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5 Minutes with a Social Agitator – Caroline Bressan of Open Road Alliance on fast, flexible contingency funding in the philanthropic sector

For the first edition of “5 minutes with a social agitator,”* we sat down with Caroline Bressan,  the Director of Social Investments at Open Road Alliance. Open Road is a private philanthropic initiative that provides grant capital to non-profits for mid-implementation projects facing an unexpected roadblock or a sudden catalytic opportunity. Let’s jump in…

In a nutshell, what big global problem are you trying to solve, and how?

Open Road Alliance is trying to make philanthropy more efficient by bringing better management risk practices to the sector. We step in when a project runs into an unexpected roadblock but the original donor can’t – or doesn’t want to – provide the additional funding needed to get over that roadblock. So if you have a $1 million project that runs into an $100,000 unexpected challenge, Open Road Alliance foots the bill to get the project back on track. It’s like we’re paying $100,000 for $1 million of impact – it just makes sense.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that we (as funders) are leaving a lot of impact on the table because of the constraints of institutions. I like to think of what we do as “keeping impact on track” or preserving the ROI of the original funder’s investment.

Here’s one story I can tell you to make it more concrete: One of the common roadblocks we see is “organization misfortune” – like fraud or robbery. We had a social enterprise in Ghana whose European CEO contracted dengue fever for the second time. It turns out that when you have dengue more than once, the mortality rate skyrockets. So, this CEO had to leave the country entirely for health reasons. Open Road Alliance funded the hiring of a COO to manage day-to-day operations so the social enterprise didn’t go under.

If you could get two groups that don’t usually collaborate to work together in some way to help solve a global challenge, what would that look like?

I guess this answer is a little bit cheesy, but I would want to get funders and grantees in the same room to look at the power dynamics in that relationship and disrupt the balance. We see so many grantees or nonprofits that are afraid to tell their funders when something goes wrong because they fear future funding repercussions – and many of them have reason to be afraid of that based on what’s happened in the past. If grantees don’t feel comfortable sharing, then funders won’t know what the real issues are. We need to invest in these funder-grantee relationships to keep them strong, and funders must be accountable to their grantees.

Tell us a story of a time something went massively wrong with your work, and how you rebounded.

I was working in microfinance at the peak of the financial crisis in 2009. I was one of two people on the Calvert Foundation’s international team, and the other was my boss, who was out on maternity leave. We had a lot of loans out to microfinance institutions, fair trade coffee collaboratives, etc.

Every day we heard more news out of Europe about  economies collapsing and other negative impacts. I felt like I was failing because I hadn’t predicted this and there was a lot more risk in my portfolio than I anticipated. (In retrospect, I don’t think anyone predicted it, so I feel okay.) But in those moments, there was actually a very positive experience for me. I got to work on a bunch of loan restructures,  including with lender groups where we negotiated how one organization would pay all of us back without pushing them into bankruptcy.  It was very political and involved a lot of intense negotiation, but it showed me how to navigate the backend of lending and  the sticky situations where things go wrong. Until that point I had only seen the good side of lending.

What advice do you have for other “social agitators” driving urgent global change?

At the end of the day, you need to get out there and test your hypothesis. Open Road Alliance is learning by doing. To date, we’ve made over 100 grants and loans to organizations that run into unexpected roadblocks. This portfolio has turned into our data set for thinking through how to better prepare nonprofits and social enterprises for managing through the unexpected.  Ultimately all our insights comes from real situations we’ve encountered in the field; we’re not calling up nonprofits and asking them what roadblocks they’ve encountered.

You can collect all the data in the world, and at the end of the day, you’re not going to know if it works until you try it. Instead of getting stuck in a cycle of analysis paralysis, what would happen if you just jumped to trying it?

If you had control over significant philanthropic funding, what “big bet” would you fund?

It’s great because what I would do is very aligned with what I’m doing now at Open Road Alliance. I see a real need for working capital loans for the social sector. So many of the roadblocks we see could have been solved if the organization had access to lines of finance.

When I started working in microfinance, the field was seen as this silver bullet to end poverty. What it really acted as was a cash management tool for the working poor – it stopped them from dropping down to the ultra poor rung.

I see contingency and bridge funding as playing that role at the organizational level. Nonprofits and social enterprises don’t usually have access to sustainable financing from a bank (loans, credit lines, etc.), so these organizations that are doing the hard work are one shock away from closing shop. Contingency funding can act as a product that prevents that.

