In Uganda, only three out of 10 children graduate from elementary school. Though primary and secondary schooling is free, schools are overcrowded, with one teacher often in charge of 80 students. Often, parents can’t afford to buy textbooks or uniforms, the assigned school is too far away, or children are needed to help with a family business.
In 2015, the leaders of a European mobile games company more than 2,000 miles away from the African country were looking to make an employee-inspired philanthropic investment. They wanted to tackle a global societal issue that resonated with their employees, but didn’t want to blindly donate to a charitable foundation. They wanted to be sure that their money would be spent well.
The organization that would tie together the employees of this company with the children of Uganda turned out to be very far from both parties—across the Atlantic Ocean, in fact—but very close to Philadelphia: Geneva Global, a Paoli-based philanthropic consulting firm that helps organizations and wealthy individuals all over the world invest their philanthropic dollars wisely.
The goal is a smarter, more evidence-based approach to philanthropy that gives donors the satisfaction of contributing to proven solutions to problems around the world.
“Giving can be quite difficult to do well,” explains Ava Lala, a director at Geneva Global, a certified B Corporation that recently won Best for the World for its work helping customers create positive social impact. “So much of philanthropy can be wasted or people can feel disenfranchised when they don’t feel like their money is making a difference.”
Since 1999, Geneva Global has offered advice and services to ultra wealthy families, foundations, companies, and nonprofits, supporting them in both brainstorming and executing their philanthropic activities. That can mean helping clients choose where to give their money, or researching an issue so they are better educated about a potential investment area, or even developing a program using local operators for donors to invest in.
The goal is a smarter, more evidence-based approach to philanthropy that gives donors the satisfaction of contributing to proven solutions to problems around the world. Since its founding, Lala says, the organization has worked in more than 100 countries, managed $165 million in granting, and impacted the lives of millions of people.
“A lot of the problems we work on are very complicated. Something like poverty is not a one-trick pony. There’s insecurity with housing, and mental illness, and job readiness. If you’re thinking about how to solve a particular problem, you need to think about, who are all of those players?” explains Lala. “We try to pull people together who may not have always talked to each other, to make sure solutions make sense.”
The mobile games company, for example, hired Geneva Global to pitch a series of ideas to its employees in order to uncover their philanthropic inclinations, after which everyone seemed drawn to the problem of education in Uganda. Once Geneva Global knew what societal ill concerned the company’s staff, they went to work deciphering how to solve it. (Lala says Geneva Global does not release the name of its clients.)
After conversations with nonprofit leaders on the ground in Uganda, Geneva Global adapted an accelerated learning program called Speed Schools, which they had created for a different client looking to work in Ethiopia. With funding from the games company, they opened 70 Speed Schools in Uganda with nine local partners, where students who have dropped out of government schools can attend to complete grades one through three in just 10 months. They can then re enter public schools in fourth grade without the shame of being much older or much further behind academically than their peers.
The schools in Uganda have served 12,000 kids since 2015, and the Ethiopian schools have served 40,000 kids since the mobile games company took over the funding that year. An independent study from the University of Sussex and Hawassa University found that after six years, Speed School students were happier, had fewer absences, and performed better on math and English tests than their peers who completed grades one through three in government schools.
Since its founding, Geneva Global has worked in more than 100 countries, managed $165 million in granting, and impacted the lives of millions of people.
Geneva Global’s transcontinental work is inherent in its name and in its founders, New Zealand-born brothers Richard and Christopher Chandler, who got their start by turning their family-owned department store into 10 stores before launching investment companies that made them each a billionaire. In 1999 they were looking for philanthropic advisement services that offered the same accountability and transparency they required when making business investments.
Like other businessmen, the brothers would never invest money without analyzing risk and reward and projecting impact. So they couldn’t understand why they would be expected to blindly donate money to charity without first doing the same due diligence. When they couldn’t find a consulting firm to help them smartly spend their money, they decided to start their own.
Neither of the brothers was living in the United States at the time, but friend and fellow billionaire and investment manager Sir John Templeton had some room in the offices of his John Templeton Foundation in Paoli. He offered the Chandlers free office space for Geneva Global’s staff, while the brothers operated the business from abroad. In 2008, the Chandlers sold the now 40-employee business to current Chairman Doug Balfour and moved on to their own individual investment companies and philanthropic ventures.
“Giving can be quite difficult to do well,” explains Ava Lala, a director at Geneva Global. “So much of philanthropy can be wasted or people can feel disenfranchised when they don’t feel like their money is making a difference.”
By then, Geneva Global had started to fill a niche in the charitable world. Paul Schervish, professor emeritus and former director of Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, sees philanthropic dollars squandered regularly. “It’s not because there’s mismanagement or misconception,” Schervish explains. “It happens because human beings and the knowledge of human beings creates unintended consequences.” A variety of problems—ranging from incompetent leadership to redundant strategies—could lead a program or idea to fail.
For this reason, Geneva Global strictly measures the impact of the money it manages to evaluate what works, what doesn’t, and what could and should be replicated, using a variety of metrics, including (when relevant) cost per life—the cost of a program divided by how many lives were impacted by it.
As with all investments sometimes their gamble fails. “To think that you can always and every time figure this out, it’s a fool’s errand,” Schervish says. This is something Geneva Global acknowledges and embraces; as Balfour has said, “Trust seems to go up when [clients] are told, ‘Actually, this project didn’t quite turn out the way we had hoped, and here are the reasons why.’”
Though programs like Speed Schools make for an intriguing story, they are just a small part of what Geneva Global does; their work is as varied as their client base, and the projects that elicit fewer feel-good emotions still have an impact. They recently provided a West Coast foundation with overviews and donor profiles for four domestic issues, including opioid addiction, that they wanted to get involved in, which allowed them to pinpoint where they might be able to jump in and fill gaps. They helped a DC-based organization build their grantmaking process from the ground up, supporting them in everything from developing an intuitive dashboard that displays their impact to selecting their grantees.
Geneva Global is a for-profit company that charges clients a fee based on the type of services required. It became a B Corp in 2017, as a way to emphasize its mission of using its power for social good—something Lala says signals to customers that they are entering a relationship that is about more than just the bottom line.
“If we don’t serve our clients well, we won’t be in business,” Lala notes.Header: Geneva Global