in April launched a fund to help channel money to partner initiatives involved in the frontline response to the coronavirus pandemic. Donors can give directly through the fund to support the work of Liberia’s National Community Health Assistant Program and Project Echo, two organisations with a particular focus on community health workers.

Project ECHO is developing a learning curriculum of best practices around virus prevention and treatment to share with its global partners, which will reach an estimated 100,000 community health professionals. Meanwhile, in Liberia, Co-Impact is paying for a range of activities, including support for the health ministry around the purchase of protective equipment for health workers; the development of Covid-19 training materials; and the provision of food, social, and medical support to isolating patients.

Q. You’ve completed two rounds of grant funding to date. Can you tell us about your approach?
We offer three types of grants: the first are ‘design’ grants. These go to a small group of initiatives to help them build out their plans and show what, with five years of significant support, they think they could achieve. We’ve found a lot of social change leaders already have something of a plan in place and are reaching maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of people extremely effectively. This stage gives them the time and funding to identify what it would take from that, to get to system-wide impact. We then have a decisions round and our core partners decide which initiatives to move forward with.

Then we have systems change grants, which are usually between $10m and $25m over five years, but can be more or less. Beneficiary initiatives also receive a wide variety of non-financial and technical support. Lastly, and in a small set of cases, we do venture grants as well, which are for really promising earlier-stage efforts. In our first round we supported citiesRISE, which is an amazing coalition of organisations working to improve mental health treatment in cities around the world. We provided two years of funding to them.

Q. Why did you choose the first-round projects you did?
Between them, the five partners reach around 9 million people in the areas of advancing education, improving health and providing economic opportunity. And in each instance, they were led by tremendous social change leaders, who have had proven results over many years, supported by a host of partners. They are a chance to make truly systems-level change that reaches millions of people. Just as an example, one is a health worker coalition, which is working to ensure that every Liberian has access to basic healthcare. The programme is a partnership between Last Mile Health, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and other NGOs, as well as the Liberian Ministry of Health. This is a model that could be scaled and sustained and used as an example for countries facing similar challenges.

Q. Many philanthropy initiatives reflect giving structures seen in developed rather than emerging regions. How are you ensuring Co-Impact is inclusive?
We recognise there are differences across countries and across regions in terms of philanthropy. In many of our conversations with philanthropists, we found there was a desire to keep their money in the region. So it’s up to us to find ways to make that happen as we build out our portfolio. We don’t have any grantees in the Middle East yet, for example, but we’re having great conversations with philanthropists and funders in the region to understand who we could actively partner with.

Ultimately, there are amazing efforts and ideas all over the world, so it’s about finding opportunities that connect on a global level, as well as having those region-specific discussions.

Q. There’s been a rise in public criticism of high-level philanthropy that describes it as elitist and representing a narrow band of interests. How would you respond to that?
It’s helpful to question what role philanthropy could and should play in the world, and how it can do better. I think the key is for those in philanthropy to listen, and to recognise how to partner most effectively with others. That’s something our partners are very conscious of, and there’s been a lot of work done on incorporating feedback from the communities that we’re working with. Our job as Co-Impact is to look for what others are learning, to adapt those tools and to share them.

If we truly want to have impact on millions of people, then collaboration is essential. We need philanthropists and other funders to look at how they can partner with government, multilaterals, social change leaders and civil society. In order to drive the sort of change that’s needed, no single actor can do it alone. – PA

“If we truly want to have impact for millions of people, then collaboration is essential.”

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Co-Impact grants focus on projects that deliver systems change. Photo: Getty Images.

Co-Impact’s first-round grants represented $80m in funding awarded across five opportunities in education, health, poverty and more.  Its second-round grants, awarded in January 2020, extended support to a further six initiatives in sectors including agriculture, youth empowerment and education. Here’s a snapshot of the initiatives and their work:  

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 First-round partners  

citiesRISE is building a global network of cities and communities seeking to transform approaches to mental health access and care for youth. Beginning with Nairobi, Chennai, Bogota, Sacramento and Seattle, it aims to leverage research, technology and a coalition of partners to develop and scale community-based solutions. Co-Impact’s grant accelerated its work in Nairobi and Chennai, where it is focused on improving young people’s awareness and access to mental health support.

Liberia’s National Community Health Assistant Program provides communities in rural Liberia with access to primary healthcare through the creation of a paid health workforce for the country’s most remote regions. With support from Co-Impact and an alliance of partners, it aims to provide primary care access to 1.2 million people over five years, reducing child death by a fifth, and creating a model that could be adapted elsewhere.  

Teaching at the Right Level – Africa is a joint venture between India NGO Pratham and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). In partnership with African governments and civil society partners, it is working to reshape national and state education systems to ensure every child acquires skills in literacy and numeracy. With Co-Impact’s support, TaRL Africa expects to improve foundational learning outcomes for 3 million students, with the potential to benefit millions more as it expands.  

Project ECHO uses technology to link frontline healthcare workers with specialist teams in remote medical centres. Through weekly virtual clinics, specialists build the capacity of local healthcare workers to diagnose and treat patients with chronic and complex diseases, in their own communities. Co-Impact is helping to scale its work in India, where the project is focused on transforming healthcare for up to 6 million people, with a view to further global growth.

The Graduation Approach is a global and multi-stakeholder approach to help governments adapt and deploy strategies to raise household incomes and reduce poverty. Co-Impact is working with programme partners Jeevika, Fundación Capital, and the Partnership for Economic Inclusion. Over five years, it is anticipated that more than 1 million people will have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty in India and Latin America, and a strong global partnership will support more governments to serve the extreme poor.

Second-round partners 

CAP Youth Empowerment Institute (CAP YEI) aims to transform the technical and vocational training sector in Kenya by adapting a demand-led and market-sensitive approach to skills training and support. This initiative aims to benefit 1.1 million youth over a five-year period and influence $44m in government spending commitments to the sector.

DG Murray Trust, a foundation,and Ilifa Labantwana, an education-focused NGO, are working on a coalition-driven initiative to design and strengthen the delivery of early childhood development (ECD) services in South Africa. This will include the expansion of early learning through social franchise delivery platforms, with the overall goal of ensuring nationwide access to basic ECD services by 2025.

The Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator partners with governments, businesses, and young people to tackle youth unemployment in South Africa. Using a youth-centered, demand-led, and technology-enabled approach, the initiative plans to build new pathways to shift 3 million young South Africans from learning to earning by 2025.

Promise of Commons is an initiative of the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) targeting environmental health and economic wellbeing in rural India. Over five years, it plans to build on the existing ties between government and non-government organisations, as well as support village communities in their management of 30 million acres of collectively-held land and water resources, with the goal of improving economic outcomes for 38 million people.

Lend A Hand India works alongside state governments to integrate skill education into existing school curricula and create internship opportunities to help facilitate the school-to-work transition. Over five years, the initiative seeks to deepen its partnerships with government in selected Indian states to allow 2.5 million more high-school students to benefit from the integration of skill education into mainstream schooling.

One Acre Fund seeks to drive economic and social impact through agriculture in up to eight countries in East Africa. The project seeks to introduce “better breeds” through access to seed, livestock, and trees. With support from Landesa, a global rural development nonprofit, and other partners, it also hopes to bolster land security among smallholder farmers. The programme is targeting long-term improvements to whole-country farm systems,  as well as $400m in incremental profit across approximately 3 million farm families.