Lightbulb: 3 Big Ideas from the World’s Only Secretariat for Philanthropy

This post was originally published in the Council on Foundations November 2011 Global Philanthropy edition of Re:Philanthropy.

By: Dan Hymowitz and Heather Lord
Keywords: Donor Engagement| Family Philanthropy| Global Philanthropy| Nonprofits| Partnerships and Collaborations| Public Policy

In America, the debate lumbers on about the best way to coordinate the philanthropic sector and the U.S. government. Meanwhile, one post-conflict West African country has jumped right in — the Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat is the fruit of collaboration between President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and private foundations. It is the world’s only national government office dedicated to engaging private philanthropy.


Launched in April 2009, the Secretariat is a five-person unit housed in the Liberian president’s office, co-financed by six philanthropic organizations.


Expand and improve philanthropic commitment to Liberia.


1)      Is a government Philanthropy Secretariat a good idea?

Early on, some foundations worried that the Secretariat might become a bureaucratic barrier hindering direct impact funding in Liberia. However, after nearly three years of operation, philanthropist feedback indicates that the Secretariat has proven itself a valuable “on the ground” matchmaker, helping donors connect to trustworthy government and nonprofit contacts, information, and grantees. From the Liberian perspective, the Secretariat has increased philanthropic support and built capacity for entrepreneurial Liberian organizations addressing pressing social problems in their communities.

2)      What have some achievements and challenges been so far?

Achievements: Increased funding, network leverage, donor satisfaction, grantee empowerment

The Secretariat has facilitated an estimated US$16.4 million in philanthropic giving. But impact is about more than just money-it’s about making connections, identifying and empowering good partners, and developing ideas for social change. The Secretariat has helped facilitate grants from 13 first-time grantmakers in Liberia. Some family foundations say the Secretariat inspired their giving because they know their investments are effectively contributing to priority, high-impact projects. The Secretariat has also engaged the Liberian government and civil society in an educational dialogue about philanthropy, how it works and how it might help Liberians create long-term, equitable prosperity.

Challenges: Donor coordination, managing expectations

The Secretariat has tried to foster collaboration between foundations and increase philanthropic alignment with Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. They’ve had some success with strategic alignment but struggled with intrafoundation collaboration, due in part to the diversity of Liberia’s philanthropic partners. Additionally, local nonprofits had difficulty meeting donor expectations in the face of significant post-conflict human resource and infrastructure challenges (i.e., limited access to roads, computers, internet) and lack of experience with philanthropic practices (i.e., writing grant proposals, generating self-assessment metrics). While there has been progress, patience and flexibility remain essential on all sides.

3)      Is the Secretariat a viable model for other countries?

As donors and governments in other countries consider a Philanthropy Secretariat or similar coordination mechanism, there are a few pre-conditions which may increase chances of success:

a) significant external foundation interest b) appetite from at least a few key government officials to engage foundations c) a senior government official “champion” with credibility in government and donor communities and a sophisticated understanding of philanthropy d) some level of mutual trust between philanthropists and the government

The bottom line: the world’s only Secretariat for Philanthropy has been a promising experiment for donors and for Liberia. It is worth keeping an eye on this Secretariat and exploring what this model might provide in other countries.

Dan Hymowitz is a former program manager for the Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat and Heather Lord is a philanthropic strategy consultant and authors the blog


For more articles by (and for, and about) philanthropists, please check out the Council on Foundations blog “Re:Philanthropy”


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