The Maverick Collective started in May 2016 with the broad idea to allow women with substantial means to help those without. A core group of 14 founding members promised to each spend at least $1 million over three years to test health interventions in the most impoverished places in partnership with not-for-profit Population Services International (PSI). The idea is to see if the venture capital approach to philanthropy can be a fast, effective way to change the world.
A philanthropic club where the entrance fee is seven figures sounds quite exclusive. Or perhaps exclusionary, depending on how comfortable you are with the super-rich setting the agenda for how life in poor communities should work. To help safeguard against a potential wealthy bias, the Collective is also trying to expand its boundaries, by letting groups of women pool their money until they reach enough to qualify for the group, thus opening up the rarefied air of high-value philanthropy to more people and perspectives.
More than 700 million people live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day, the majority of whom are girls and women. So Maverick is focusing on improving basics like reproductive, maternal, and child health, and how to provide clean water, improved sanitation, and better hygiene practices. Other topics include battling noncommunicable diseases, gender-based violence, and HIV. With co-chairs like Her Highness the Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, who is also a cofounder, and Melinda Gates, their boardroom provides enough business savvy and star power to offer cause-solving lessons for everyone. "This really is a first-ever, all-women community of philanthropists going beyond their checkbook, using their intellect and voice as well as their financial resources to lift girls and women out of poverty," says Maverick's other cofounder and CEO Kate Roberts, a senior vice president at PSI.
Maverick projects align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for empowering women and are designed to fill a void: Only 5% to 7% of all foundation funding has historically been aimed directly at girl and women’s initiatives, according to an Indiana University Women’s Philanthropy Institute report. And the model shows promise: The Gates Foundation awarded PSI a $5 million grant to get started. Early stage programs have since rolled out to reach hundreds of thousands in 13 countries, attracting $36 million from other groups who are looking to scale what's working.
But there is a catch: Because the cost of admission is so high, the group could be pricing out younger people who'd be passionate about their cause. While there are certainly plenty of ultra-rich women out there, Maverick's VC approach involves finding people with the right blend of passion, money, and business acumen.
That first factor is hard to find. The second is due to change dramatically: In the coming years, an estimated $41 trillion may be passed down between generational heirs, according to a National Philanthropic Trust report. But what about that work experience part? For Roberts, it only made sense to groom those who were willing to combine their wealth and work collaboratively—essentially they'd apprentice each other—considering they might eventually want to fully invest.
The giving circle itself now acts as internal pilot, another platform to track and perhaps expand, although for now Maverick would like to stay small and nimble, making sure each group member in both the circle and collective is as involved as possible. "They don’t just want their names on a building," Roberts says. "They want to go into the field and roll up their sleeves and get to work." Turns out, that's an increasingly popular way to change the world.
At its center, a giving circle is any group that pools its money to make a larger impact on some cause. Decisions about how and where to donate get made collaboratively, giving members a chance to voice opinions and learn from each other’s perspective. The concept appears to be catching on, particularly with women.
Membership at the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network, an industry trade group, has grown by nearly 40% over the last few years, when compared to earlier numbers reported by Nonprofit Quarterly. Jargon alert: Giving circles can be called collectives, but not all collectives fit the circle mold. For instance, Maverick's members independently contribute to different causes, although they work with PSI and share lessons along the way. Some circles operate virtually. Take Amplifier, an online network of circles backed by Jewish values. It has 101 groups with more than 3,000 total members. Charities visit a digital grants board to apply for different kinds of funding.
Philosophically, the idea of women-for-women aid makes sense. It’s women who are more likely to give to female empowerment causes, in part because they better understand the importance of the issues, notes another Women’s Philanthropy Institute study. Perhaps because of that, women report wanting to be more personally involved in creating change.
Giving circles offer a good way to do that because they bypass another charitable roadblock—the tendency to not give back until you are older and more financially stable. The lower-stakes ante means more people can be experimental philanthropists, even if they're still hammering on the glass ceiling. (Or pushing for more control over the family trust, whatever the case may be.)
The self-described "team captain" of Maverick’s giving circle is 27-year-old Sara Ojjeh, the director of philanthropy at Athos II Holdings, a private family trust and philanthropy planning firm. She’s also a trained doula. When she heard about Maverick starting up, she immediately wanted to do something to make childbirth safer in developing countries.
Ojjeh is a bit of a philanthropy wonk: She holds a masters degree in fundraising and grantmaking from New York University, and previously created Michael Kors’s corporate responsibility program, which included working with the World Food Programme. As the daughter of billionaire entrepreneur Mansour Ojjeh, she already worked with charities, and she and her siblings ran their own circular-model family fund. Doing the same thing at Maverick would ensure she'd earned her spot through something other than sheer purchase power. "I needed to find a way to do that with a sum I was comfortable with," she says.
So Ojjeh asked four like-minded friends to buy in. Each paid an equal amount; she doubled that single stakeholder share to become the head the group. Decisions are still made democratically, but Ojjeh is considered primary founding member and formally represents the group.
Her team's project is in Uganda, where about 40% of babies are delivered outside of hospitals. Without proper medical care, 6,000 mothers bleed to death annually, and 41,000 newborns die from preventable infections. To fix that, Ojjeh's circle wants improve and widely distribute so-called "Moma Kits," specialized care packages containing things like gloves, a plastic sheet, and a clean razor to better sterilize the remote process. More importantly, they're working to add two medicines that have been designated as "life-saving commodities" by the United Nations: chlorohexidine (an umbilical cord disinfectant), and misoprostol (which can stop postpartum bleeding).
The team hopes to distribute more than 65,500 kits to pregnant families, while putting more in the hands of doctors, midwives, pharmacists, and specially trained service workers who might come into contact with them. Before that can happen, they have to negotiate serious regulatory and distribution hurdles, so they've been parachuting into the country to figure out how best to stump for and deploy their solutions. "We want to learn together and get into the nitty-gritty of these projects to create sustainable change," Ojjeh says. "The real point about the model that we’re piloting here is that the younger generation of philanthropists really want to be engaged and collaborative."
Tatiana Casiraghi is one of Ojjeh’s giving circle partners and runs an ethically sourced clothing line called Muzungu Sisters. She says the group's sense of camaraderie reminds her of how she runs her own company. "I like to feel that I’m part of a team rather than just taking charge and doing things alone," Casiraghi says. "I have a business partner and every day I realize I wouldn’t like to be doing it all by myself. That applies to philanthropy as well as personally."
That refrain is common among next generation do-gooders, who would rather give time and money, than just cash alone, according to a recent report by the Case Foundation. Many are seeking to create an emotional connection to the causes they support, and want to work alongside their friends.
But giving circle members are likely gaining far more than that. The Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers has found that people who join such groups don’t just give more over time; they learn to spend more strategically than other donors. They’re more willing to diversify where their money goes and pay attention to underfunded groups like girls, women, and ethnic and racial minorities.
To Maverick CEO Roberts, that makes the circle look more like a future talent pool. "We're open to building a few more," she adds. Anyone who can manage $1 million wisely probably has a next step ahead.
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