Bridgespan Managing Partner William Foster on Big Bets in Indian Philanthropy

09/09/2022
William Foster first joined Bridgespan in 2002 and became managing partner in September 2021. During his recent visit to India, we asked him about all things philanthropy—including shifting patterns in the Indian social sector and the potential for endowments and community-driven change to have significant social impact globally.

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 picked work on education or the environment or economic mobility. A few years later, when I was working at Bain & Company, a voicemail went around the system 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 after that voicemail I found myself at Bridgespan.

You’ve researched and spoken widely on endowments, terming them a “stodgy tool for a radical purpose.” What potential do you see with endowments in the Global South, particularly in India?

Endowments have been used for significant institutions, such as universities or museums, for a long time. The first literally structured endowment was in the Roman Empire, so setting up positions of endowed learning goes way back, and it’s not really viewed as innovative. One of the things that’s most important and radical in our work is trust-based philanthropy. How do we shift the fundamental power dynamic of the donor having all the influence and NGO leaders being supplicant?

There’s a lot of sophisticated talk in terms of how we do it—the different ways to get community voice into donor decisions—and our Mumbai office’s recent report on community-driven change in the Global South reflects that. I recently met with the Swades Foundation, a group we’ve profiled in some of our community-driven change work, and they spoke a lot about authentic community ownership of changes. So while they work on technical issues like sanitation and clean water, having active input from the community helps not only to structure but also to position things differently. It creates an ownership of caring that goes on after the infrastructure work is done. For instance, they work with more than 1,200 village development committees (VDCs) across the Raigad district. These VDCs comprise volunteers with a shared vision of better development of their villages. It’s not a sophisticated intervention, but it’s a critical first intervention.

The “radical” part of endowments is that you’re taking the money and putting it in control of the NGO. When the money goes from one party to the other, it’s the most radical act of trust, because you’ve just put the perpetual capital returns in the hands of the social change leader. And in the Indian context, as the philanthropy market matures, I wonder whether there will be an openness to that. Most social problems are not going to get solved on a five-year strategy plan—it takes decades and sometimes generations to have an impact, and you need strong NGO institutions that can navigate it. The only way to ensure that is an endowment. I would imagine that our team can sketch out four dozen key institutions in different fields that India would want well funded for decades to come.

With restrictions on foreign giving in India due to Foreign Contribution Regulation Act amendments, do you envision a shift in the way India’s wealthiest think about their giving?

It’s a fool’s errand to get too precise in predicting how giving will change, but the extraordinary levels of wealth that are behind philanthropy are relatively new in the Indian context. As a result, the norms and traditions of giving in big philanthropies—not charity giving from regular folks—are less settled, less firm. Giving is more to be determined by individual leaders role modelling for their peers.

I think there’s tremendous opportunity for change, which could be good or bad. One of the shifts I can see: an increase in the amount of giving. Instead of giving 1 percent a year—a figure cited in the India Philanthropy Report 2022—imagine if that were doubled.

Another shift, as people become more serious about giving, is developing more grantmaking foundations. In India, grantmaking forms a much smaller proportion than in other parts of the world, as compared to operating models. I recently spoke with the Koita Foundation, which is doing incredible work on the digital transformation of nonprofits and in digital health. It would be ideal if there were more grantmaking so that the broader NGO sector was more richly funded and could both scale and increase the quality of its work. For instance, with the Adani family’s recent pledge of INR 60,000 crore to philanthropy, I would find it hard to believe that all of the funds would go to operating foundations versus a major grantmaker. That pledge could change the landscape and expectations of Indian philanthropy.

Bridgespan has steadily expanded the geographical scope of its impact. What are you most proud of?

I’m very excited about the work that’s coming out of India. When I was here two and a half years ago, before the pandemic, our team was much smaller (20, as compared to about 50 now). When I met with leaders in the field back then, there was a sense of intrigue around Bridgespan, but we were still perceived as an outpost of an American firm. On this trip, I met with about 10 funders and NGO leaders, and it feels incredibly different. People have made explicit statements about what a critical part of Indian civil society Bridgespan is, and the ways they hope we can together shape the destiny of civil society in India. The team has built a track record of excellence and a local legitimacy that totally changes the game for what our next steps could be.

The work of our India team is also playing an important role in building Bridgespan’s overall capabilities. From the launch of our three-year investment in community-driven change knowledge work, to our client work that will really help us better serve philanthropies that are operating foundations to CSR, we are beginning to experience some of the benefits of being a firm that is locally grounded.

Yet, I feel we’re far closer to the beginning of our journey than any kind of arrival point. There’s so much potential for us to do more, and to do it better. We can have lasting effects on justice, equity, and civil society, and truly be the kind of professional firm that has rarely existed—a firm that is humane, culturally diverse, and inclusive, and a firm that achieves incredible results.
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