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In its work to combat hunger and promote global food security, the Rockefeller Foundation has traditionally focused on increasing agricultural production — helping, for example, to seed the twentieth-century Green Revolution credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation. However, in 2016, the foundation launched a $130 million project with a new approach: to boost agriculture and increase prosperity by cutting food waste and loss.
The YieldWise initiative emerged after several years of Rockefeller research, during which it became clear that feeding more of the world's population with fewer resources would be impossible without addressing food loss. In sub-Saharan Africa, factors such as weak transportation infrastructure, lack of storage facilities, and the inability to track supply-chain loss results in 40 percent of staple foods failing to reach markets. While initiatives exist to tackle consumer food waste, the foundation realized that few focus on the loss of food before it reaches consumers.
"People had not given post-harvest loss the attention or brought it to the same level as they did when talking about fertilizer or feedstock," says Anne Mbaabu, head of markets and post-harvest management at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). "And no one had paid attention because it has never been measured." Working with AGRA and others, YieldWise now supports initiatives that help connect African farmers to agricultural markets, engage companies in providing storage technologies, and offer new tools for measuring and tracking post-harvest waste.
YieldWise represents not only a different direction for the foundation's efforts to promote food security but also a new approach to its decision-making process. YieldWise grew out of what the foundation calls "scan and search," a venture-capital-inspired approach to identifying problems. While venture capital firms use scan and search to evaluate startups' potential to make money, Rockefeller uses it to evaluate programs' potential for social change. Agnostic on causes, the process looks for areas in which the foundation's resources can make the biggest impact. Rather than relying on internal experts or existing grantees, scan and search involves external partners in early research, and harnesses everything from big data to local news outlets and social media to identify issues that otherwise might be missed. The process requires looking at not only at what might be the biggest opportunities for impact but also whether the foundation is well positioned to develop solutions.
The foundation asks four key questions: Is the problem pressing? Is there a critical mass of interest and support from the right stakeholders? Is there the potential for systemslevel change, enabling impact at scale? And does the issue fit with Rockefeller's goals and capacities to make a difference?
"The question we ask ourselves as we are scanning and searching for potential initiative ideas is whether this is addressing a problem that is really critical for poor and vulnerable populations — but also, what are the areas where we would have the wind in our back," explains Claudia Juech, the foundation's associate vice president and managing director for strategic insights.
The foundation believes that the process leads to more informed decisions on where and how to invest philanthropic dollars. "We don't have infinite resources," says Caroline Kronley, the foundation's managing director for strategy. "So we need to make really smart choices about what we fund."
Seeking New Insights
While scan and search enables Rockefeller to keep an open mind about what initiatives to support, it does not mean that decisions are made casually. A lengthy and rigorous process lies behind every choice.
The foundation typically begins by holding workshops around the world to bring together a diverse set of professionals from government, business, and other sectors. "We want to make sure we hear those voices early on in the process, and by doing so identify problems and impact opportunities that have been overlooked," Juech says. At a recent workshop that the foundation hosted in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, participants — including a factory manager, a community organizer, a youth entrepreneur, and a government official — discussed issues ranging from air pollution to entrepreneurship.
"Having different people talk about the issues with different tools, technologies, and values is tremendously informative," says Rachel Korberg, an associate director at the foundation who leads its work to identify new, large-scale opportunities for impact. "We also use big data and analytics, and we look at regional and local news media, particularly in Asia and Africa," she adds. "And we look for themes you might miss if you're just reading European or American papers."
One such theme emerged when the foundation applied scan and search to investigate the persistence of youth unemployment, a problem that had long confounded companies, governments, and nonprofits, given the difficulties that companies experience in finding enough skilled employees. Traditionally, much of the focus on reducing youth unemployment, particularly in disadvantaged communities, had been on providing technical and work skills training for young people. However, through scan and search, the foundation discovered that employers' practices also could have a powerful effect on the issue.
"Rather than starting with the labor supply being the problem, we looked at labor demand: how companies hire and what goes into that process," Korberg says. The foundation found that online recruiting algorithms often reject young or marginalized job applicants before they get the chance to submit a résumé, and even if they do submit one, the forms' traditional format may not capture their abilities. "What we learned was that your potential as an employee really isn't measured through the typical ways we recruit." Moreover, it became clear that increasing employee retention could help address the issue by creating greater job stability and more opportunities for young people to advance, with the added benefit that companies could reduce staff turnover.
As a result, the foundation became a funder of the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative. Launched in 2015, this coalition of companies is committed to changing hiring, retention, and advancement strategies so as to employ young people who face systemic barriers to entering the workforce. Working with 100,000 Opportunities, Rockefeller helped to develop recruitment practices that use technology and human resources data to enable companies to hire more diverse talent and assess young people's potential more accurately.
As part of the scan and search process, the foundation conducts its own research, too. For example, when looking at youth unemployment, it conducted a large survey of employers to assess entry-level hiring challenges. "They use multiple ways of getting information," says Willa Seldon, a partner at the Bridgespan Group, which worked with the foundation on the project. "It's not just reading and learning about the field but also bringing in new knowledge."
This process may overturn conventional wisdom. "At the time, I was not as sold on the fact that employers needed capacity building," admits Jeffery Wallace, president and CEO of LeadersUp, a nonprofit focused on youth employment that also worked with Rockefeller. "But through the process we discovered a lot of structural barriers that had implicit biases and a lot of things that were anchored in organizational culture and management competencies." Wallace sees this ability to uncover previously unknown challenges as a critical part of scan and search. "You think you need one thing, and then as you go through the process, you understand that you need a whole bunch of additional things," he says. "It's very different from traditional philanthropy, where there's an assumed expertise."
Knowing When To Say No
The results of scan and search can sometimes cause tensions within the foundation, because they may lead away from traditional approaches. YieldWise's focus on reducing food loss "was not initially an easy sell internally," Juech says. "Our first instinct is to look at how to make smallholder agriculture more productive and how to raise yields. That was the common narrative inside the foundation."
Moreover, not all the pressing problems identified through scan and search get the green light for funding and other resources. This was the case with the foundation's search for a way to address ocean acidification. With oceans absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, they have become 30 percent more acidic than they were two hundred years ago, and scientists believe they could become 150 percent more so by the end of the century, leading to mass extinction of marine life. Although the foundation recognizes this as a significant problem, it found no scientific consensus about solutions and none being implemented at scale. After scanning and searching, it decided that while it would continue to monitor ocean acidification, contributing to solutions lies beyond its current capabilities.
Such decisions are not easy. "On a personal level, that's the most challenging part of the work," Korberg says. Another difficulty is that nonprofits and others that the foundation engages in scan and search may themselves harbor hopes of receiving Rockefeller funding. As a result, the foundation manages expectations carefully. "You have to be really upfront at the start," Korberg says. Regardless of whether or not the foundation decides to move ahead with its support for an issue, it makes efforts to ensure that the insights from its process are accessible to the field through blog posts, reports, and publications.
Korberg maintains that to uncover new solutions for seemingly intractable problems, engaging broadly and with an open mind from an early stage is essential. She hopes other grantmakers might adopt a similar approach. "As funders, a lot of times we go into communities with a sense of what we already want," she says. "By having that more neutral frame, we can figure out who the leaders are and see where our philanthropic investments can be catalytic — rather than getting good results but missing the bigger opportunity."
Sarah Murray (@seremony) is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Economist Group. She has also written for many other publications, including The New York Times, the South China Morning Post, and The Wall Street Journal.