Lessons Learned on Philanthropic Impact Investing

Sono Aibe reflects on sustaining the impact of philanthropic investments, based from her years of experience as a grant-maker and a grant-seeker. Sono’s article is part of Asian Philanthropy Forum’s “Exploring the Impact of Asian philanthropy” series.

Having gone from being a grant-seeker to a private foundation grant-maker and then back again, the journey has taught me a few things. I write this piece as a global public health professional devoted to promoting community health in impoverished areas of Asia and Africa.

Investing in Structures, Systems, and Monitoring

Donating a school or a health facility in remote rural areas such as in one’s hometown is popular among philanthropists. Donors love to erect structures and pack them with donated goods as direct evidence of their generosity and goodwill. They are satisfied with immediately quantifiable results, attribution, and visibility. Recognizing these short-term benefits, we have learned many important lessons in global development about sustainability.  We need to examine the capacity of local communities to absorb and maintain these investments.

After the ground-breaking photo opportunities and the ribbon-cutting ceremonies are over, the provincial, district government or the village committee to which many of the resource allocation decisions have been decentralized is left to ensure that, within their often meager budget, there is an allocation over the long term to pay recurring salaries for new teachers and health workers.  Furthermore, they must pay for other supplies and related operating costs needed to make these new facilities function. Still more funding is needed to improve the roads that lead to these new facilities; to install proper electricity, water supply and sewage systems; and to create demand from the community for these services offered at these facilities. The quality of education and healthcare services may need to be upgraded for attaining real learning and health outcomes.  These upgrades may require advocacy over many years to fund an overhaul of pre-service training.

Non-profit organizations raising funds for infrastructure projects need to be aware of these long-term commitments and the broader context for sustaining good service outcomes. They need to work with their donors to ensure that systems are in place to budget adequately for the required annual inputs related to maintaining and getting the most out of such gifts of infrastructure. A site visit conducted a year or two later could be useful to see how things are going.

Mixing it Up for Policy Advocacy

When donors want to support worthy causes overseas, some choose to restrict their grants to indigenous NGOs because they are considered more authentic, closer to beneficiaries, and are culturally competent. There are numerous philanthropic vehicles that have sprung up to facilitate direct giving by US donors to foreign NGOs. I recommend from experience that donors be open to selecting the types of grantees on a case by case basis.

If one would like to see an outcome of policy change, a local civil society organization might be considered a better choice due to its ability to apply pressure to policymakers by mobilizing their constituents. However, in newly democratizing societies, some fundamentally important societal values such as respect for individual human rights, gender equality and social inclusion require citizens to question the status quo and to challenge the prevailing norms. It could be frightening, sometimes dangerous, for indigenous groups to be the only voices out front on a national debate on these issues. Some home-grown NGOs are politically linked and that compromises their ability to advocate.

Supporting a coalition including both international and domestic groups, as well as multilateral institutions and global think tanks working together, is a healthy way to go—national debates can then be discussed in the larger context of international standards and laws, and new policy recommendations can be drawn based on global evidence. Stability and long-term strategic thinking can come from well-resourced international groups that could also serve to build capacity of local NGOs and provide useful documentation of processes that led to successes, from a more objective point of view. In an increasingly globalized world, it is increasingly important to solve problems multilaterally, as policies in one country could easily have spillover effects in other countries.

Disclaimer: This is my personal blog and my opinions/thoughts do not reflect those of my employer.

Sono Aibe has 25 years of experience in reproductive health program management. As Senior Advisor for Strategic Initiatives at 


Pathfinder International, an international NGO working globally to promote sexual and reproductive health, she is expanding partnerships and programs especially in the Asia-Pacific region. She worked at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation from 1996-2009, managing multiple grantmaking portfolios in the Population and Reproductive Health Program including for Myanmar and the Philippines. From 1989-1994, she worked on various projects in Southeast Asia with the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning (JOICFP) based in Tokyo. Sono Aibe received an undergraduate degree in History of Science with honors from Harvard University, and a Masters of Health Science in International Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Email: saibe@pathfinder.org Twitter: @aibesono

Posts in this series:

A New Year for Asian Philanthropy to Make an Impact, Victor Kuo

Opening the Window to Philanthropy to China Starts with Transparency, Lijun He

New Trends in Philanthropy in China, Karla Simon

Rise of the Middle Class Donor in Hong Kong, Edwin Lee

Evaluation of the Committee of 100 Teaching Scholar Program 2012, Wenjie Tang

The Next Wave of Philanthropy in China, Dien Yuen