No Easy Answers for International Grantmakers

Ruth Levine

Private U.S. foundations give around $10 billion a year to organizations that work on social and environmental problems outside of the country, particularly in Africa, South Asia, and other low-income parts of the world. Since the early 2000s, international grantmaking has increased from about 14 to about 30 percent of all foundation giving, which itself has grown dramatically. Half of international giving today comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the remainder is from other large foundations. This includes well-established foundations such as the Ford, Rockefeller, Packard, and Hewlett Foundations, which have been working internationally for decades, as well as newer entrants like the Open Society Foundations, Skoll Foundation, Echidna Giving, Foundation for a Just Society, Luminate, Humanity United, and many others.

Making grants to work on problems in low-income countries is alluring for several reasons. After all, if poverty is the problem, surely money is part of the solution. Many of the health, education, sanitation, and other challenges seem amenable to technical fixes. From a distance, it’s easy to believe that the sorts of political and social complexities that we experience (and may be daunted by) in our own country are more solvable elsewhere. Innumerable reputable nonprofits can channel and account for financial support, and document numbers of people helped. And, unlike in domestic philanthropy, in which grantmakers get a healthy dose of reality in the daily news, international philanthropists tend to get most of their information mediated through grantees. For these reasons and others, sending money overseas can feel good — and easy.

But it shouldn’t feel that easy. The pull to act as global philanthropists, and the plaudits that come from giving generously — whether directly or indirectly — to people living without many of the basic comforts we enjoy, should be balanced with a large dose of humility and introspection. Foundations that make grants internationally have a profound responsibility to both articulate the reasoning behind their strategic choices and to recognize the risks that accompany foreign intervention. Specifically, every private U.S. foundation working internationally would be well advised to ask basic questions that are all too easy to gloss over:

  1. Why are we seeking to have an impact beyond U.S. borders?
  2. Do we know enough about the places in which we’re working?
  3. Under what circumstances do we work with foreign governments?
  4. How can we reduce our dependence on international NGOs?


Foundations working overseas are well advised to be clear with themselves and others about what they are seeking to achieve, not just within specific programs but across the entire institution. Clarity of purpose can mitigate the risk that foundations are seen as pursuing an American foreign policy or commercial agenda. Articulating a purpose at the institutional level can also help foundations that have multiple internationally oriented programs achieve internal coherence.

There are at least three reasons that might explain why an American foundation works internationally.

First, U.S. philanthropists may want to do the most good for the largest number of the most vulnerable. Given the prevalence of extreme poverty, the toll of manmade and natural humanitarian disasters, and the existence of low-cost interventions that can be highly successful, dollars from American foundations can be deployed to improve the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people. That’s far more aggregate good than could be achieved with the same dollars in the U.S.

Second, some foundations choose to work on problems that affect the U.S. but are intrinsically global. Climate change mitigation is the most prominent example, but not the only one. Work on cyber-threats, outbreaks of infectious diseases, immigration, and even domestic healthcare quality require a global lens because they are at heart about the cross-border flows of ideas, people, germs, and pollution.

Third, some international grantmaking is founded on the idea that a set of universal human rights must be protected regardless of where people live. The list of rights recognized by international bodies like the United Nations is long, ranging from protecting people from being intentionally silenced or harmed to ensuring that the state provides a basic set of services such as healthcare and education.

In an ideal world, foundations wouldn’t have to choose among these rationales, and could base their work on all simultaneously — contributing to improvements in people’s lives in ways that are consistent with universal human rights, and doing right by people elsewhere while sustaining our planet. In reality, though, there is often a tension. For example, actions to mitigate more intensive use of carbon-based technologies may be good for the planet but not so good for people who need light at night or a faster way to haul their harvest to market. Countries that have made the most progress to control infectious diseases and reduce poverty are not the ones with the strongest human rights records.

Confronting these tensions and tradeoffs can be complicated. But responsible philanthropy requires articulating a coherent rationale for international grantmaking, and then aligning priorities and practices with that rationale.

What’s really happening out there?