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*This post is part of GDI’s series “5 Minutes with a Social Agitator.” We define social agitators as people driving urgent change around the world using unorthodox approaches that cut across silos. If you would like to be featured or get in touch with GDI, contact us here.

GDI incubating Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, new public-private anti-slavery initiative

GDI is pleased to announce its incubation of the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS), a public-private initiative focused on sustainably ending modern slavery by making it economically unprofitable.

According to recent estimates released by Alliance 8.7, an estimated 40.3 million people around the world are affected by modern slavery, a term that encompasses forced labor, sex trafficking, and domestic servitude. Modern slavery generates $150 billion in criminal profits each year, yet existing efforts to combat it do not begin to meet the scale and complexity of the problem.

In response to these particular challenges, GFEMS’ bold approach to eradicating modern slavery anchors on four principles: 1) creating a coherent, global strategy; 2) raising resources to match the scale of the problem; 3) ensuring clear accountability and action by developing national strategies that will ultimately be co-owned and co-funded by partner countries; and 4) promoting proactive business engagement and market-based solutions.

GDI will serve as an operational partner to GFEMS for its first three years of ramp-up. GDI will provide integrated strategic, programmatic, and operational support – in areas ranging from investment strategy to team structuring and recruiting, and everywhere in between – to ensure the initiative’s long-term impact.

GFEMS has already made marked progress in raising resources dedicated to fighting modern slavery with commitments of $25M and £20M from the the U.S. State department and the UK’s Department for International Development, respectively.

The 25 Most Responsible Asset Allocators – GDI and partners release new leaders list

No sensible asset allocator would willingly invest in companies that pollute the environment, exploit labor, or operate unethically. This is especially true for global sovereign wealth funds (SWF) and government pension funds (GPF) that represent a significant share of the world’s $70 trillion in institutional investor assets. Many have begun incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risk metrics into their portfolio selection process. However, this trend, while promising, is far from universal, and the total amount of capital deployed based on responsible investment practices remains far below its potential.

The newly released Bretton Woods II Leaders List: The 25 Most Responsible Asset Allocators is grounded in the realization that for long-term institutions, investing sustainably is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do.

GDI collaborated with New America, Dalberg, and the Fletcher School at Tufts on the Leaders List, as part of the Responsible Asset Allocators Initiative (RAAI) at Bretton Woods II. Bretton Woods II operates within New America to help large asset allocators reduce risks and optimize returns through strategic investments in responsible investing and sustainable development.

By focusing on a core group of SWFs and GPFs that are providing leadership on responsible investing practices, the Leaders List aims to jump-start investment by the broader community of asset allocators toward sustainability. Highlighting top performers from the peer group, based on clear and easy-to-understand guidelines, is an important first step toward encouraging greater adoption of responsible investment practices and ultimately toward mobilizing capital to support the Sustainable Development Goals.

As stewards of long-term capital, the question is not whether large institutional investors can afford to integrate responsible investment practices into their portfolios but rather, can they afford not to.


From blockchain to blended finance: GDI and its initiatives at SOCAP

Were you at SOCAP17? GDI and its initiatives hosted five sessions this year at SOCAP, the world’s leading conference on impact investing and social enterprise:

  • Alice Gugelev, GDI: Transforming INGO Business Models: The Role of Market-based Solutions and Impact Investing
  • Erika Boll, GDI: How Blockchain will Change the Way We Invest for Impact
  • Marina Kaneti, GDI: Changing the Narrative for Women Entrepreneurs in Emerging Markets
  • Convergence [exited]: Mind the Gap: How to Achieve the SDGs with Blended Finance
  • New Standard Institute [GDI supporting]: The $2.5 Trillion Challenge Hanging in Our Closets: Can the Fashion Industry Become a Source for Good?

Scroll down for some of our favorite photos and quotes from the sessions:

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GDI and HealthEnabled announce the Global Digital Health Index

A global group of leaders announced today the Global Digital Health Index (GDHI), an interactive digital resource that will track, monitor, and evaluate the use of digital technology for health throughout the world. The GDHI aims to make global health systems more transparent, responsive, and better able to meet the needs of the population by assessing countries’ progress in digital health and identifying each country’s greatest opportunities, needs, and gaps.

