What Have You Learned That Changed the Way You Give Internationally?

From the Winter 2012 symposium on international giving

“Knowledge of Local Customs”

By Jeffrey Solomon


The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies are active throughout the U.S., Canada, and Israel, and we’ve observed and learned many things about the challenges of international work. Philanthropies working overseas need strong directors and program staff on the ground. And by that, I mean those who are part of or wired to the cultural DNA. (In Israel, for instance, there is no Hebrew word capturing the notion of “accountability.”) Knowledge of local customs and nuances is often the difference between success or failure. So a strong staff that bridges that conceptual void is essential.

Sub-granting for Extra Effectiveness

By Steven M. Hilton


When you find a really outstanding organization—like the Perkins School for the Blind—and you want to take programs to a global scale, you learn that the grant recipient is in a stronger position to make sub-grants to smaller partner organizations that can really make a program work. They understand the scope of the challenges ahead and can make quick, informed judgments on how best to provide support. It boils down to leveraging their knowledge and trusting their expertise. We help define the overall direction of our programs, but a portion of our grants are often sub-granted to local organizations, making the gift far more effective, like ripples in a pond.

“Focus on Efficient Impact”

By David Weekley


With so much charity going to “feel good” projects, we’ve placed a premium on supporting organizations that deliberately measure their impact on the lives of the poor. We work with partners like One Acre Fund (1AF) to define milestones for the grant that align with their mission, activities, and desired impact. This has clarified for us a shared set of standards for success. A key number for 1AF is increased income, and it’s important to calculate the donor cost to produce that change, which gives us an indication of cost-effectiveness. 1AF turns a donated $1 into more than $10 of additional income to subsistence farmers. We’ve learned to focus on efficient impact, rather than personal anecdotes or tallies of actions.

“Context Is Critical”

By Steven J. McCormick

Photo courtesy of the Nature Conservancy

In my experience, context is critical. If we don’t work to check our assumptions and understand the local context and culture of a place, we won’t address the root causes or have the global impact we seek. As a U.S.-based foundation supporting organizations to work internationally, we have to make sure we’re aligned with the interests of local communities. And when we’re giving internationally, we try to understand political power structures so we can adapt our advocacy, strategic communications, and government relations grantmaking accordingly.

Two Complicated Transactions

By Fred Smith

There are two transactions that are complicated in international grantmaking. The first is finding a vehicle that is cost-effective for making grants to foreign nonprofits. The second is getting reliable, timely information back on the gift. Stewardship Trust in London is over 100 years old and provides this service for more than 25,000 clients, who make over $70 million in grants each year. (They also administer the complexities of Gift Aid for British citizens making gifts outside the U.K.) It is a very valuable and efficient service.

Learning from Overseas Partners

By Lynn Schusterman


Funding effectively outside of the United States requires more than working diligently, strategically, and efficiently. It is also about working collaboratively and cooperatively with local partners who can enhance your chances of achieving substantive change. Respecting and appreciating the local culture is important; patience is essential. Perhaps my most important discovery from working internationally is just how much you can learn, about yourself and the issues you care about, from your overseas partners. The flow of knowledge and inspiration goes both ways, and you sometimes have as much to gain as to give when funding overseas.


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