U.S. philanthropists often operate on second-hand and outdated information about the social, economic, and political conditions in the countries in which they seek to work. Western media coverage — as well as annual reports from international NGOs — tend to highlight the bad: disease, humanitarian disasters, conflict, poverty, and shortcomings in organizational capacity of local organizations. Beyond the remarkable pace of mobile phone adoption, however, many of the changes that have occurred over the past decade in low-income countries are simply not on the radar of people living elsewhere.

On the good side, this includes increases in scientific and technological capacity, professionalization of public service and civil society leadership, booming film and music industries, and thriving regional trade. On the bad side, it includes the emergence of very “first-world” issues like overuse of plastic, obesity, and abuse of prescription drugs.

U.S. foundations working internationally have an obligation to obtain and apply an up-to-date understanding of the contexts in which they operate. And because no one from outside can ever have as current and nuanced an understanding as those within, foundations need to work with local partners who do have that knowledge, and who are given the flexibility to respond to changing conditions.

Should we work with government?

Foundations — particularly those intent on relieving suffering and expanding opportunities for the most people — may see the path to large-scale impact running through government action: a policy change that has the potential to affect all citizens, or an NGO-developed pilot that gets expanded through public sector institutions. In these cases, foundations may design their grantmaking to be in alignment with stated government priorities, and as such may seek to build relationships with government officials. They may seek out grantees — both international NGOs and domestic ones — that are on good terms with public authorities. And they may avoid making grants to organizations that are out of favor with politicians in power. This is, in fact, increasingly the trend in international grantmaking, both because of the imperative to “scale up” and because of the attraction of public-private partnerships.

While working in alignment with government can yield positive results, a foundation’s decision to do so may have long-term unintended consequences for the country and its citizens, and as such needs to be taken with eyes wide open about the risks. As is true for other types of external aid, a relationship with a foundation may make government feel more accountable to outsiders than to its own domestic constituencies. And when a foundation spends directly on government-defined priorities, it is typically not building up the capacity of civil society organizations that work to expose corrupt practices, highlight government abuses, or otherwise hold government officials to account through “naming and shaming.”

Because of this, and by putting additional resources in the hands of the public sector, a foundation’s investments may inadvertently slow political transitions. Thinking through these tradeoffs can help foundations make good, informed choices about when to work with government — and when to walk away.

Should we work with international NGOs?

By far the most common mode of international grantmaking is to provide support to international NGOs, which then implement programs through country offices and/or under arrangements with domestic NGOs, often referred to as “local partners.” In fact, the Council on Foundations and the Foundation Center found that between 2011 and 2015, about 88 percent of all dollars granted for international work went to organizations based outside of the country in which the work was implemented.

Foundations have many practical and strategic reasons to support international NGOs. In general, it is easier to make grants to organizations that have significant administrative capacity and professional fundraising staff. In addition, international NGOs are also often able to cull and curate experience from the various countries in which they work in order to optimize their strategies. And international NGOs can connect in-country advocates and practitioners to a global community for expertise, solidarity, and influence.

But the reliance on international NGOs ignores the growing professional and organization capacity in low-income countries, and comes at a steep price. Support to in-country organizations can help build a dynamic civil society that gives voice to the needs of key communities. In-country NGOs are very likely to have contextual understanding and connections to local community members and elites that permit them to contribute to sustained and systemic change. And because these organizations are not financing infrastructure and staffing in headquarters in multiple countries, they may be able to do more with less.

While direct grantmaking to in-country organizations is not desirable or feasible in every situation, foundations can and should do much more to correct the historical imbalance toward international partners.

No easy answers

Increasingly, philanthropic organizations working on tough social, economic, and environmental problems in the United States are being asked to reflect on whether they are helping to fix broken systems — or sustain them. Though the same challenging questions are not yet being asked as insistently of international grantmakers, there is no doubt that they are on the way.

It is certainly time for U.S. foundations to recognize and grapple with the difficult tradeoffs in their international work — and to match their commitment to doing good around the world with serious and ongoing reflection about their motivation and means.

Ruth Levine is a policy fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and formerly director of the Global Development and Population Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthLevine5.

government, international philanthropy, role of government
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