A Discussion with Douglas Balfour, Chief Executive Officer, Geneva Global
March 20, 2007
Background: In the following discussion, Douglas Balfour, CEO of Geneva Global, describes the organization's mission to provide advice to donors seeking to maximize the impact of their contributions to development assistance. The backbone of Geneva Global's advice is its on-the-ground research, which often leads it to faith-inspired organizations, "often the best value in town.” He talks about how he has found fears of proselytization overblown by secular organizations and interests. Though Mr. Balfour acknowledges that changes in U.S. policy towards funding faith-inspired organizations is important, he feels that private philanthropy in fact “dwarfs” government contributions, and so the question is of less importance than some perceive. This conversation between Mr. Balfour and Katherine Marshall took place as part of the preparatory work for an April 16, 2007 conference at Georgetown University on the role of faith-based organizations in development. The conference is part of a joint Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Luce Foundation project on religion and international relations.
What path has brought you to your current job, and how has it involved working with faith-based organizations and international development?
I joined Geneva Global quite recently (in January 2006), and am still finding my feet in terms of American faith-based organizations and the United States environment for development. But my current work builds directly on my previous experience over the past 15 to 20 years, which involved intensive engagement with faith organizations. I spent nine years at Tearfund (a “leading UK Christian relief and development agency”), based in the UK. I was then drawn into the launch of an organization whose creation I had advocated and encouraged for some time—Integral Alliance. Integral is a global alliance of Christian development agencies, and I had been a driving force for its creation. When it finally got off the ground and showed promise of encouraging the kind of alliance work that I had pressed for, I volunteered, or was volunteered, to head it. That job was rewarding but far from easy. It involved constant negotiations to achieve results, but we got it up and running. But when Steve Beck offered me a leadership position at Geneva Global, I saw a chance to do what I had long wanted to do, working with change management in the development arena with a real chance to make a broad and systemic impact. There was also a chance to take Geneva Global an important step ahead, moving from a single year, single initiative enterprise, to an organization with far more systematic programs and needs assessments and to build network with high net worth individuals and organizations like USAID.
As you look at the Berkley Luce FBO project and April 16 conference, what are the issues you would most like to see addressed?
The need for stronger alliances among faith organizations generally and Christian organizations more specifically is a critical and live issue. I have had a keen interest in such alliances for some time, indeed founded what is virtually the only international Christian alliance (Integral). I also take some pride in helping in the rapid and successful development of the Micah Challenge, which now engages more than 600 organizations. Second, there is great need for work to understand and analyze the work of faith-based organizations in a far more thorough and systematic fashion. There is incredibly little work in this area—really only one serious research effort to test how effective FBOs are (Ritva Reinekke and Jacob Svensson, Working for God, 2004). Anecdotal evidence abounds, and there are papers that lead towards the conclusion that faith-run programs are good value for money from the perspective of community development, and also carry fringe benefits (as well as fringe risks, I suppose). There is an enormous amount of research begging to be done.
I inject a note of caution here, however. I and Geneva Global share a fanaticism for metrics and results. That is part of our operating approach and ethos. We are convinced that everybody in the development world needs to move to a higher level of evaluation and metrics. This of course applies to faith-based organizations. However, it certainly does not apply to them alone and it is important to avoid what seems an automatic assumption in development community that if you are a faith-based organization you have special weaknesses in this area. I have observed, in various contexts, a tendency to expect a higher standard of proof from faith- based organizations. This was less apparent to me when I ran Tearfund programs directly (partly because Tearfund is a large and dominant organization in the UK context—larger in scale than World Vision is in the U.S.). But when I operated in a broader arena I was conscious that if you were a faith-based organization you seemed to have to show a higher standard of work to be recognized. This echoes in many respects the experience of women in professional fields who are still expected to do more than men to be fully accepted. This may be less true in the United States than it is in Europe, where there does tend to be a more difficult environment generally for faith-based organizations, and more tangible patterns of suspicion.
How has faith been part of the vision and evolution of your institution and what is its role today?
Geneva Global views itself an organization that is open to and sensitive about faith-based organizations but itself has neither a specific faith orientation nor a specific mission to advance the work of faith-based organizations. It is an unusual, if not a unique organization. It is a for- profit organization, though to date it has made no money, and its motivation is to work with the poor and to provide donors with excellent intermediary service. We provide investment quality advice. Geneva Global aims at mainstream development issues and activities. We talk of “performance philanthropy.”
