Originally published by Inside Philanthropy
One of the pitfalls of global funding, and philanthropy in general, is the tendency of donors to storm into an unfamiliar situation and start setting agendas. At the same time, a donor being completely removed from what’s happening on the ground is not ideal either, especially when backing a program that’s still getting on its feet.
Maverick Collective, a philanthropic community by nonprofit Population Services International, has been working to overcome these dynamics through what it calls “experiential philanthropy.” Donors back pilot projects seeking to improve health and gender equity while learning from and forming relationships with people on the ground. The goal is to mobilize funds for unproven solutions while cultivating donors who are “authentic, accountable and activated agents of social change.”
The donor community — formed by Kate Roberts (CNN Hero, Vogue 100) while at PSI, in collaboration with Melinda French Gates and the Crown Princess of Norway Mette-Marit — is celebrating 10 years of operations. Led by women for women to invest “curiosity and capital” into women and girls’ health and reproductive rights globally, the collective has mobilized 50 women donors and leveraged over $100 million to help more than 6.7 million people across more than 40 developing countries.
PSI is a global nonprofit that has been delivering healthcare solutions in over 40 countries in the Global South for over 50 years. Local communities collaborate with PSI to create healthcare interventions for a more equitable world. The pilot projects require partnership and private capital to experiment with unproven ideas; this is where Maverick Collective comes in.
Each Maverick Collective member invests anywhere from $50,000 to over $1.1 million to a PSI initiative during a one-to three-year “experiential donor journey,” depending on which of the three programs the donor chooses. In the Maverick Venture program, one donor funds one project, whereas in the programs Maverick Next and Maverick Portfolio, donors co-invest and pool funds. The donors’ seed capital is then backed up by government and foundation funders. Maverick Collective funding is a “small but mighty” portion of PSI’s annual budget, allowing for the flexibility to test, fail and quickly pivot projects improving healthcare for women and girls.
Maverick Collective has invested in over 35 projects, some worldwide, but most of them impacting Global South local communities. In Ethiopia, one project helped married adolescent couples delay pregnancy and find opportunities out of poverty. In India, independent pit cleaners reduced unsafe waste disposal and unlocked government resources. In Eswatini, local women encouraged girls to protect themselves from HIV and unintended pregnancies.
These projects all began as ideas submitted from any one of PSI’s 5,000 staff who dreamed up solutions they could try with a million dollars in flexible capital. In Maverick Venture, vetted ideas are then matched with a donor based on passion alignment. Once a donor is matched with a project, her hands-on journey begins.
Hands-on, experiential philanthropy
In addition to investing significant funding, donors invest their time and their attention into the projects and the people who lead them on the ground. A key element of Maverick Collective’s model is experiential philanthropy, defined as “hands-on learning blending with real dollar grantmaking in order to accelerate change,” according to Rena Greifinger, PSI director of philanthropy and Maverick Collective managing director.
This process begins in conversation with Maverick Collective, where staff learn more about their values and giving philosophy. This conversation aids staff in matching a donor with a project. Donors also engage in new member onboarding and virtual learning, including from high-profile speakers such as award-winning author of “Decolonizing Wealth” Edgar Villanueva.
Donors also travel directly to project teams to learn more about the people and solutions they’re backing. Alexandra Idol, co-chair of Maverick Collective, said that a key moment for her was instantly connecting with a girl in Ethiopia. They were both recently married and had similar values of love, family and financial stability. “The difference was,” Idol said, “I was in my 30s and she was 16. I saw a young girl afraid to have a conversation around family planning in order to create economic stability for her future family. I gained such empathy in that moment with a deep feeling of connection, gratitude and understanding.”
When thinking about donor travel, some may have concerns about “voluntourism,” the sometimes exploitative practice of engaging in charity during a vacation. However, Maverick Collective’s experiential approach is designed with proximity and transparent relationships in mind. “The hands-on experience is crucial,” Idol emphasized. “You need empathy in order to listen and lead with curiosity.”
Donor-grantee power dynamics
Donors involving themselves beyond the paycheck may be a rich learning experience for them, but what about its impact on the project teams on the ground?
“Philanthropy can reinforce harm if we don’t truly look at dismantling some of the power inequities that are so inherent to the donor-grantee relationship,” Greifinger said. “Traditional philanthropy is so hierarchical and we give so much power and influence to people with money, where they’re driving decision-making. We’re really trying to shift that and help our donors come in with the entire mindset and ethos of, ‘I’m here to learn. I trust you to know what to do best with my capital. I want to be part of the journey, but I’m not here to dictate what it’s going to look like.’”
Idol reflected on a conversation with a program team in Ethiopia, where they discussed aspects of the donor-grantee relationship they don’t like. “We don’t want you to spend hours on PowerPoint slides and reporting metrics. Yes, we have KPIs and clearly defined goals that will be shared, but we don’t want to take away from the work.” Idol said. “We don’t want to be the philanthropist that comes in and acts like we know anything. We don’t! We can admit that to you!”
Donor-grantee power dynamics are explicitly named in Maverick Collective’s “A-Game” framework, which stresses authenticity and accountability. Donor authenticity means “being aware of the power dynamics that exist between you as a donor and the organizations you support and showing up ready to engage and to learn.”
When describing her role as a donor, Idol said, “I think my role is to be curious and listen. These project teams have significant experience. They’re living and breathing the work every single day. They’re sitting next to women and girls that need the support more than anything and so whatever I can do to assist that, or not assist if they don’t need my help, that is our role.”
Maverick Collective has a triple impact philanthropy which Greifinger described as “impact on gender equality and women and girls through rapid innovation in global health, impact on our members to become more authentic, accountable and activated, and then impact on philanthropy.”
The underlying question she posed is: “Are we helping to be part of a much larger movement to shift philanthropy to be more equity focused, more feminist, and more impactful?”
Michelle Dominguez (they/them/elle) is a Queer and Nonbinary Los Angeles native born to Colombian immigrants. After a decade-long career in higher education student affairs, they switched to the nonprofit and philanthropy sector in 2021. What brings Michelle joy? Quality time with loved ones, mindfulness, chocolate desserts, and Disney magic.
Correction: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Rena Greifinger’s name, and to update numbers on Maverick Collective’s activity to date.