Some possible new directions for Hewlett Foundation’s TPA grantmaking

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Guided by our commitment to outcome-focused philanthropy, we take stock every five or so years of what happened over the previous strategy cycle, how the current landscape looks—and how it is changing—to learn, adapt, and respond to this new context in a meaningful way.

Kicking off a strategy refresh during a global pandemic presents opportunities, constraints, and increased uncertainty. Global calls for racial justice and the decolonization of international development further compel us to step back and reflect on our roles in addressing power inequities, including those we perpetuate ourselves.

In this blog post, we will share what we’ve learned so far and how we’re incorporating those lessons into our next five-year strategy. We hope you’ll share your feedback and questions by writing to us at We will then respond directly to your feedback and questions and solicit further insights during a webinar in the first half of September.

As we described in greater detail last September, the first half of the strategy refresh aimed to 1) learn from an evaluation of our previous strategy and 2) understand how the TPA field evolved over the past five years. Last month, our colleagues at On Think Tanks published the results of both the strategy evaluation and field scan through an interactive report that includes an overview of the shifts in funder priorities and strategies; think pieces authored by TPA experts in Senegal, Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana; and a concise list of outcomes from our previous strategy—among dozens of other pieces of thought-provoking content.

The strategy evaluation and field scan are complemented by a deep dive analysis of 23 years of support to civil society in Mexico. The final interactive report, which was also published last month, includes a description of how Mexico’s social and political context evolved over that period. The report includes ten case studies that depict the kinds of organizational development and social change that rarely happen within a single grant period, yet can emerge after a decade or more of sustained support.

Lessons learned from the past strategy

Our previous strategy (2016-2020) theorized that government accountability is enabled by government transparency and citizen participation. This means that when civil society, citizens, and media have access to information and ways of participating with their government, they can hold their governments accountable and, as a result, increase or reinforce the quality of public services. The problem we were trying to address was poor service delivery, which we hypothesized was caused by weak transparency and accountability mechanisms. Our goal was “for citizens (especially women), civil society organizations, and journalists to use information about their governments to hold them accountable for their obligations, including providing basic services like health, education, water, and sanitation.” We set the scope of our strategy to be global with national grantees in East Africa, West Africa, and Mexico.

We focused our grantmaking (~USD 72M or 38% of total grant money from 2015-2020) on improving transparency (fiscal transparency) around the use of public resources and on increasing citizen participation (~USD 33M in governance channels and ~USD 30M in service delivery monitoring).

We invested in accelerating the adoption of international transparency standards led by international organizations. We supported some of the largest existing transparency platforms, such as the Open Contracting Partnership and the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative. We hypothesized that if national governments committed to global transparency and accountability norms, civil society organizations would pressure them to implement the commitments. This would build an enabling environment in which local civil society monitors government effectiveness and advocates for reforms. We also invested in national and regional organizations working to strengthen citizens’ ability to speak and the channels to engage with government at national and sub-national level.

This approach contributed to some notable progress, especially around the disclosure of information on government revenue sources (e.g., taxes from extractive industries) and budget plans. It also helped lead to the rise of strong civil society actors—for example, in Mexico, civil society organizations can now challenge government economic and social policy. Additionally, it helped build strong relationships between civil society organizations and sub-national level governments—for example, it improved inclusive policymaking and implementation in Kenya.

However, our team’s broad thematic and geographic mandate spread us thin and scattered our partners’ successes. Individual success stories didn’t seem to lead to structural, system, or (government) organizational culture change. The team worked at multiple geographic levels (international, regional, national, and subnational), supporting more than a dozen governance thematic areas. And the goal statement, which focused on improving public service delivery, did not capture the full breadth of our grantmaking.

The landscape scan reinforced and supplemented internal learnings. We found that:

  • Many funders are shifting their attention towards national-level efforts. There is growing consensus that commitments to global norms by national governments do not consistently translate to action on the ground, greater participation, and improved livelihoods for groups that have been marginalized. For instance, more than 15 governments made over 100 commitments at the 2016 Anticorruption Summit hosted by the UK, and only 22% have been completed, many of which are still reliant on foreign funding.
  • There is a growing recognition and support for a more transformative approach to gender and power within TPA. Most stakeholders acknowledge that although women, youth, people with disabilities, and refugees are among the most marginalized in society, existing approaches are not uprooting the societal beliefs and practices limiting their power.
  • There is a growing concern that civic participation is under threat. In many geographies where the Hewlett Foundation has supported local actors, the elite have captured political, economic, and civic spaces—limiting the ability and decreasing the willingness of the population to participate in public decision making.

