Photos: Fred Merz

What enables syste­mic change

Olivia Leland is Founder and CEO of Co-Impact. Co-Impact uses a collaborative approach to support organisations in the Global South that are looking to achieve a more equitable society by means of systemic change.

You have worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion and as foun­ding direc­tor at Giving Pledge: why did you launch your own initia­tive, Co-Impact?

For me, the burning issue was how can phil­an­thropy have more impact. Many phil­an­thro­pists I worked with at The Giving Pledge were grap­pling with this ques­tion. I left The Giving Pledge in 2014 to pursue precis­ely this issue. 

How did you go about it?

I was alre­ady aware of the phil­an­thro­pists’ perspec­tive. So I focu­sed on the opini­ons of those people who imple­ment projects, influence change for the better and lead commu­ni­ties. Over the course of three years, I met with indi­vi­du­als around the world to find out what they want from philanthropy.

And what was their answer?

They repea­tedly said that they want phil­an­thropy to tackle the issues that matter, with a commit­ment that is commen­su­rate with the magni­tude of the chal­lenges. Many leaders are alre­ady deal­ing with these issues and thin­king about how they can increase their impact. It was clear, howe­ver, that phil­an­thropy is not fulfil­ling its poten­tial. That’s how the idea for Co-Impact came about. We want to bring toge­ther indi­vi­dual and insti­tu­tio­nal donors to support the visi­ons of those who alre­ady advo­cate syste­mic change. We want to scale the impact to improve the lives of milli­ons for the long term. We didn’t just want to talk about this, but wanted to secure the scale and kind of funding  needed to make a meaningful difference. 

‘In the design phase, they can dream up ideas and plan how to achieve system change.’

Olivia Leland
Foun­der and CEO Co-Impact

What do you mean by syste­mic change?

Our inten­tion is to change the funda­men­tal systems that govern socie­ties, ther­eby making them more effec­tive and equi­ta­ble for ever­yone. We are aiming for change that results in a more equi­ta­ble world. To this end, from our Foun­da­tio­nal Fund, we provide large-scale, flexi­ble and long-term funding, and support, to orga­ni­sa­ti­ons invol­ved in impro­ving the systems of educa­tion, health and econo­mic oppor­tu­ni­ties. We also laun­ched a second fund last year, our Gender Fund, which builds on our expe­ri­ence from the Foun­da­tio­nal Fund, to support advan­cing gender equality and to promote women’s leadership. 

You have your own gender equality fund. How credi­ble are repre­sen­ta­ti­ves from indus­trial nati­ons that still need to take action them­sel­ves when it comes to equality?

No coun­try in the world has achie­ved gender equality. We are all invol­ved in this issue. It is time to stand up and support efforts, ongo­ing and new that promote equality. There is still very little funding acti­vity, but with our programme part­ners, we are seeing approa­ches that work. We must support these and commu­ni­cate the success stories. I am confi­dent that if we share these stories of impact, this will encou­rage more people to donate to this cause. 

Is equality a condi­tion for, or a conse­quence of, change?

A system doesn’t work if it doesn’t suit half of society. When talking about gender, we also have to think about inequa­li­ties stem­ming from race/caste, class and other factors that exacer­bate discri­mi­na­tion. We will only achieve gender equality if we reso­lut­ely and consis­t­ently focus on it in every initia­tive that we support. Co-Impact is commit­ted to funding orga­ni­sa­ti­ons which are rooted in the Global South. We hope that the Global South will also provide momen­tum for the North, espe­ci­ally when it comes to equality. We have a lot to learn. 

Regar­ding all your projects – how do you fund them?

We pool the resour­ces of various funders around the world. This is what allows us to provide larger scale funding to our programme part­ners, the orga­ni­sa­ti­ons that are crea­ting change at the local level. Our programme part­ners then work colla­bo­ra­tively with govern­ments and other rele­vant people – acti­vists and experts – and orga­ni­sa­ti­ons working within their system, to tackle the major issues. 

How do you achieve equi­ta­ble colla­bo­ra­tion when some people have lots of money and others are depen­dent on subsidies?

This is one of our core values: we focus on commu­ni­ties and programme part­ners. We constantly measure our perfor­mance against this value. Our programme part­ners set the agenda for our meetings; they decide what we discuss. We simply play a support­ing role. 

Do spon­sors simply put up the cash or do they get involved?

We create spaces throug­hout the year to bring toge­ther our whole commu­nity in person and virtually, so those who want to can get invol­ved and share ideas with our programme part­ners, other funders and experts, while conside­ring and explo­ring solu­ti­ons. The true value of the part­ner­ship is that they are all part of it. 

You are aiming for syste­mic change. Do you also receive criti­cism in terms of the stra­tegy you are pursuing?

It is not our stra­tegy. We consciously support the vision of our local programme part­ners, which imple­ment change. And they do not work in isola­tion, but within a network of govern­ments and other orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. It is not about achie­ving our vision. This is extre­mely important in phil­an­thropy. Discus­sions with our programme part­ners are key. We consider, where might criti­cism come from? How do we bring diffe­rent perspec­ti­ves toge­ther? What do others think about it? These are hugely important ques­ti­ons and I am glad that phil­an­thropy is addres­sing them. Our part­ners give this a lot of thought during the design phase. 

