James Militzer

Funding to Reach the Tipping Point: Doug Balfour, CEO of Geneva Global, on how to spark collaboration that amplifies social impact

Geneva Global is an international philanthropic professional services company that works with wealthy individuals, corporates and large foundations to fund local social impact projects worldwide.

The company has been working for 15 years, making some $200 million in grants in 100 different countries. And over time, according to its CEO Doug Balfour, it has fine-tuned the way it works with local community-based organizations to maximize its philanthropic bang for the buck. “Fundamentally, what we’ve learned is that unless you actually bring them together and concentrate local organizations, you don’t get more than the sum of the parts,” he says.

Prior to 2006, Balfour explains, Geneva Global took a more standard approach, funding an assortment of different organizations all over the developing world. But though the results were solid, they didn’t add up to the kind of impact the company hoped to achieve. So instead of accepting modest results in many places, it decided to aim for a major impact in specific geographies. “Our interest is in focusing on social transformation in a given place, with a population of maybe 50,000 – 200,000 people,” he says. “[We’re] really focusing that energy so that you create a virtuous cycle of education, health, economic development, economic empowerment – activities all happening at the same time. So you potentially get to a tipping point and see real, sustainable, long-term social change.”

In catalyzing this sort of change, Geneva Global supports a wide array of organizations – but though they’re often focused on similar missions and geographies, Balfour says, some of these organizations have never spoken to each other, and their leaders have never even met. He chalks this up to the natural competitiveness that non-profits share with their for-profit counterparts – but he says he has found a way around it. “[Non-profits] are essentially competing with people offering products and services of a similar nature,” he explains. “So the key is to figure out the incentives. If you can incentivize organizations so that the opportunities coming from the collaboration are greater than the sense of losing out … then you actually get people working together.”

But after that funding runs out, do these organizations continue working together, or does their competitive nature reassert itself? In the video below, part seven in our Impact Investing Insights series, Balfour discusses this and other questions – including whether the Millennial generation can succeed where the Baby Boomers failed in making business sustainable.

You can view the other parts of the series below:

Part 1: A Small Drop in a Large Bucket: The World Economic Forum’s Abigail Noble, on why impact investing needs to go mainstream

Part 2: Pay for Success: Can social impact bonds provide the fabled “win-win-win”?

Part 3: Start Small, Stay Small: Can better finance help Latin America’s microenterprises take the next step?

Part 4: The Best-Kept Secret in Impact Investing

Part 5: The Supply Chains of the Future

Part 6: A Shift in Focus: Impact investing needs to concentrate less on problems, more on solutions, says Burckart

James Militzer is the editor of NextBillion Financial Innovation.

impact investing, poverty alleviation