April 29, 2019

CEO of ELMA Philanthropies, Tom McPartland, joins Alberto Lidji for a broad discussion on their impact in Africa, strategy formulation, co-funding platforms and much more

We explore how ELMA manages its investment portfolio, embraces partnerships and transforms the landscape in the areas in which it operates.  ELMA is a low profile organisation but its philanthropy is right up there with household names in this space.  They have a strong collaborative spirit and Tom is unequivocal that partnership is key to success.

 Much of ELMA was built by successful business entrepreneurs, so they embrace a financial and investment management approach that very much adheres to private sector standards.

Tom argues that one needs to assess potential grantees in a holistic way, analysing beyond program activity and giving due consideration to core functions such as operations, accounting, and command and control processes.

At ELMA they do everything from funding very small community organisations to very large, multi-year, multi-million-dollar grants that seek to engender some kind of systems change at a national or multi-country level.  ELMA is perfectly able to make grants along the lines of peer institutions (e.g.  Gates, MacArthur, Skoll) and also perfectly happy to make small grants where the situation calls for these.  

They are heavily involved in Africa and it is interesting to hear Tom speak with great passion about the South African Constitution and how that country’s state of affairs and wellbeing impacts the broader continent and context.

He believes partnership and collaboration are invaluable.   However, he cautions that collaboration doesn’t come naturally for everyone; nor does everyone necessarily know how to approach collaboration, and the administrative, managerial and logistical complexities it entails.

Part of the challenge in coming together is often a lack of experience in harmonising reporting systems; harmonising one’s own grant-award agreements, and there being little or no experience in defining key measures of success in a collaborative setting with other funders.  Most foundations’ experience is typically derived from addressing these issues on a one-to-one basis with their implementors.

We hear from Tom how there is no single right or wrong way to approach collaboration.  In some collaborative platforms there’s an arrangement whereby everybody roughly agrees that initiative “X” will be funded/supported but each backer will do it in their own specific way, with one of the partners stepping forward and taking on the role of co-ordinator in a semi-official way.

In other instances, though, a third-party collaborative platform may be involved (Tom references Co-Impact, for instance) whereby there is a dedicated fund manager allocating financial resources.  The question for some who may be considering this approach, however, is whether funding partners feel comfortable delegating autonomy on how to deploy capital to a third party.

Tom encourages family offices and sophisticated business stakeholders to think creatively about how they provide their support.  He notes that the quantum of capital is there; that is not the challenge. What’s not always present, though, is a way of deploying funds efficiently and effectively at the right time, at the right place. 

He notes there is a need for family offices to deploy their business acumen and expertise in business management, financial management, partnership management, project management, business development management etc etc – this is precisely the stuff that the philanthropy field is often lacking.  It has the money and it has somebody who knows how to treat a child, but it doesn’t always have managerial expertise.

Even though many family offices have a high degree of sophistication in these areas, what often happens is that they leave all of this expertise at the door opting, instead, simply to sign a cheque.  What they should be doing, though, is brining all of these other skills to their philanthropy.

When asked what he thinks global listeners should take away from this podcast episode, Tom replies: “the power of one”. Do not get hung up by the scope and scale of the challenges that exist, or the magnitude of the inequities that define our world.  No matter how big the problem is that relates to your interest area, believe that you can create a momentum that really engenders significant systems change . You just have to believe in the possible. Engage and you will be satisfied with the impact you achieve.

Full episode notes, links and Tom's bio available at Lidji.org

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