Bridgespan Managing Partner William Foster Patterns in African Philanthropy

William Foster first joined Bridgespan in 2002 and became managing partner in September 2021. As Bridgespan expands its work in Africa, we sat down with him to talk about all things philanthropy—patterns in the African social sector, the potential for endowments, and the power of community-driven change.

What got you interested in the social sector?

I didn’t always know that I wanted to work with civil society and NGOs, but I did find myself drawn to social causes where I felt like there was a chance to do something. I went to business school, and while there helped get the first charter school in Silicon Valley started. When I graduated, I got a certificate in nonprofit management unintentionally—all the electives I picked added up to that. Every time there was a moment of choice, I opted to work on education or the environment or economic mobility. Later, I heard about a new organisation called The Bridgespan Group, and it seemed like such an incredible concept. It made me realise that social change in civil society was most important to me. One thing led to another, and a few months later I found myself at Bridgespan.

What are you most excited about with respect to Bridgespan’s work in Africa?

There are so many things that are energising about what we can do, participate in, and learn from in Africa.
There has been a tremendous exchange of ideas around our knowledge work on community-driven change. We’ve had the chance to work with Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) in Kenya and Ubuntu Pathways in South Africa, both pioneering organisations focused on alleviating place-based poverty. They’re helping change the dynamics of the lives of people in the toughest situations: Ubuntu is working in the townships around Gqerberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), and SHOFCO is active in places such as Kibera, Kenya. While both organisations have a community-centric focus, their approaches are different. SHOFCO has a broader, country-wide impact vision, while Ubuntu “scales in” through a narrow focus on one place and its residents over a considerable period so that there’s sustained impact.

Their work illustrates the enormous potential there is for civil society to make a difference in Africa and that there are different pathways to success. There are no singular “top-down” solutions to complicated problems, and our ability to work with leaders who are pulling different levers and approaching problems differently allows us to learn and share that learning.

You’ve researched and spoken widely on big bets in philanthropy—multimillion-dollar grants or initiatives for social change. What potential do you see with big bets in Africa?

There’s enormous potential with big bets, or grants of $10 million or greater, from philanthropy in Africa. There are many trusted local NGOs in Africa working on challenges such as urban poverty and public health, which will not be solved in the next 10 years. They haven’t received major support in the form of big bets—not in unrestricted ways—and haven’t been able to pursue clear opportunities for growth. We were so grateful for the chance to work with the African Philanthropy Forum on our research around the funding disparities faced by African NGOs that stifle their growth and impact. Big bets, in the form of growth capital, would have an enormous effect, allowing these organisations to build out their leadership teams and infrastructure as well as evaluate their programming.

We’ve seen in the US that one of the most effective deployments of big bets is to help organisations build endowments, and we believe the same would be true in Africa. Endowment support represents the ultimate form of trust-based philanthropy when provided to leaders and organisations most proximate to the communities they serve. Moreover, funding an endowment also makes things easier for philanthropists who want to move significant money but don’t have the time to research specific programmes.

Philanthropic giving in countries like the United States is dominated by grantmaking. Do you see potential for this on the African continent, as compared to the more prevalent operating models?

Operating activities and grantmaking both have their place. Non-African donors are making big grants to international NGOs, while African donors are making large grants to government initiatives. It’s not that the grantmaking tool isn’t familiar—it’s just not being deployed in a widespread enough way to local NGOs. For someone who has built or run a business, it can be more familiar or comfortable to “operate.”
The potential impact of funding through grantmaking to local NGOs is clear. Getting help on finding the right NGOs and helping with their capacity building and leadership development becomes challenging if they haven’t historically received significant funding. They’re not going to have an extraordinarily built-out professional management team. Helping them build it, rather than simply assessing whether it’s there or not, is important. There are things to do to make grantmaking effective, all of which are well within the capabilities of both international and African donors. It just takes a prioritisation of that search, and people will find incredible opportunities as they shift to that focus.

It has been three years since Bridgespan began working in Africa. How do you view the impact so far?

We’re on a learning journey, given that we are still relatively new to Africa. But Bridgespan thinks about its impact in a very simple way. Have we helped a set of changemakers—social change leaders or capital providers like philanthropists and impact investors—achieve impact on some of the most pressing problems of society? Have we contributed to success stories in ways that not only make a material difference to the lives of millions of people but also allow a broader set of changemakers to believe that effecting enduring change is possible?

I’m also thrilled with the Johannesburg office’s talented team, the vast majority of whom are from the continent. Ndidi Nwuneli, one of the African Philanthropy Forum’s founders, has recently joined the Bridgespan Board of Trustees, and we’re excited to have someone from the continent on our global governing body. We’re seeing the benefits of having this local expertise influence not only Bridgespan’s work in Africa but also how the ideas of those team members are lifting up practice across the whole of Bridgespan.
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