Taking risks and innovating is our role, now the wider sector must reap the rewards

Philanthropy has a unique role to play in enabling new and innovative practices to take hold within the broader aid ecosystem. But trying something new and innovative requires taking risks and learning from them. 

Governments, and bilateral and multilateral donors such as USAID or the World Bank, are accountable to the public, so they are understandably more risk-averse in funding and trialling new humanitarian approaches and initiatives that might not work out as planned. Quite often within the traditional aid sector, failure is just seen as failure, not as a learning opportunity. 

Philanthropy has a lot more flexibility than governments, bilateral and multilateral donors. We can take bigger risks. With risk comes a chance of failure, but also an opportunity to learn new and innovative ways of doing things.

There are corporate, foundation and individual donors that lean into this mindset. It’s an approach we invite other funders to adopt. Our investments in funding new approaches, pilots, research and evidence generate impact and also provide learning and insights that other humanitarian actors with greater funding potential can build on and scale up.

Some big philanthropic institutions want hard evidence on impact, backed by very rigorous, often quantitative, applied research and evaluation. They are committed to generating learning on what works and what doesn’t, using big data, making sure there are strong indicators and learning is being applied on a continuous basis. For many in philanthropy, that probably comes from the private sector background and the business mindset. 

At the other end of the spectrum, a strong moral movement has emerged within philanthropy in the last few years, alongside the broader calls for the decentralisation and decolonisation of aid: shifting power, agency and decision-making to proximate actors within the humanitarian system and, beyond that, directly to people in the communities being served. 

Trust-based philanthropy is about redistributing power and transferring trust to partners and local actors to do their own learning, monitoring and evaluation, and reporting back. Trust-based philanthropists make a commitment to building relationships based on transparency, dialogue and mutual learning.

The Strengthening Local Humanitarian Leadership Collaborative, for which the Center for Disaster Philanthropy acts as secretariat, was born out of the World Humanitarian Summit and the Grand Bargain commitment to localisation. A group of philanthropic funders, initially US-based and now international, came together to learn how to better localise and decolonise its grantmaking approaches, policies and practices, to strengthen local leadership and have more equitable partnerships within the humanitarian system between donors and local implementing actors. 

Together, the collaborative’s members have created the space to listen to local leaders, learn from each other’s approaches, share ideas and best practices, and co-fund and collaborate on new projects, initiatives and innovation that advance localisation and equity in practice. 

One such example is Adeso’s social enterprise, Durdur Water Enterprise, in Somalia. CDP, along with funders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Comic Relief and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation all supported Adeso to build the infrastructure from the ground up to provide clean, affordable, reliable, and long-term water solutions for rural Somalia. 

Adeso says it is ‘proud that Durdur Water Enterprise is truly community-driven, and it is an example of locally-led development in action. Hundreds – soon to be thousands – of households in Somalia have piped, clean drinking water in their homes. Durdur is truly disrupting the system’.

Where there would otherwise be a lack of investment in testing out and learning new ways of working within the humanitarian system, philanthropy can be that initial spark and funding engine.  

It was primarily philanthropy that seed-funded the early days of the cash programming movement. Those first funders provided financial support for cash programming in various sectors and the coordination, working groups and research that enabled cash to become proven as an effective, trusted form of assistance and to be implemented at scale. 

CDP and some peer funders are doing the same with our support of community-informed approaches, learning how to do things differently, such as with the survivor and community-led response programming approach or by measuring community perceptions of aid using appreciative inquiry and demand-driven approaches, instead of rigid needs assessments that are more supply-driven.

There can be frustration at how slow the wider humanitarian sector picks up tried and tested approaches and innovations created with philanthropic funding, and with the entrenched mechanisms and incentives for structures to remain the same. Donors can coalesce around new community-led approaches/solutions and, in learning with our grantee partners, prove they work, but for the humanitarian system itself to adopt some of these new approaches/solutions would require organisations to give up power. It can feel like trying to turn the Titanic. And good initiatives often fail as a result.

For example, philanthropists have invested in supporting an initiative focused on community accountability mechanisms where there’s a constant feedback loop, so agencies and donors can participate in a continuous learning cycle about what’s working and what’s not working with their programming approaches. But philanthropy can only fund these initiatives for so long. The mainstream humanitarian system will need to find a way for accountability mechanisms to be adopted and systematically embedded to become sustainable. We learned recently that one of these major initiatives is about to go into hibernation. As philanthropists supporting these partner-led learning initiatives to get off the ground, we are saddened by the lost opportunity to achieve real impact. 

Local humanitarian actors always say they want donors to coordinate and collaborate better. Cross pollination of learning between the different types of funders is the biggest gap I see. So, I would encourage greater collaboration and coordination between philanthropy and other governmental, bilateral and multilateral donors. 

We recognise our space within the ecosystem of donors, being able to take greater risks and innovate, pilot and document, generate evidence and learning and make that available to other donors and humanitarian actors. 

My hope is for the philanthropic and humanitarian sectors to leverage this innovation and learning more. I encourage donors to view philanthropy as a valuable resource for learning. There is so much evidence and learning already out there showing new and different ways of addressing community needs and gaps that can actually translate into more and better impact.

It’s time to apply that learning and affect systems change.