Digital technologies have enormous potential to transform health, especially at a time when there are more mobile phones than people on the planet. Integrating technologies such as mobile phones, tablets, remote patient monitoring devices, and sensors into health systems can save lives, extend the reach of healthcare services, and reduce healthcare costs – yet many countries face persistent challenges in implementing sustainable digital health solutions at scale. read more…

GDI’s multistakeholder study featured by the Intersector Project

As an organization that tries to push boundaries of global development and create system-wide change, it’s always gratifying to see the continued impact of our work. This week, we’re pleased to see our 2015 study “More than the Sum of Its Parts: Making Multistakeholder Iniaitives Work” featured in the Intersector Project’s Resource Library for Cross-sector Collaboration. The Intersector Project is a a non-profit organization that creates free, publicly available resources to help practitioners in the government, business, and non-profit sectors implement cross-sector initiatives.

We’re excited that “More than the Sum of its Parts” continues to resonate with practitioners and funders throughout the global development field, and honored to be among such great company. Check out the Intersector Project’s full list of Ten Notable Resources for Identifying When and How to Collaborate.


Betsy Williams recognized by H.E. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for work in Liberia

GDI is pleased to share that Elizabeth (Betsy) Williams received National Honors from H.E. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during Liberia’s Independence Day celebrations today. Betsy has worked closely with GDI for several years in her roles as  the co-founder of the President’s Young Professionals Program of Liberia (PYPP), and the founder and executive director of Emerging Public Leaders. View a full news release by clicking “read more.”

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Resolution on Climate Change

As the United States steps back from a leadership role in addressing climate change, it is incumbent upon organizations of all kinds to step up and play a bigger role. At GDI, we were deeply disappointed to see the US withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, but heartened by the vociferous response from city mayors, companies, and grassroots organizations across the country. Their responses made clear that setbacks at the federal level will not take away from current climate efforts, but rather, will motivate other leaders to identify and act on the specific role they can play in tackling this complex global issue – a task the majority of Americans support.

We include ourselves in that call to action, and are taking this opportunity to affirm GDI’s commitment to take action on climate change. Unlike many global development organizations, we do not silo our work by traditional sectors, but rather seek out ways to illuminate the connections between them. By operating with this ethos at our core, we’ve seen how a healthy planet is inextricably linked to all of our efforts – whether expanding access to finance for smallholder farmers, improving apparel supply chain practices, or even fostering new models of collaborative philanthropy – even when the connection may not be obvious. We also recognize the unfortunate truth that the poorest people in the world are hit hardest by the effects of climate change – yet, these people are all too often unheard.

In light of this moment in time, we pledge to act on climate change in ways that align with GDI’s values:

  • To apply an environmental lens to all our work by considering the implications of climate change for other global development challenges
  • To bring together unorthodox groups of people and organizations to unearth promising climate connections, ideas, and partnerships that wouldn’t normally come to light
  • To embrace smart experimentation in tackling climate change, whether through new modes of communication or technology, new approaches to financing, or other means we have yet to explore
  • To pair each conversation with action, and drive a shift from planning to operating in every climate effort we take on

And most importantly, we pledge to anchor our work in optimism – climate change is an immense problem, but the energy and creative collaboration we’re seeing from people, organizations, and places around the world gives us hope for the future. If you share this mindset and have ideas on how to move from climate talking to climate action, we want to hear from you.

citiesRISE featured at Smart Cities NYC ’17

GDI-incubated mental health initiative citiesRISE was featured on a panel at Smart Cities NYC ’17. Moitreyee Sinha, CEO of citiesRISE and former GDI director, joined several health experts on stage to address the intersection of mental health and urban spaces. The panel discussed the root causes that stand in the way of healthy communities and highlighted new efforts that are transforming access to health.

Watch the clip below or view the full panel here


Beware zombie partnerships! GDI on winding down partnerships in SSIR

Building on our study “More than the Sum of Its Parts: Making multi-stakeholder initiatives work,” GDI outlines when and how to wind down a partnership – especially in a sector with finite resources.

It’s essential to think critically about when and how an MSI should wind down—especially given that the global development sector lacks resources but is abundant in fragmented entities. These dynamics perpetuate what one interviewee described as “zombie partnerships.” He commented, “The conflation of an MSI’s strategy failure and execution failure exacerbates the problem, because it can come across as a failure of organizations to partner, compared with the failure of the partnership to realize impact. And people don’t like that, so they continue to partner for the sake of partnering.”

Read the full article at the Stanford Social Innovation Review.


