International Development Exchange

The International Development Exchange is a public foundation devoted to channeling resources to effective grassroots organizations and disrupting top-down approaches to philanthropy and social change. When Rajasvini Bhansali, IDEX’s executive director, arrived in 2009, the organization was focusing much of its energies on raising money to maintain grantmaking, as it had been for more than 20 years. While the organization funded effective community-based organizations the world over, IDEX perceived that it was trying to compete with large international aid organizations in how it messaged its work. As a result, external communications were “dumbed down.”

According to Bhansali, “We believed we were doing the work of partnering with community organizations in the developing world better than others, but we didn’t know how to tell our stories. We also didn’t engage or steward our philanthropic partners with the same kind of care we extended to our grassroots partners.”

To boost fundraising, IDEX added a number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to its board. But the cultural assumptions of the new board members turned out to be a poor fit for IDEX’s way of working. “We thought they would help us solve our fundraising woes,” said Bhansali. “But in fact, they increased the board’s focus on rapid return on investment and its attachment to existing models. We needed people who would respect the slow process of this work and the need to honor the knowledge of people on the ground.”

Working through this cultural mismatch with the board took time, but Bhansali and her team set about shifting to a more inclusive approach that relied on extending the organization’s deep and sustained partnerships with small grassroots organizations to larger foundations as well. This also meant having the courage to portray IDEX’s grassroots partnerships in all their complexity as well as the promise and potential of doing grantmaking differently.

This approach resulted in a stronger and clearer set of values and a theory of change that was broadly shared by board and staff. “We want to enable people to be agents of long-term, sustainable change in their own societies, to affect their own conditions,” she wrote on the IDEX blog.6 “This approach is a slow, deep-acting method. It can’t be rushed, ‘special forces’ style.” Not surprisingly, the change in strategy required new ways of working internally. According to Bhansali, time, patience, receptivity and restraint are all essential cultural traits for IDEX staff, to allow for flexibility and experimentation.

“Deep conversations at the community level mean accepting that you may need to change your whole approach to programs and funding,” Bhansali said. “As a funding organization, we need to acknowledge what we don’t know and invite solutions from unexpected places. And those are the most important stories for us to tell.”

6 Rajasvini Bhansali, “We Won’t Be Sending in the ‘Special Forces,’” International Development Exchange blog, http://www.idex.org/blog/2015/06/17/no-special-forces-idex-approach/