Since joining the staff of the Rockefeller Foundation in 2007, Claudia Juech has led the foundation's efforts to identify and assess new, large-scale opportunities for impact across the foundation's priority areas and spearheaded its horizon scanning activities, informing both strategy and programs.
Earlier this month, PND spoke with Juech about Rockefeller's "scan and search" activities, an approach the foundation is using to bring more diverse voices into the earliest stages of its work, ensure that all early-stage decisions are based on the best available evidence, and ultimately do the most good with the resources it has.
Philanthropy News Digest: What were the factors that led Rockefeller to adopt the "scan and search" approach? What are its benefits over more conventional approaches to philanthropic investment? And has your background in finance shaped your thinking about what the foundation can and should do to maximize its impact?
Claudia Juech: We wanted to develop a tool that would help the foundation generate the most impact for its investment — and to do that, to truly achieve transformative change, we needed to cast a wider net. That entailed a couple of things: in addition to being guided by our in-house experts, we realized we needed to reach out and listen to a broader spectrum of voices, and to look at problem areas that we hadn't considered previously. And we wanted to find ways to put the "winds of change" at our back — to identify changes that were already happening and could help us achieve our impact goals.
In comparison to more conventional philanthropic approaches, it's very open-ended and opportunity-driven. Rather than settling on a strategy or approach beforehand — say, increasing agricultural productivity — and then doing research to confirm our assumptions, we look at problems affecting vulnerable populations and try to keep an open mind in terms of deciding which issues we want to work on and how.
We're looking at big spaces, big fields, big problems where we want to make big bets. And there are a couple of things from my experience at Deutsche Bank, where I was responsible for trend monitoring, that I've tried to apply to my work here — using futures methodologies, for example, to predict "winds of change" trends. We start by looking quickly at about a hundred options, potential big bets, and then winnow them down to those we think will generate the biggest bang for our buck. I see some similarities with venture philanthropy in the belief that not every investment will have the impact you want, and that you look across a wide range of options and try to place informed bets. We look at a broad range of options, from cybersecurity concerns for the poor, to issues of energy poverty, to urban food insecurity, to neglected tropical diseases, and we ask where we could make the most headway, and what we can bring to the table in terms of our assets and competencies. Eventually we'll move on to dedicated, rigorous research and stakeholder consultation on a short list of options.
PND: What are some of the challenges you faced in shifting to the "scan and search" approach — internally with foundation staff, as well as externally, with grantees? And are there any lessons you could share with the field?
CJ: I think the short answer is that the work is not any easier with this approach. It might provide a broader array of opportunities and in the end lead to better results, but it doesn't necessarily lead to a "silver bullet," any more than other approaches would. We've learned a couple of things, though. Internally, there have been a lot of questions about the staff's "ownership," engagement, and role in shaping these ideas. Typically, our investment ideas had been developed by, for example, someone leading the foundation's agricultural program, so when a separate "scan and search" team was tasked with casting a wider net for ideas, well, it initially created some tensions and challenges. It was a change-management process for the first two years. And in some ways I feel that tensions will always exist around mechanisms designed to ensure that outside perspectives are included in the planning process and that we don't fall into programmatic silos, which is one of the things scan and search is meant to address.
Over the years, we've developed different processes designed to bring in our colleagues and their expertise. We work closely with our in-house experts, who are our partners and advisors in the work of surfacing new ideas, and we use various facilitation methods, internal huddles, ideation meetings, and the like. In fact, some of those methods are now being used after the work has progressed to a later phase. So, we've advanced the work of the foundation not only substantively but also methodologically.
Externally, because scan and search is used in the very early stages of the initiative pipeline, the implications for grantees have not been that dramatic. We reach out to a broader universe beyond our grantees, to experts and people who can provide insights or who are directly affected by the problem. Although often the work we do ends up informing the work our grantees are doing as well.
CJ: It started in 2012, when one of the areas we were investigating was "Feeding More With Less" — basically, how can we feed ten billion people, the projected global population by 2050, while reducing agriculture's overall ecological footprint. As you know, Rockefeller was one of the foundations that led the Green Revolution, and more recently we've had a joint venture with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, so it was natural for us to focus on ways to increase agricultural productivity and supporting new technologies aimed at reducing the footprint of agriculture globally. But what happened through our scanning mechanisms was that we began to hear from our partners around the globe about agricultural waste reduction — it was something even our scan team didn't pay much attention to initially, because it just didn't feel as sexy or like something the foundation would be interested in. But there was such a strong signal from outside that we decided to include it in the decision-making material we shared with programmatic leadership and the executive team.
The reasons why focusing on reducing food waste would be an interesting choice included the scale of the problem — when it comes to fruits and vegetables, sometimes up to 80 percent is wasted — as well as trends in the space that supported a change intervention. We saw, for example, that large retail chains were entering African markets and that in some African countries, storage and refrigeration technologies were becoming cheaper and more effective. So leadership here decided to advance the idea to the development phase, and it eventually became the YieldWise initiative. But initially, the idea challenged the beliefs and confirmation bias of many people inside the foundation, and it was the process that really surfaced it as an overlooked area.
PND: Is there a fit between "scan and search" and impact investing, another emerging area where Rockefeller has been quite active?
CJ: We have been active in the field of impact investing, and with the Global Impact Investing Network we've helped establish standards for the field and helped create a platform where supply can meet demand. When we explore new potential opportunities with our scan and search tools, we've been looking at innovative finance — new ways to raise money to fund solutions to the critical challenges of our time, such as closing the gap in funding needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. And for a big, urgent problem like the refugee crisis, innovative finance would always be in our toolkit. Blockchain technology is another example of something that could solve a big problem, in this instance verifying the identity and previous employment record of refugees who might not have papers.
PND: Can you share with us some of the other opportunities you and your team are looking at?
CJ: As our new president, Raj Shah, mentioned in his speech at this year's Global Philanthropy Forum, the Rockefeller Foundation will continue to focus on areas where we've had an impact for more than a hundred years, including food and agriculture, health, and economic opportunity. In that context, one of the opportunities we're currently looking at is how we can help the world consume less meat and/or produce meat in a way that reduces water consumption and its overall footprint.
Another problem that has been overlooked and was not necessarily on the foundation's agenda is plastic waste and its implications for ocean health, human health, and the environment in general. The issue came up through the scan workshops that [associate director] Rachel Korberg conducts — we use data analytics to see trends and outliers in the media and blogs, and if we see shifts in interests, we test that through in-person workshops around the globe. It's a kind of "listening tour" approach, and the effort always is driven by a local partner. Whether that partner is based in Appalachia or Phnom Penh or Accra, the goal, always, is to make sure we're hearing different voices, that we're hearing from people with different backgrounds, from different fields, including those who are not looking for funding for a certain project.
That's how the plastic waste issue came up, and what was interesting is that it really resonated with our regional office in Nairobi. I couldn't tell you in advance which issues will resonate with senior leadership — we bring back what we hear and try to make a case for the different ideas and provide further insight around those ideas — but this one really resonated; they could see that it was an important and growing problem, so we've done some further investigation. It doesn't mean we're necessarily going to take it on; we haven't reached the stage where we're ready to move forward.
And finally, a third issue where we are engaged in a deeper ongoing investigation is the independent workforce and the future of work — taking the shift to the gig economy as an entry point to examine the challenges workers are facing, and will continue to face, in terms of stable and incomes and long-term economic security. These are some of the big issues we're looking at.
— Kyoko Uchida