GDI study featured in new research on MSIs for sustainable development

It’s always exciting to see our ideas bear fruit, especially when they help shape the latest global development thinking. A recent study titled “Multi-stakeholder initiatives for Sustainable Development Goals: The importance of interlocutors” features GDI’s landmark research on when multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) are the right solution to a given global development challenge, and how to design and launch them most effectively.
The study, authored by professors Alan Fowler from University of Wits in South Africa and Kees Biekart from Erasmus University in Holland, draws on 17 MSI case studies across 4 countries to argue that:
  • MSIs in the age of the SDGs require a unique type of host they call “an interlocutor,” which plays the facilitation role for MSIs – the interlocutor “recognizes and reconciles the numerous power asymmetries involved in pursuing collaboration towards the creation of public goods.”
  • Playing this role well requires strength in seven attributes: leadership and conflict management, trustworthiness and trust building, system sensitivity, governance awareness, long haul commitment, polyglot communication, and sovereignty.
  • The importance of these attributes varies over time as an MSI progresses – but the interlocutor’s overall significance increases as MSIs unfold
  • Investing in interlocutors will be critical for achieving the SDGs
Of course, we like to think the authors would recognize GDI as an excellent example of an interlocutor…but really, it’s thrilling just to see other leading development thinkers join the call for developing a discipline around MSIs when they have such enormous potential to drive sustainable development.


Behind the scenes at GDI: Our 2016 annual report

2016 Annual Report Cover

We are excited to release GDI’s 2016 annual report. Rather than simply summarizing our work from the year, we’ve tried to pull back the curtain on how incubation and innovation at GDI actually happen.

Highlights include:

  • A behind-the-scenes look at the making of several initiatives, including Convergence, mhNOW, and the Collaborative for Scaling Social Impact
  • An overview of our big ideas from 2016 (and where to find them online)
  • An honest of five successes and five failures-turned-insights from our year (we learned a lot!)


GDI on building bridges, not barriers

GDI was born to build bridges, not barriers. In our daily work designing and launching social impact initiatives, we’ve seen firsthand that progress rarely happens without collaboration and empathy. More often than not, systems change requires working closely with people and groups different from us, and pushing ourselves to understand points of view and experiences that differ from our own.

Recent political movements in the US and around the world reflect a different set of core beliefs that threaten to slow positive momentum of recent decades in areas ranging from economic empowerment to gender equality. As an organization that works closely with public, private, and philanthropic actors, we’ve thought carefully about our role in resisting unnecessary divisions in the global community.

We joined 440+ nonprofit leaders in publicly opposing the recent executive order banning immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries and now, we want to take a moment to be extra clear about what GDI stands for:

We believe in agitating for social change.

We believe in a free and critical press.

We believe in welcoming immigrants.

We believe in admitting what we don’t know.

We believe in equal pay for equal work.

We believe in the power of partnership.

We believe in looking beyond stigma.

We believe in democratic principles.

We believe in prioritizing impact.

We believe in taking a stand.

We will continue to express these core beliefs in all that we do at GDI, and hope our partners across sectors will join us.

Johnson & Johnson, GDI, and Dalberg share new report on reimagining the global health convening

Reimagining the global health convening coverFundamental shifts are changing global health as we know it, requiring diverse and disruptive groups of people from across sectors to collaborate on solutions. How can a “reimagined” convening most effectively bring these groups together to drive financing and innovation in global health?

A new report titled “Reimagining the Global Health Convening: What’s Next?” inspired by Johnson & Johnson and authored by the Global Development Incubator and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, features the perspectives of over 30 leading thinkers across sectors – from a sustainable finance leader at JPMorgan to a social entrepreneur increasing access to medical oxygen in Kenya – on this question.

2016 in particular saw major changes in the global health convening space, as one critical convening – the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) – wound down, and other new models of convening were tested, including the Financing & Innovation in Global Health (FIGH) forum, supported by Johnson & Johnson and other leading partners.

Together, the void left by CGI and our learnings from FIGH give the global health community the opportunity to step back and consider thoughtfully how to build a better convening. In reflecting on this opportunity, report interviewees shared a common sense of urgency around the need to set catalytic, transformative change in motion. Among other themes, they shared:

  • The best convenings avoid becoming echo chambers – a truly diverse group of perspectives in one place can go a long way
  • Neglected health challenges benefit enormously from the “stage and spotlight” convenings can offer, especially if events can facilitate connections to new resources
  • Openness around failures and lessons learned is critical to a productive convening – safe spaces should be interspersed with opportunities for visibility

It is the report authors’ hope that future convenings can incorporate these and other interview perspectives to more effectively activate participants for change. What do you think a reimagined global health convening should look like? Share your thoughts on Twitter using #FutureConvening.