In summary, based on key lessons from our past work, we feel we should:

  • Frame our goal in terms broader than public service delivery, given how our investments evolved in practice and the role of TPA in enabling other government functions.
  • Prioritize our efforts and not spread ourselves too thin in the new strategy.
  • Work in a focused manner in-country to contribute to structural and systemic change in governance and accountability.
  • Prioritize in-country work that informs global norms, actions, and commitments (rather than working from global to local).
  • Acknowledge and address issues of power and inclusion more intentionally.

Incorporating lessons learned in our next strategy

Given the lessons we describe above, we are considering the following three major shifts in our next strategy.

First, while we still are invested in improving the quality of public services, we are likely to shift away from improving public services as our ultimate goal. Instead, we think our grantmaking is best positioned to help our grantees improve the responsiveness of governments to the needs of underserved populations by addressing the elite capture of the state and the resulting diminished power by historically excluded groups. We will therefore focus on building and shifting power, particularly for women and young people, throughout the strategy.

Second, we likely will spotlight issues that address two pressing obstacles to our goal: a weakened information ecosystem and threats to the civic engagement of women and other groups that have been marginalized. While many other obstacles result in diminished power by historically excluded groups, we think these are the issues we are best positioned to address given our experience and team composition.

Third, we are likely to recenter our strategy at the country level. We recognize that effective systems’ change requires tackling challenges that are best understood by in-country organizations with deep networks within local communities, elites, and governments that enable them to drive agendas starting from local aspirations. We won’t shift away from global work entirely but will likely spend a majority of our resources in a few priority countries.

Operationalizing our next strategy

We have notionally identified three outcomes and six countries to pursue our goal and encourage greater focus. We are leaning toward four priority countries to focus our country work, namely Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, and Senegal. We are also considering targeted grantmaking in Tanzania and Burkina Faso to explore their potential for a more in-depth engagement down the road. We identified these six countries based on criteria agreed by the team, including their political economies, Hewlett’s overall experience in the country, the status of TPA policies, the current gender and social inclusion environment, and other funders’ activities.

We are considering supporting underserved populations to exercise greater power by pursuing three complementary outcomes:

  1. Increase the size, resourcing, and resilience of coalitions of underserved populations.
  2. Strengthen an independent, free, and pluralistic media that represents the perspectives of underserved populations and assesses government performance and priorities.
  3. Increase the use of key government information—such as budgets, audits, and development plans—to support the campaigns of underserved populations.

We are also considering a fourth potential outcome: increase the inclusion and influence of under-represented groups in government. (Note: we don’t love the labels “underserved populations” or “under-represented groups” and we invite suggestions for better alternatives that apply across multiple countries. We are generally referring to groups of people who experience systemic injustice.)

Open questions

We don’t expect to have all of the answers even in the “final” version of the strategy, and we plan to experiment, learn, and adjust along the way. Still, we have a number of open questions we hope to address over the next two months as we finalize the direction of the new strategy and seek approval from the Hewlett Foundation leadership. For instance:

  • What are the greatest risks of the proposed strategy? What could go wrong? And what, if anything, can we do to mitigate those risks?
  • How can we best contribute to the goals of prospective grantee partner organizations in priority geographies? How do national and subnational organizations seek to participate in international initiatives?
  • How can a US-based funder best support long-term, equitable partnerships between under-resourced, grassroots groups and larger, more established NGOs in our priority countries?
  • What are the most relevant opportunities for global advocacy and learning to contribute to our overarching goal of building and shifting power to historically excluded groups?
  • How can we best coordinate with peer funders and other actors to support the strength and resiliency of national organizations? What can we learn from other funders who are prioritizing place-based grantmaking?
  • How should we measure progress toward our three outcomes across the four priority countries? How can we best contribute useful knowledge to the field through grantmaking, commissioning evaluations, and facilitating peer learning?

Those are just some of the questions we are still addressing. We are grateful for your thoughts on the above questions, and anything else we should consider as we finalize our next five-year strategy. Please email and let us know if you have questions for us. As mentioned earlier, we will organize an online webinar in September to respond to your feedback and questions.

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