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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Getting Giving Right 

February 14, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

David Callahan asks “Who is Silicon Valley’s Most Effective Global Giver?” in Inside Philanthropy, and I’m delighted to report he gets the answer right.  That right answer is Ed Scott.

Ed, as Callahan’s article points out, is not the richest guy from the Valley, or the best known.  But he surely has placed some of the smartest philanthropic bets anyone could imagine, with a focus on achieving big positive change through policy research plus advocacy.  He’s built at least four excellent organizations from the ground up, and knows that the best work comes when people are pushed to achieve impact but given the flexibility to do it their way, responding to opportunities in real time.

My own understanding of what philanthropic dollars can do comes directly from working at the Center for Global Development, an organization Ed initially bankrolled and where he served as Chair of the Board of Directors (a position he continues to hold today).  He invested in CGD not to keep a bunch of policy wonks employed, but to change the world, first by making the case for debt relief and over time through purposeful, focused, high-impact work on aid, trade, migration, climate and the many other ways in which the U.S. and other rich countries shape the prospects of poor countries.

In one of our earliest conversations, now a dozen years ago, Ed terrified me by asking how my analyses of global health policies were going to prevent babies from dying in the next year.  Though I’d worked at the World Bank and the InterAmerican Development Bank, it was the first time anyone asked me flat out how I was solving urgent real-world problems.  Let me tell you, that question deserved a really good answer – and seeking that answer fundamentally changed me from a “write a good report” person to a “try to make a big difference” person.  I’m guessing the same is true for many of my former colleagues.

Remarkably, Ed’s high expectations about impact, which CGD has lived up to under the leadership of Nancy Birdsall, were paired with a healthy separation from the day-to-day decisions.  Ed is one of those rare individuals who can place a bet and wait to see whether it pays off.  Far more than many others seem to be able to do, he lets go – and as he does, the organizations he supports go further and faster than if he were holding on tight.

Maybe Ed is one of a kind.  I hope not.