When Geneva Global was founded (around 1999), it has a more tangible faith ethos. The entrepreneurs who created Geneva Global came from a Christian background. The first president had connections with the Scott Brookins Ministries (a UK based interdenominational ministry) and the second president also had strong Christian roots; Eric Thurman came to Geneva Global from Opportunity International. Thus, in the initial years Geneva Global built up quite a large Christian donor clientele, including some who actively sought to work with Christian FBOs. The Templeton Foundation (which evidently works on issues of religion as well as other areas) helped to give Geneva Global its start. Today, our aim is for the organization to develop a more mainstream character and reputation. Geneva Global does indeed work with many faith organizations, mainly but not exclusively Christian. Indeed, we recently funded a project involving Buddhist monks working on HIV/AIDS, and an interfaith conflict resolution programs. Geneva Global thus has a broad development mission. We aim to change lives and to do so by helping to intermediate money. We also want to convey clearly and solidly a message about what can be done to measure the effectiveness of development work, and to demonstrate how this can be done well through the best community based organizations. We aim thus to influence the philanthropic marketplace, and to make it more transparent. We are passionate about this objective and believe deeply in it. We are concerned that Geneva Global's influence could be impaired if it is painted into a faith corner, and perceived as overly or exclusively Christian. That is the reason for the effort to reposition the organization.
That said, we work a lot with FBOs, and find that they are often the best value deal in town. On the other hand, we recognize well that this is not always true. Our motivations, as a team, are in practice very similar to those I found when I was at Tearfund, though Geneva Global works in rather a larger arena. The team comprises people with extensive experience, who work along side FBOs, yet bring an outsider perspective.
Are there other organizations like Geneva Global that aim to bridge philanthropy and community organizations?
Not really. It has some similarities to organizations like the Rockefeller advisory group and the Skoll Foundation, as well as some other newer foundations. But there are important difference, and in practice I do tend to spend considerable time on the phone explaining our mission (which intrigues people).
So, what does Geneva Global do, at a practical level?
Geneva Global seeks to develop outstanding projects and to do so it invests in in-depth research. I have a team of 52 people in the field who do just that. They work on identifying options, understanding the situation, needs assessments, gap analysis and so forth.
Can you give me some examples?
You can find many examples of projects on our website. But to cite two live cases:
We are currently working with the Government of Burundi to develop a program to combat HIV/AIDS in one of Burundi's least served areas, in the south. A foundation is our client, and, in this instance, we are working alongside, though clearly not through, the government of Burundi. We recognize that we need to listen to the government's views and perspectives but we are able to work with a degree of independence.
We are also working on a program in Rwanda, where our client is someone keenly interested in education in Rwanda, particularly at the secondary level. We are focusing on the Bugesera area, one of the least developed and served regions of Rwanda, an area where refugees are returning but where people hope to leave as soon as they can. In some respects it is a dumping ground for returning refugees. Our preparations focus on the large problem of primary school retention, because that is what makes secondary school attendance possible. We are looking at the many factors that lie behind the education challenges, including health care, quality issues, and the geographical footprint. Our work has taken us into land issues. The new land law enacted in November 2006 makes possible for the first time 99 year leases, which allows land to pass from generation to generation. Our team recognized that the rich have figured out how to get titles but not the poor. Conflicting property claims threaten to become swiftly a major issue. We are engaged in discussions about how to take on that issue and our client is working along side us, keen to make this opportunity to secure solid land rights for the poor a development reality.
How does faith come into the two cases you discussed? What are some special issues that might have a faith “tie”?
The process of developing the programs in Burundi and Rwanda did not start with a faith motivation nor did they focus on a faith organization or organizations but faith issues are clearly of great importance in both cases. In Burundi, the major challenge is to find good HIV/AIDS implementers who are working already in the area or are willing to extend their activities from areas nearby into the project area. The same applies in Rwanda. In a sense we are neutral on faith. Well, not really neutral, because all things being equal, we appreciate that a faith organization is likely to be as good a bet as any other. Burundi is a Christian nation, with a fragile society and government, and corruption is widespread. The right faith-based organization is likely to be the most effective organization that can deliver quality service.
How do you view the link between the issue of corruption and faith-based organizations on the ground?
As I said, in many cases the faith-based organization, drawing on its values and traditions, is likely to be the most honest as well as the most effective development partner. However, we recognize full well that not all FBOs live up to the ideals we hold for integrity and motivation. There is a need across the board, including, of course for faith-based organizations, for strong accountability processes, solid government reporting etc. The point is that this should apply equally to all organizations. We need to make it quite clear that noone, including our clients, can or should rely just on trust, or on the intrinsic virtues of the organizations. There are plenty of examples of faith organizations with worst kind of corruption, taking money and buying things. There are also exemplars of honesty. Solid preparation and good processes as well as transparency are the way to go for all projects.
How do you work with your clients and implementers? Do you prepare and then select your implementing agency or do you have a different process?
We do not have a single model but in general we mingle preparation and implementation, working with our client to get the best result, and the best granting strategy. In the case of Rwanda, for example, after the initial needs assessments we held an implementer conference, and invited over 100 groups to participate. We then tested the ideas with those groups and at the same time got an idea of what their respective strengths were. We then invited the groups to return and pitch, individually, taking them through a filtering process. Our aim is to find and develop both a great development idea but also great potential implementers. In the end, the work will be contracted to a group of community organizations, maybe 10, 20, 30. And, in implementation, we continue a blend of competition with building a community of implementers and encouraging best practice sharing. We tend to work with relatively smaller organizations. We find that you can often get higher social return from smaller organizations. But the first step is to find out who is in the area.
