Maximum Impact

by Robert Nolan

Assessing global philanthropy — and strategic partnerships — in an age of funding gaps
A lecture hall at the Université Dakar-Bourguiba in Senegal. (Photo: Andia/UIG via Getty Images)

Foundations have long played a central role in the development and sustenance of the social sector. Today, when federal budget cuts — and even a potential overhaul to the U.S. tax code — could put the work of nonprofit and educational institutions substantially at risk, many expect foundations to fill this widening funding gap.

How can foundations, which seek to resolve, or at least move the ball forward on some of the biggest challenges facing the world at a given moment, maximize their impact?

One answer: through strategic partnerships.

In his recent book, Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Fabrice Jaumont, the education attaché for the Embassy of France to the United States, offers an important case study on one of the most ambitious foundation collaborations ever undertaken, the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHEA). The brainchild of the presidents of five prestigious American foundations at the turn of the 21st century, the PHEA sought to support the “indispensable contribution of higher education to social and economic development” in Africa and accelerate the “processes of comprehensive modernization and strengthening of universities in selected countries.”

Spearheaded by the Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation of New York (and later, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and The Kresge Foundation), the endeavor emerged amid a new global push for development in Africa. Through coordinated investment in higher education, the PHEA sought nothing less than to “unleash the talents of the continent for the well-being of its people and those beyond its borders.”

Over a decade, the Partnership injected nearly half a billion dollars into the sector.

Jaumont mostly approves of this collaborative initiative, citing many of the PHEA’s positive outcomes. For example, by subsidizing the laying of fiber optic cables, African universities were brought online, leading to greater collaboration among African research centers. Evaluation data also indicates that the $10 million invested in academic scholarships for women was a worthy effort; this aspect of the Partnership resulted in more than 1,000 female students obtaining postgraduate degrees. Other investments pumped into the continent’s higher education system produced better-trained public servants, higher-quality talent in the fields of agriculture and public health, and a new generation of postdoctoral academics.

The Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHEA) sought to support the “indispensable contribution of higher education to social and economic development” in Africa and accelerate the “processes of comprehensive modernization and strengthening of universities in selected countries.”

The Partnership also helped stimulate additional interest and — critically — funding from institutions like the United Nations, the African Union, and the World Bank, all of which now acknowledge the importance of higher education in their strategic manifestos for the continent’s development.

More intriguing, though, are Jaumont’s insights, gleaned from dozens of interviews with those tapped to operationalize and execute the PHEA, into the ways foundations collaborate. Herein lies the book’s real value to the philanthropic sector.

The author’s particular focus — on the institutional culture, leadership, and funding priorities of the various foundation partners — yields interesting results.

Although foundations are often viewed as monolithic, impersonal institutions, Jaumont writes that (thankfully!) philanthropic organizations are in fact “all made of flesh and bone, served by program officers, directors, staff, vice-presidents and presidents, board members, and grantees with different takes on how philanthropy should impact a given field.”

Think of the complex dynamics occurring within even a single organization. The Partnership was an unprecedented collaboration among seven major foundations. Factor in their “distinct, even contrasting, institutional cultures, missions, strategies, and philosophies of development.” This was no small order. Here, the study offers some valuable lessons.

The PHEA, Jaumont writes, was largely a presidential initiative, and the foundation grantmakers cited in Unequal Partners are candid about the many challenges they faced in executing the initiative’s goals among multiple, senior-level stakeholders. “The difficult role that the people who sat around the table had is that they were able to discuss ideas but often were not able to come to a decision at the table because they needed to go back to their foundations and check,” says Janice Petrovich, a program director at Ford Foundation during the PHEA collaboration. “And it took a long time for any kind of joint product to emerge, because the presidents had to be on board.” Petrovich’s sentiments about the efficiency of collaborative grantmaking are echoed by many of her colleagues interviewed by Jaumont.

On the plus side, the presidents of the partnering foundations brought with them an unprecedented amount of credibility in the field of higher education. At the time of its launch, each of the five partner foundations was led by a former university president. Foundation presidents, Jaumont writes, lent further credibility and expertise to the Partnership by hiring African higher education leaders to work as program directors and officers.

Nevertheless, Jaumont concludes, an overreliance on presidential leadership (alongside grant term limits and the global financial crisis of 2008) was a driving factor in the PHEA’s sunset in 2010. “The decision to terminate the Partnership became a reality when the boards of Ford Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation changed their presidents,” he writes.

Jaumont seems overly concerned with the geographic preferences of the Partnership. A majority of grants went to universities in Anglophone African countries, but, as Jaumont himself acknowledges, it is not uncommon for American foundations to prioritize work in English-speaking countries. This inevitably leads to greater ties between donor and recipient countries — ties that could be viewed through a geostrategic lens, but are likely more representative of historic trends and affinities that help facilitate grantmaking rather than a deliberate tool of American foreign policy. For example, some of the foundations involved, including Carnegie Corporation of New York, are by charter restricted to grantmaking in current or former countries of the British Commonwealth.

Despite this slight preoccupation, Unequal Partners does raise some important, if unresolved questions about the alignment of international grantmaking with American foreign policy priorities, perceived or actual. Jaumont looks at previous academic research on philanthropy and hegemony to better understand whether initiatives like the PHEA “help maintain an economic and political order, international in scope, which benefits the ruling-class interests of philanthropists” (as Robert Arnove has written), or are truly more benevolent in their motivations. Donors’ ability to shape the public agenda is a hot topic, most recently explored in The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, the new book from David Callahan, the founder and editor of the digital media site Inside Philanthropy.

Deciphering philanthropic intent is a complex task, but Jaumont believes that American foundations “have succeeded in increasing the visibility and importance of higher education on the African continent,” resulting in “larger investments from all stakeholders and a shift toward modernization, institutionalization, and internationalization.” The institutional beneficiaries of the PHEA may not see it that way, but even if they don’t, it’s a club they were probably happy to join.

“After their contribution, there is nothing that the foundations can do because they have contributed to raising the issue and focusing the minds of involved groups of people,” a vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town tells Jaumont. “Beyond that, it’s really up to the universities involved and their respective governments to do something about it, and that is where the challenge still remains.” Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Vartan Gregorian, who wrote the foreword to Jaumont’s study, cites Ghanaian Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations and onetime member of the Corporation’s board of trustees, as “the primary source of inspiration” for the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. The initiative, Gregorian continues, “should not be considered an end, but a beginning and, we hope, an inspiration to those in the philanthropy, education, and development fields.”

As cuts to federal funding for both education and international development are considered by elected officials in the U.S., philanthropic institutions, where the political will exists, may seek to partner in an effort of solidarity to fill potential funding gaps. Offering a timely case study into one such effort, Unequal Partners is worthy of consultation.

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Fabrice Jaumont | Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa | Palgrave Macmillan. | 170 pp. | 2016 | ISBN 978–1–137–59347–4 | More about this book

Robert Nolan is executive director of communications and content strategy at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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