Risk & Rebuilding

Maya Winkelstein is the Executive Director of Open Road Alliance, a private philanthropic initiative that provides grant capital to non-profits for mid-implementation projects facing an unexpected roadblock or a sudden catalytic opportunity. The strategy was designed to fill a market demand for fast, flexible contingency funding in the philanthropic sector.

By: Maya Winkelstein

I’m writing this a few days after the earthquake in Nepal and I can’t stop thinking about Haiti.

I’m thinking about how more than five years after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, conditions remain deplorable there despite a global outpouring of support that has totaled more than $13 billion. I am thinking about the human toll of wasted dollars, missed opportunities, and inadequate solutions that we have seen in Haiti since 2010--a heartbreaking failure that is an affront to the memory of the 316,000 who died in that disaster. I am thinking about Haiti and wondering what we as a philanthropic community can do to ensure that we don’t repeat these systemic missteps in Nepal.

Haiti is but one of history’s calamities that show it’s not the amount of dollars spent that determines success--it’s how that funding is allocated, structured, and applied.

As we in the philanthropic community seek to alleviate human suffering--whether caused by a massive natural catastrophe or less dramatic circumstances--how can we ensure impact? At Open Road we acknowledge the simple fact that the world is unpredictable and all investments, including philanthropic ones, carry risk. As social investors we advocate preparing for this risk through assessment, mitigation and contingency funding.

While we can’t control natural disasters, we can prepare for and mitigate the day-to-day risks that our grantees face in the field. Disruptions created by human judgment and appointed structures can be as unpredictable as earthquakes and wreak havoc for the projects they hit. These man-made debacles can include the risk to payroll when a donor unilaterally shifts its payment cycle from Q1 to Q3; the risk to success when an NGO is asked to select a local partner without being provided the time or resources to vet them; and the risk of staff burnout when unrestricted funds slated to hire a new team member are diverted to supplement a programmatic grant that doesn’t cover the true costs of overhead.

These are the kinds of challenges that projects in Nepal will face during the long recovery. These are the risks that will lower the impact of the millions of dollars that will pour into Nepal over the coming weeks and months.

As each of us considers our own response to this terrible tragedy, let’s set aside time to have conversations about risk and impact. In the face of an overwhelming event we were incapable of predicting or preventing, let’s galvanize our energies and intellects to empower our grantees to meet as many future unexpected events as possible.

We can create a contingency fund within our annual grantmaking budgets. We can create fast-acting grant committees that can release those funds to help a grantee overcome an unexpected obstacle. We can trust our grantees by asking them to share the true costs of a project and funding them to that full amount. We can provide more unrestricted funding. We can change our structures and our mindsets to be more flexible.

I recently saw a call to “build back better” in Nepal. Let’s start a dialogue now about how to do the same for philanthropy. Let’s improve philanthropy’s infrastructure and strengthen the impact of our grantmaking so it’s better able to withstand the unexpected.