In a nutshell, we are able to combine financial investment DNA with development DNA, and, through a process of alchemy, develop excellent development projects. We are launching some 400 plus projects a year, whose average size is $80,000 (spending per year). In some cases we will develop projects within the context of a strategic area development program.
How would Geneva Global engage with faith organizations?
Our approach involves a special effort to keep some distance and this is also a lesson I draw from my more general work with community development organizations. CBOs and FBOs have important roles both as actors and as critics.
What special roles do you see for faith-based organizations in development work?
What is most important is that faith-based organizations can be the advocates for the people they are serving. To do this, faith-based organizations must be able to create enough Chinese walls so that they enable the development industry, including the major development and other organizations, to have confidence inthe independence of their work and professionalism. An example of an organization that does this in an exemplary way is the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia which is our partner on HIV/AIDS work, and whose head is a Bishop. He and his organization have found good ways not to split their identity entirely, yet to win full confidence of their partners. If a faith organizations divorces itself too much from its faith, it cannot survive: if a branch is cut off of the vine, it withers. Nonetheless it is vital to keep some distance between community work and faith aspects of the organization. It is important to keep away from proselytizing, and from bringing the church itself into the program. Faith-based organizations are most successful when they have the ability to keep these boundaries clear and healthy.
What has been your experience with these issues in your global work? Have you seen instances of problems? Of success?
My sense after working for many years in Tearfund is that there are far fewer problems in keeping to proper boundaries between faith and development work than most secular writers and observers appear to think. This is something that seems to worry people in the west far more than it does people in Africa or even in Afghanistan, for example. I have often found that Muslims will be happy to find that you work with a Christian organization, believing that therefore you and your organization will share a lot of cultural values with them. I have seen problems, but frankly not that many. I have been troubled sometimes by insensitivities, particularly in situations of crisis or major disasters, where great sensitivity would seem vitally important. Sometimes it is local groups that simply do not seem aware that their celebration of their faith e may grate on victims who are of a different faith. People from minority religions should be especially sensitive to issues of behavior. It is important to assure that sensitivity, for example by ensuring that what might seem natural, for example praying as a clinic opens, is not done in a way that might seem to convey any pressure to conform or sense that participation in such an act of faith conditions the services that are provided or medicines they need. Efforts are needed to build the right kinds of sensitivity all around.
Geneva Global works extensively in the philanthropic world. Can you comment on how philanthropy is moving in the global development world? How does the US.. compare with Europe, for example?
There are enormous differences between the U.S. and Europe. It is my sense that European churches and their supporters may rue the day they walked off the stage, perhaps around 1910. Both philanthropy and churches are far more important in the U.S. To make one observation, many philanthropists seek private partners, and churches can share their sense that they do not trust the government to do as good a job. This is true particularly in the health field, where churches have long been involved, and, without necessarily having an explicit long term vision on their future role, assume they should continue to provide service and thus seek funds to do so.
What do you see as the path of evolution of FBOs in the US?
We all share questions about how far the current U.S. focus on faith-based organizations will evolve when there is a change in administration. That is a large and important question. However, the interest of philanthropists goes well beyond the political arena and current trends are to a significant degree operating separately from political processes. The numbers of actors and size of the philanthropic community dwarfs the government. The vast majority of philanthropic activity is individual and thus is not directly subject to the overall political scene. A large part of philanthropy has a faith affinity. Another characteristic is that it seeks specific connections, whether to the community or business. Most philanthropists want to give to something they are connected to. Combine that with the trend whereby wealthy people are giving at earlier age, and want to be more directly involved in their giving. Moral beliefs and philosophy play a large part in giving. It is not unreasonable to correlate what we might term the “faith-based-ness” of the population, looking to somewhat similar demographics.
It is also important to underline that faith is an important predictor of generosity. Figures show that people with faith motivation are more generous givers. The mystery is that we do not know enough about what they are doing with their money. Geneva Global trying to influence that. A very small part of individual philanthropic giving (6 percent) now goes outside the US. We need to explore why. It is noteworthy that the percentage is higher in the UK.
Do we know much about the religious affiliations of high net worth people? Why do you think that religion is so little the focus on philanthropic fora like the Global Philanthropy Forum?
We do not have much solid information about religious beliefs, practices and affiliations of richer members of the population. As to organizations like the Global Philanthropic Forum. I have observed tendencies of people, including philanthropists, to congreate by affinity. They may therefore be working through different organizations or groupings. GPF may reflect a more “mainstream” tendency, and might not include those who are drawn to evangelical beliefs. But I do not really know.