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The Changing Landscape of Global Philanthropy: What About Diasporas?

05/01/2013 10:00 am ET | Updated Jul 01, 2013

Recently the world of philanthropy gathered for the annual conference of Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF), an organization that embodies the changing landscape of global philanthropy as it aims to inform, enable, and enhance strategic global social investing. Diaspora philanthropy was not a major discussion topic.

International development field's concentration on measuring impact through quantitative methods caused diaspora philanthropy to be off-radar. Other players such as new philanthropic organizations and emerging countries from the "South," which has been traditionally the receiving part, have been widely recognized. The formation of Global Philanthropy Forum in 2001 was a testament to the fact that no longer is aid assistance the main player in the field of international development and that a new generation of philanthropic organizations emerged changing the way philanthropy is done and forcing longstanding foreign aid donors to take stock. Organizations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Accion International, The Acumen Fund (now Acumen) and The Echoing Green spurred by the entrepreneurial drive of a new generation, have combined business model and philanthropy to outdo for-profit investments with donations. And most recently, including at this year's Global Philanthropy Forum conference, new bilateral donors from the emerging countries were acknowledged as new key players in international development.

Yet, there is also a third player in this changing dynamic of global philanthropy: diaspora contributions. Diaspora organizations have been a part of the discussion at the Global Philanthropy Forum as some of them were among the attendees of the conference, but the Forum needs to pay more attention to the rising impact of diaspora communities in global philanthropy. There is a continual growth in diaspora communities. The total number of international migrants has increased over the last 10 years from an estimated 150 million in 2000 to 214 million people today. Migrants would constitute the fifth most populous country in the world. These groups have business and social connections in both host and home countries, and move constantly without being connected to only one country. This enables them to be connected back home more than ever. Immigrants don't have to move back to their home countries to make a contribution to their hometowns anymore. Kingsley Aikins in Global Diaspora Strategies Toolkit notes: "the tyranny of distance and geography is finally broken."

We haven't fully analyzed the increasing impact of diaspora communities back home because we have concentrated too much on evaluating the impact through numbers. It's true that the growing numbers of remittances are remarkable. Remittances have increased exponentially: up from $132 billion in 2000 to an estimated $406 billion in 2012. These flows are expected to rise 8 percent in 2013 and 10 percent in 2014 to reach $534 billion in 2015. Yet, the real impact of diaspora contributions happens through the transfer of human and social capital. The impact of organizations such as Turkish Philanthropy Funds' contributions back home are beyond the amount of funds they facilitate. The missing piece from the way financial markets measure value can be filled by understanding the impact of social and human capital such as the impact of community building and knowledge transfers. The importance of these intangible benefits is in current discussions but I believe it should be upfront in the center.

The changing landscape of global philanthropy leaves us with the question of what if we cannot measure social change with the tools of the business world or with numbers. Impact assessment is finding out about the changes that work has made in people's lives. Wouldn't evaluating the impact of programs aimed at social change demand innovative and culturally appropriate approaches? What if numbers don't tell us the whole story on our efforts in international development? What if measuring and accounting for everything in numbers fatally compromises sensible and effective actions on the ground?

Andrew Natsios, who once headed USAID, argues that good development practice in the field is now so tilted toward regulatory compliance and measuring accordingly that the U.S. global aid system is becoming ever more dysfunctional. Since 2001, U.S. foundations' international giving benefited the area of health the most. In 2010, close to 41 percent of international support funded health--primarily medical research and public health. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which accounts for two out of five international grant dollars, dominated support for health, providing just over three- quarters of money invested in health. Health is the number one supported area internationally because it's rather easier to report the decreasing polio numbers than the changing local culture towards civil initiatives. Does our concentration on measuring impact in numbers because we need to report back, curtail our goals and turn our social investments into an end instead of treating them as the means?

It looks like it does. And, the new generation of philanthropists' emphasis on investing in social issues with a business approach triggers the focus on quantitative measurement. Because it's easier to evaluate numbers. New philanthropists treat their giving exactly as they treat their businesses and investments. Their talk is about: "rigorous due diligence," "scalability," "return on capital," and "leveraging the investment."

"Story telling" is emerging as a new evaluation vehicle. While there isn't a streamlined approach to compare the outcomes of these reporting, they give a better idea of the impact of the funds going to these communities. CA Endowment Fund defines storytelling as accommodating "diverse voices and perspectives, while making the most of the particular resources and ways of learning readily available in your program." Using this approach requires a slightly different mindset. Instead of looking for ways to "prove" x or y has happened, it offers a means to create a continual feedback loop where information is flowing in to help adjust delivery of programs as time goes on. Jacqueline Novogratz in her recent letter to Acumen's investors notes as she talks about the new path of the organization: "We've seen that as a world, we need to do better at measuring what we cherish, not only what we can count."

GlobalGiving is another organization that is testing to measure impact through storytelling. The challenge GlobalGiving faces is the fact that they have hundreds of projects that address various issues in different countries with different budgets. So, measuring the impact of these projects has been an impossible task. Currently, the project is an experiment in "collecting community feedback." They are using Sensemaker, which is an online tool that adds layers of meaning to a story and provides quantitative data, which can always be linked back to the original material, to turn these stories into data. Human Rights Watch also reports back through stories besides numbers as the organization understands that reporting on some of the issues cannot only be done with quantitative measures.

What an analysis of diaspora contributions make apparent is that numbers do not always tell the story of the full impact of our international interventions. We need to dig deeper to hear the real story and to better understand the process to fully measure impact. We need to start assessing success in a different way. And, we need to make sure our means don't become our ends because it's easier to measure with specific methods. Storytelling has been in discussion however the costs associated with it make it a not so attractive measurement medium. As this article in the Guardian notes "Measuring project outcomes in isolation is like trying to understand how a duck swims by measuring how far it travels in the water." Once we highlight the importance of the processes, then we will see that there are other players whose impact are immense in the field of global philanthropy.