The Evolution of Our Philanthropy

Originally published on the Stars Foundation website by Muna Wehbe on 01 Dec 2017

This November was my 15 year anniversary at Stars Foundation, having joined as its CEO and first employee back in 2002.

Building the foundation

From the outset, Stars was founded on a number of principles which were shared with me by our founder during one of my first interviews for the job. Among them was the importance of supporting effective local organisations working to improve the lives of children and young people in their communities, and recognising their expertise by placing decision-making in their hands. Those founding principles have guided our approach for more than a decade.

Our journey has been one of brave and innovative philanthropy. In 2007 when we launched our flagship programme — the Stars Impact Awards — few donors were offering unrestricted funding direct to local organisations in the Global South. Our combination of flexible funding, capacity building and profile-raising offered through an awards programme underpinned by a rigorous selection process, was unique. Stars developed deep trust-based relationships with its award winners, supporting them with introductions to other funders and networks, and perhaps most importantly, to other winners from whom they could learn and draw inspiration.

With the support of our founder and our Trustees, we went from bold ambition to real impact, awarding 190 organisations in 67 countries, working with over five million people, and leveraging close to $10million in additional funding for our award winners.

Building the influence

Over the years we have assessed our impact, both internally and through external evaluations, and have evolved as a result — adapting our approach in response to feedback we received and to shifts in the sector. As we began to see the value and the importance of our funding approach, we looked for ways to engage other donors, in the hope of influencing their giving practices to provide more direct and flexible support to local organisations.

We developed collaborative partnerships, such as Fund The Front Line with the likes of Pears Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Charities Aid Foundation and Global Giving. We joined the OECD’s Global Network of Foundations Working for Development and acted as the foundations’ first representative on the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC), which looked at how foundations could engage in SDG 17. In our role we helped draft the Guidelines for Effective Philanthropic Engagement which were adopted at the First High Level meeting of the GPEDC in Mexico in 2014.

We began sharing our extensive and very rigorous assessment of potential award winners with as many as 60 other funders globally through our ‘Impact Partnerships programme’, to help reduce the screening burden involved in getting more funding direct to frontline organisations. And we launched the With and For Girls Collective in 2015, bringing together nine organisations to co-create an awards programme funding girl-led and girl-centred grassroots organisations using a participatory grant-making model, where adolescent girls take the final decisions on who should receive an award.

These experiences all contributed to the advancement of our philanthropy and of our singular organisation principle: that local organisations should own their communities’ development agenda and should be supported, on their own terms, to do so. This is what has endured at Stars and what drives its very passionate and committed team, day in and day out.

Building our learning

As we look back on 10 years of the Impact Awards, we have learned so very much about the importance of locally-led development and how this can be supported; about the value in investing in capacity building and the most effective ways of doing so; and about the significance of convening local leaders for peer-to-peer learning and sharing.

This learning has been collated in our Impact Awards Learning Report, which contains a summary of the key lessons we have drawn from our work, along with a detailed analysis of the awards process we have developed and refined over the years.

Building on technology

Looking back, it is sometimes hard to believe that Stars was born before the launch of many of the tech platforms that have become part of our day-to-day life, such as Twitter, YouTube, and

Technology has expanded what is possible in every area of our lives. We have seen how technology and the internet have helped to catalyse democratic change, by transferring power and voice to people and ensuring their messages are heard, and in many cases seen, across the world. Technology has also presented new opportunities for philanthropy to innovate, to communicate and to extend its reach. From fundraising to Facebook campaigns, money transfers to MOOCs, big data to blockchain — the impact of technology on philanthropy has been widespread.

Building on these advances, in 2015 our founder launched his next philanthropic initiative, Philanthropy University, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Philanthropy University provides practitioners with the knowledge, resources and support they need to deliver sustainable development for all. After an initial testing and incubation phase, Philanthropy University will be re-launching to provide accessible and relevant content to local civil society organisations, with a particular focus on the Global South, harnessing the power and the potential of technology for good.

Philanthropy University will translate what Stars has learned over the last 15 years, applying it to a digital platform in a way that can scale. Its focus, like Stars, will be on local organisations; specifically on providing capacity building that is tailored and responsive to their needs, and on the duty of philanthropy to amplify the voices of local leaders. This will be achieved through Philanthropy University’s three initiatives:

1- the University, providing essential online courses and vibrant communities of practice focused on delivering sustainable development

2- the Awards, recognising and rewarding promising local organisations with profile-raising opportunities and access to capital

3- the Forum, bringing learners together with other development stakeholders to celebrate their achievements and mobilise real action in support of their efforts year-round

Philanthropy University will be open to everyone, with content that is both accessible and relevant in order to help build the capacity and resilience of local organisations, recognising their centrality in the wider development landscape. Its ambition is to reach 100 million people by 2020, extending beyond children and young people to the broader reach of the SDGs.

Philanthropy University will relaunch as the centrepiece of our Founder’s philanthropy and will become the new home of the Stars Impact Awards. Moving forward, the Impact Awards will link to the online platform and will be run by the Philanthropy University team. We are eager to see how the Awards will evolve yet again, and we are supporting this transition with a number of our Stars colleagues joining the Philanthropy University team.

Building on girls’ rights

Our With and For Girls initiative has seen exponential growth since it launched in 2015, and will become the focus of the team in the UK from 2018. The members of the With and For Girls Collective are committed to a 2020 strategy, and the team that remains in place is excited to help make this a reality.

As with any big changes that take place, a number of people will be leaving the organisation, myself included as I step down as CEO to take on an advisory role to both the Philanthropy University and With and For Girls teams into 2018. Those of us who are leaving will be in touch to say our goodbyes.

Through Stars I have seen our founder’s philanthropy go on the most incredible journey over the last 15 years, and it has been the greatest privilege to lead that journey along with the other members of our phenomenal team. I have no doubt that the next tech-enabled 15 years will achieve as much and more, and I look forward to cheering it along from the sidelines.

Those of us leaving Stars know that we will always be part of the Stars family and the wider constellation of partners we have worked with over the years. And wherever we go next, I know we will take with us a strong belief in the power of local development to change the world.

This blog is also available in Spanish and Arabic.

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