Leading | Connecting | Learning

Strengthening the Philanthropy Ecosystem



By Gail Campbell, CEO and Ruth Rakosa, Communications Manager of the Zenex Foundation

Success depends on much more than funding interventions

Ecosystem – can philanthropy borrow a term from natural sciences? A simple definition of an ecosystem is a community or group of living organisms that live in and interact with each other in a specific environment. What does this mean in the philanthropic sector? We have always proposed that foundations have a mutually dependent relationship with a range of related players in the ecosystem.  

For this reason, the Zenex Foundation grant-making strategy has supported various initiatives to strengthen the ecosystem to promote dialogues, facilitate ongoing learning, build capacity and foster collaboration. We have several initiatives targeting different stakeholder groups within the ecosystem. Our funding programme has grown organically over the years, from being ad-hoc to a strategic focus area.

A critical stakeholder in the education sector is implementing partners. The success of the interventions funded by Zenex, is dependent on capacitated partners. Through the funding of interventions, we have also funded capacity building programmes of organisations. Our funding has included areas such as competencies to deliver an intervention (for example, coaching skills for in-school coaches), management and governance training, executive coaching, education leadership and assisting organisations set up monitoring and evaluation systems. 

In philanthropy, our funding strategies should be broader than funding ‘the project implementation’ but also the organisations who deliver the projects. We have learnt that this form of targeted capacity strengthening programme based on both the successful delivery of interventions as well as overall organisational needs, yields the most success.  This has not only strengthened Zenex interventions but held these organisations in good stead to attract funding from other funders and government.


Identifying levers for systemic change

We have always been committed to evidence-based practices.  Over the years, we have engaged in a range of initiatives to promote this.  Some more successful than others!  In the early days, Zenex initiated and funded a range of Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) capacity building programmes for the funder community, education sector non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and M&E practitioners.  While this was an initial foray into promoting M&E, we have learnt that a more targeted approach is more successful and sustainable. An exciting new venture is working with the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University to develop a range of short courses in education evaluation.

A thriving ecosystem relies on organisations to foster knowledge sharing, create a collective voice, and nurture partnerships. In the South African context, we have thriving membership organisations.  Zenex has focussed on three stakeholders – funders, education NGOs and M&E practitioners.  In practical terms, this meant working with funders at the Independent Philanthropy Association of South Africa (IPASA), supporting education NGOs through the National Association of Social Change Entities in Education (NASCEE), and supporting M&E practitioners through the South African Monitoring and Evaluation Association (SAMEA).

Based on the ecosystem analogy, we have been early adopters to fund the set-up of these entities as well as on-going programmes.  We often refer to it as the meta level of supporting philanthropy – a much-neglected area of funding which primarily supports direct implementation in all sectors.  As members of IPASA, we have all seen the benefit of having an organisation which can represent our collective interests, promote ongoing dialogue and learning, and foster collaboration. 


What successful giving looks like

What does success look like in philanthropic giving? The education challenge in South Africa is huge. The National Development Plan calls for collective action, collaboration and partnership between stakeholders.   This is echoed in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal related to education, whose achievement requires significant collaboration between all stakeholders. Success means more co-ordination amongst the various stakeholder groups to avoid duplication of efforts and wastage of resources, ongoing learning and sharing so we create an evidence base on what works best under which circumstances, and the north star of more collaboration to leverage our funding.  

We share two case-studies of what this means in practice:


Strengthening IPASA’s Knowledge Management and thought leadership capacity

In partnership with IPASA, over the past three years we have seen an active, engaged community of education funders. Our support focussed on strengthening IPASA knowledge management and thought leadership and positioning the IPASA website as a hive of information.  IPASA has also been a leader in setting up learning forums to delve into understanding the education sector, learning from organisations in the forefront of delivery, as well as understanding government priorities and challenges. Collaboration takes many forms, and one form is learning and sharing – especially, building trust within the funder community to not only talk about success but also what does not work.   From a small start-up membership organisation where a few funders, like Zenex, were early adopters, IPASA has grown to become the go-to organisation for philanthropy and plays a critical role connecting funders.  Importantly, funders in the education sector are increasingly demonstrating a willingness to work collaboratively, moving organically from sharing and learning to structured funding partnerships to leverage resources.


Opportunities for Black M&E practitioners  

Our commitment to being evidence-based, as described above, led us to support capacity building programmes to strengthen M&E. We witnessed a growing demand from funders and government for research and evaluation. In 2018, Zenex commissioned an environmental scan of the M&E landscape. This spanned from academic courses to the extent of scholarship, to opportunities for on-going professional development and supply and demand factors. Given our transformation agenda, we were particularly concerned with the opportunities for Black (African, Coloured and Indian) M&E practitioners. The study found that while there was an abundance of M&E interns (entry level), there was little opportunity to progress to mid-level. The project we initiated prior to the study provided learning and practice opportunities for M&E interns. With the findings of the study, we initiated a programme to develop Black M&E practitioners within specialist agencies and research units for valuable in-situ learning. This will include a wrap-around support programme of coaching, conference attendance, support to publish, project management and financial management.  Zenex is also part of the African Education Research Funding Consortium, a network of international funders who have similar programmes on the continent.


Leveraging resources requires deliberate effort

All stakeholders, be it government, funders, implementing partners, the M&E and research community all aspire to work more collaboratively, not only to learn from each other but also to leverage resources, given the enormity of the education challenge. This requires deliberate interventions to foster this engagement. The Zenex Foundation’s strategic initiative to fund organisations within the ecosystem has matured over the years. We have seen signs of early success, and we encourage other funders to support not only direct delivery but also the ecosystem which we rely on. After all, to borrow another term from the natural sciences, we have a mutually dependent symbiotic relationship as stakeholders in the funding and education ecosystem.

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