Interview with Ruth Levine
Director, Global Development and Population Program
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
Q. Could you share with us what are the areas that Hewlett Foundation would like to fund?
At the Hewlett Foundation, there are five program areas in which grants are made and two time-bound initiatives. The five program areas are: performing arts (limited to the Bay Area around San Francisco in the United States), effective philanthropy, U.S. education, environment, and global development and population. I lead the Global Development and Population Program.
In the Global Development and Population Program, we support organisations that work on expanding women’s choices and amplifying citizen voices. The work to expand women’s choices focuses on a combination of increasing access to family planning and safe abortion around the world, and on women’s economic empowerment. The work to amplify citizen’s voices includes a large portfolio of work that ranges from increasing transparency of governments and aid donors regarding what they spend and the impact of their spending, to strengthening the capacity of a wide range of civil society organisations – including Think Tanks – to inform and hold governments accountable.
Q. As a funding agency, what kind of evidence or stories from an organisation/fundraiser help you feel convinced about their work and motivation?
When we are learning about the work of a potential grantee, we are particularly interested in their “theory of change,” which to us means how they envision that the work they do every day – that is, what we would be funding – contributes to a larger and important goal. We tend to ask many questions about the way organisations set priorities, how they work within a larger ecosystem or community of organisations that have aligned goals, and what capacities they have and would like to build. While a track record of success is important – and that can be expressed either in qualitative terms or quantitative terms – what’s more important to us is that organisations have an ability to think strategically with respect to their larger mission and modify their work as needs change and opportunities appear. We are not usually interested in working with organisations that have a defined method or set of products or services that do not change even when circumstances do.
Q. In your opinion, what is the best way to quantify policy impact?
I know from my own experience that it is hard to quantify policy impact. I think one way, although it is methodologically challenging, is to think through the potential benefits in terms of an outcome like household income if the policies that are recommended are taken up by government. That at least provides the upper bound on the potential impact, and helps one think through the potential causal chain. For example, if a Think Tank works on an analysis that shows poor targeting of a social protection programme, one can do a back-of-the-envelope estimate of the benefits to households if targeting were improved.
I think a lot of the impact that Think Tanks have is difficult to quantify, but I also believe it is useful for Think Tanks to identify a small number of big policy wins they have had – instances when they really believe they have made a difference through ideas, analysis and/or advice. They can take a careful look at what happened, what the facilitating circumstances were, and what real-world difference it may have made. I would say that if year after year there are no “wins” and/or the wins are very marginal and unlikely to make a difference, it would be a good idea for the Think Tank management to critically assess how it does its work.
Q. Are there any strategy/plans that you (Hewlett Foundation) ensure that the pool of grantees is expanded as opposed to giving funds to the same organisation?
The Hewlett Foundation tends to be quite a reliable partner, and we often have long-term relationships with grantees. We find that this is more beneficial and less costly in staff time to both ourselves and the grantee than the alternative of having lots of new grantees every year. In any given year, something like 70-80 percent of our grants is renewals. We do, however, look at each renewal with fresh eyes, and assess the benefits of continuing the relationship with the option of investing in a new organisation or a new project.
Q. As a donor agency do you foresee any changes in the funding pattern observed amongThink Tanks?
I hope and expect that Think Tanks will find ways to diversify their funding base, and we’ve seen Think Tanks taking steps to attract local philanthropic and corporate support. We’ve also seen Think Tanks in developing countries taking advantage of funding opportunities that used to be restricted to organisations in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Those trends are positive, although taking money from any new source requires the Think Tank management to be careful about maintaining both the reality and perception of independence in their work.
I think the major financing challenge for Think Tanks is not the amount of funding but whether the funding they do get is sufficiently flexible and long-term to assure independence and to permit investments in institutional capacities. I am hopeful that Think Tanks will be able to mobilise broad-based institutional support and therefore become less dependent on project support. This is one of the ambitions of the Think Tank Initiative, and we are working with partners to learn how most effectively to provide resources to promote institutional development and the pursuit of an independent agenda for policy research and engagement.