John Hecklinger on Partnering with Bold Grassroots Leaders
The President & CEO of Global Fund for Children explains how the organization empowers local leaders to address the issues facing youth across the globe.
John Hecklinger is the President & CEO of Global Fund for Children, where he is focused on advancing the dignity of children worldwide by strengthening innovative, community-based organizations that support vulnerable children and youth. Since 1997, GFC has invested in 646 grassroots organizations, improving the lives of more than 10 million children and youth worldwide.
Philanthropy University: Please tell us about yourself and the work that you do at Global Fund for Children (GFC).
My inspiration for getting into this work started when I was in the Peace Corps in Central African Republic in the 90s. During that time, I had many experiences which shaped how I view the world. One such experience was when I helped start a small, social enterprise writing study guides for the national exams. We worked hard to arrange funding, but it was very difficult. Then I got evacuated from the posting and it all fell apart. The experience made a huge impression on me – here were these brilliant people that could have really made a big difference, but never got the chance to do so.
My academic training is in English literature, with an emphasis on critical theory and new (at the time) ways that democratized and decentralized access to information would change our culture. After some time in the private sector, I made my way to GlobalGiving, the organization that invented crowdfunding, although we didn’t know it as crowdfunding at the time. In this role, I was able to solve the exact problem that I had diagnosed in my Peace Corps days – using information and technology to get funding and knowledge to people with great ideas. I spent 12 years there, and during that time I observed GFC as a close collaborator and effective organization with a great track record of finding and funding amazing leaders starting important organizations.
How would you define a truly grassroots organization?
It’s an organization that has leaders truly rooted in the community they serve and committed to listening closely to what that community is saying. The organization can take a lot of different forms and it can look a lot of different ways. It could be an NGO with a founder from the community, or it could be a social enterprise with a founder based in the US but with a team truly rooted in a particular community in Nigeria for example.
What does the research and identification process consist of and find grassroots groups?
We rely heavily on our program team’s connections and networks. We can’t have feet on the ground everywhere so recommendations and referrals are important to our approach. This process is sometimes a push and sometimes a pull because we are always looking for grassroots groups to put in our funding pipeline, but sometimes we need to more proactively source organizations when we find funding for a place or an issue and don’t have organizations already in the pipeline.
Our due diligence process is pretty rigorous once we begin considering an organization. This process almost always involves a site visit and an in-person conversation with the organization’s leaders and the people they are serving. We do document reviews, and then we bring our staff together for internal vetting meetings where the team asks questions and learns more about the prospect organization’s leadership and approach. Our Board also reviews a grant docket at least twice a year
What do you think uniquely positions the Global Fund for Children to effectively do this work?
While other organizations are also funding grassroots organizations working on a variety of issues , we have particular expertise helping organizations that serve children and youth. In most cases, the organizations we work with have never had external funding before. We are willing to take a risk on those organizations, helping them understand what it takes to work with a US funder. Our patient approach, spanning several years of engagement, is pretty special.
What types of organizations do you see being most successful after graduating from Global Fund for Children?
We are currently refining how we look at that. There are some rough measures to look at. One common but one-dimensional way to measure success is through an organization’s budget. Most organizations that come through our program end up with bigger budget. However, one parameter that is important to me is how well-networked an organization becomes during their time with us. Many leaders who have gone through our program have gone on to become internationally recognized as CNN Heroes, Ashoka Fellows, Skoll Fellows, and have been honored in many different ways.Their ability to cultivate networks and acquire knowledge from others, has been a key to success. Part of what’s so interesting about our model and why we stress the importance of convening organizations is to help them become a part of a denser network of practitioners. We are trying to host more cohorts of organizations that are tackling similar issues or are at a similarly stage of development.
Can you share some information around the impact that Global Fund for Children has had in the local communities you work in and on a broader scale?
We are an organization that serves NGOs in many different context with an overarching focus on children and youth. Some of the big numbers include having been able to fund 640+ organizations. We have exceeded $40 million in grants. At an average of $10,000 per grant, getting to $40 million is quite an accomplishment. Our rough estimate of people served is 10 million.
Another number that stands out is that two-thirds of the time, GFC is the first US-based funder for these organizations. Previously they may have had local community funders or no funding at all, so to me this is a success in terms of finding nascent organizations and working with them to understand how these funding relationships work. We are refreshing our theory of change and associated outcome indicator framework, so stay tuned for a more sophisticated set of measures.
What are the biggest challenges that the Global Fund for Children faces?
One challenge is the shrinking space in many countries for NGOs to operate. This makes it harder for them to take outside funding, which is a challenge because then we are unable to operate in areas where we could have a lot of potential.
One way we’ve addressed this is by setting up local entities. For instance, in India it is becoming increasingly difficult for organizations to get their certification for cross-border funding. When you are at the level that you have certification, it probably means you are no longer at the nascent stage of funding, which is where we like to focus. So we have established a separate entity within India that now has its own status and is able to fund grassroots organizations within India. And that’s pretty exciting because we can then execute on the model there, leveraging the relationships we have, and really generate local funding for local solutions. This is just one way we’ve overcome a problem in a country that is really important to us.
Another challenge that we face in the US is that domestic giving is seen as the priority for many. Since we raise money for international giving, this has been hard.
Internally, we are working to strengthen our operating systems and technologies so we can work more efficiently and globally.
What has been most eye opening for you since doing this work?
One eye opening thing I’ve observed since working at GFC is how many brilliant, inspiring people are out there running these grassroots organizations under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. It continues to amaze me how transformative flexible funding can be for those grassroots organizations.
Since you’ve joined the Global Fund for Children, the organization has underwent a few changes.
Some of the changes that I’ve been part of since joining include a new brand with a revamped mission, vision theory of change and impact indicator framework. We also have a new website and a different voice. We have settled on four thematic focus areas.. That way we can bring organizations together to learn and grow from one another. We are developing a strength in running multi-year programs.
Internally, we had been working in separate offices with strategies that weren’t entirely linked, now we are focused on linking our offices in DC, India, the UK and Hong Kong, with a new office space in DC so the teams work together as one global team.
Why do you think the partnership between Philanthropy University and GFC is so important?
Philanthropy University has this amazing potential to democratize access to knowledge. I immediately saw the benefit of partnering with Philanthropy University because there is amazing content that is accessible to the exact people we are trying to serve. We are really happy to be a part of it and will continue to have our partners take advantage of those resources.
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