Harvard Business Review / June 17, 2015

by Cameron Conaway

Geneva Global, a tiny but mighty philanthropic consulting firm that specializes in international development, is helping to change the world from its small suburban corner of Wayne, Pa. With a team of just 52 staff members, they are quietly igniting social good on a global scale through the repetitive flexing of an approach called dumbbell collaboration.

“On one side of the dumbbell are donors, either private philanthropists or foundations, and on the other are nonprofits,” explains Ava Lala, a director at Geneva Global. “Both want to solve complex social problems, such as modern-day slavery, but the ambition of the donors often outweighs their resources, and the nonprofits often spend precious time trying to connect with donors. The solution, as we see it, is to group each of these ends together, to be the handle in the middle that connects the two.”

And it’s here why the dumbbell serves as the perfect metaphor. Geneva Global sees philanthropic consulting — its role as the humble handle connecting two larger sides — as both the immediate project in front of it and as a strength training session to prepare for future projects. It takes seriously this belief that the more it exercises building collaborative relationships the stronger it and its clients will become in battling some of the world’s most pressing issues. It’s an approach to collaboration that has proved successful in some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable.

When creating philanthropic initiatives for its clients, Geneva Global first gathers insights about the client’s interests. For example, does the client want to address a pressing global health issue like Ebola or tackle an educational problem like out-of-school children? Geneva then typically seeks out indigenous, grassroots, and innovative nonprofits in developing countries who have a strong track record of success and who are willing to work together to build a program. The benefit of finding such partners is that the program can be tailored to the local context, encouraging buy-in from the community and local stakeholders and ultimately reaching more people. The challenge, however, is that these community-based organizations tend to be smaller nonprofits that lack sophisticated processes and often struggle to absorb a lot of funding.

In order to maximize the efficiency and sustainability of their client’s money, Geneva Global groups these nonprofits into a “community of practice.” In doing so, it has found that these smaller organizations make substantial improvements based on what they share with and learn from each other.

The results are undeniable. In one example, when Geneva Global was managing an anti-slavery program for a client, they recognized that people were being trafficking between India and Nepal, but that the relevant nonprofits working in these regions often were unaware of each other. So Geneva identified the most promising organizations, put them through an exhaustive due diligence process, and ultimately selected 28 of them to work together in what they called a Strategic Initiative. Some NGOs focused on community education to prevent slavery, others focused on rehabilitation to protect victims, and others focused on legislation to prosecute slave traders. By learning from peers, each nonprofit strengthened its capacity to do more effective work, which is ultimately what donors want to achieve. The results touched over 600,000 lives through slaves being rescued, villages forming vigilance communities, and people receiving sustainable education, psychosocial therapy, and other services.

When appropriate, Geneva uses a similar strategy to encourage donors to come together, but in this model the end result is to create pooled philanthropic funds. “Borrowing from the financial world, this model of pooling philanthropic funds allows private donors to leverage their funds for greater scale, diversify their risk, and retain some level of control,” says Doug Balfour, Geneva Global’s CEO.

Egos, the fear of competition, and sheer coordination can be challenging to navigate when trying to get donors to collaborate. In the case of pooled philanthropic funds, Geneva Global has found that having large donors gain board seats in accordance with their level of funding is one way donors can retain influence. Creating an independent brand and having a third party to manage the coordination of the pooled donor fund has also worked to ensure timely and successful launches.

For example, in 2011, Geneva partnered with the Legatum Foundation to create the END Fund, which brought together a collaborative donor set that has since raised more than $50 million. The money has been used to support neglected tropical disease control initiatives run by various nonprofits and government ministries of health in over 15 countries. “Over 75 million people have been reached through mass drug administrations. That kind of impact and scale can only be achieved when donors are willing to collaborate, learn from one other, and use their collective voice to spark change,” says Balfour, who sits on the END Fund board.

Collaboration is often talked about, but much less often done, and far less often done well. The concept of dumbbell collaboration has allowed Geneva Global to see each opportunity as a chance to flex and maintain its existing strengths while building new ones. The end result is that the metaphor has allowed it to envision and then execute a style of collaboration that, especially when applied to the social sector, can bring about sustainable social change and increase the bang it gets from its philanthropic bucks.

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