What happens during the design phase?

Most phil­an­thropy is still invol­ved in short-term project work. This will not contri­bute to syste­mic change. During the design phase, we provide the means and space for our programme part­ners to imagine what is possi­ble. They will proba­bly have alre­ady conside­red these ques­ti­ons at weekends or during the night – during the design phase, they can engage with them more deeply, come up with ideas and plan how to achieve syste­mic change. They deve­lop a plan and decide what they need to scale their work. The phase begins with a kick-off work­shop. It is very important to us that our programme part­ners take owner­ship of this phase. They define the work­shop. We provide resour­ces and ask ques­ti­ons, but our programme part­ners set the agenda.

‘The role of phil­an­thropy is to provide resour­ces and support at the neces­sary scale, at the appro­priate moment, and in the right way.’

Olivia Leland
Foun­der and CEO Co-Impact

So what role should phil­an­thropy play in our society?

The role of phil­an­thropy is to provide the neces­sary level of resour­ces and support at the right moment and in the right way. This should allow programme part­ners and commu­ni­ties, local orga­ni­sa­ti­ons that under­stand their envi­ron­ment, to imple­ment their visi­ons and faci­li­tate stra­te­gic cohe­rence with the help of long-term support. To do this, we have to ask programme part­ners what they need. We have to estab­lish a rela­ti­onship with them. It is about buil­ding perso­nal cont­act and rapport with the people in these organisations. 

How do you find suita­ble projects?

When we laun­ched Co-Impact, we defi­ned our grant­ma­king crite­ria and issued open calls. When we issued an open call for our Gender Fund last year, we recei­ved over 11,000 appli­ca­ti­ons. But we could only accept 30. We used a detailed review process, inclu­ding using inde­pen­dent review­ers to select the initia­ti­ves we are now supporting.

Is it worth issuing an open call given the effort involved?

It is a lot of work for the orga­ni­sa­ti­ons apply­ing. As we now have a large network in each of the count­ries where we work, we have deci­ded not to issue an open call this year. Instead, we are working with our local part­ners to speci­fi­cally find suita­ble initia­ti­ves, part­ner­ships and projects. But this doesn’t mean we have comple­tely done away with open calls. 

What are the posi­tive aspects of an open call?

It showed that there are so many more worthy initia­ti­ves than we are able to support. There are local, women-led orga­ni­sa­ti­ons that are making a big diffe­rence, and can do so much more with addi­tio­nal funding.

Are there any risks if you only support projects you speci­fi­cally select?

It is important that our team also recei­ves exter­nal recom­men­da­ti­ons. This is how we hear about initia­ti­ves that are not yet on our radar. Other­wise, phil­an­thropy always ends up support­ing the same ones. 

How do you go about support­ing a project?

We hold indi­vi­dual talks with each orga­ni­sa­tion, discus­sing what an in-depth part­ner­ship may look like, what we expect from them and vice versa. The fact that we are impres­sed with an initia­tive does not neces­s­a­rily mean that Co-Impact is best-placed to support it. During these talks, we aim to find out whether the initia­tive is suita­ble for us and they also need to estab­lish whether we can provide suita­ble support. It may just not be the right time. 

When you decide to colla­bo­rate, how long does this normally last?

Follo­wing the one-year design phase, we support initia­ti­ves for seve­ral years. The normal times­cale is five years. 

How much support do you provide?

We are flexi­ble and respond to our part­ners’ indi­vi­dual needs. As well as funding the design phase, we normally contri­bute 5 to 10 million US dollars towards each initia­tive. In some cases, grants can also range from 20 to 25 million US dollars.

What kind of legal entity is Co-Impact?

When I laun­ched Co-Impact in 2017, I didn’t just want to set up a new orga­ni­sa­tion. Back then, there were hardly any models for pooling funding for the Global South. We wanted to use our expe­ri­ence to find the right form, to see what works. After three years, our colla­bo­ra­tive commu­nity deci­ded to set up an orga­ni­sa­tion. It made sense for us. Today, Co-Impact is regis­tered as a 501c3 non-profit orga­ni­sa­tion in the US, in accordance with fede­ral law. Our advi­sory boards and board of direc­tors include specia­lists in phil­an­thropy, equality and social justice. We have also set up orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in other count­ries, where neces­sary. But we don’t have a head office.

Do you have a global structure?

Our team members work in 9 diffe­rent count­ries, with the biggest team in Kenya, and our spon­sors come from 17 count­ries around the world. We are a global group.

You yours­elf live in Switz­er­land. What links do you have to the phil­an­thropy scene in Switzerland?

We colla­bo­rate with phil­an­thro­pists and donors from Switz­er­land, and I would like to meet more of them. We have a large network of Co-Impact part­ners, and it’s extre­mely exci­ting sharing ideas with them. We can learn from each other, find out what others are doing, and where there are poten­tial part­ner­ships. There are many oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­na­tio­nal lear­ning, finding common solu­ti­ons and for mutual support.

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