In a way, Elizabeth Wallace Ellers has been rehearsing all her life for the role she’s playing these days in impact philanthropy. After studying international relations at UCLA, Liz spent time in Mexico and Brazil, and then earned an MBA at Columbia University. She worked as an investment banker for years and then embarked, informally at first, on the path to founding her own donor-advised fund in Philadelphia.
Ellers jumpstarted The globalislocal Fund with a few more than a dozen other local women in 2005 with the intention of addressing the root causes of poverty throughout the developing world. In the ten years since, globalislocal’s membership has grown to more than 50 and the group has dispensed more than $2 million in either outright donations or loans as a part of its growing project portfolio, which includes funding for organizations like Root Capital, a nonprofit investment fund that helps finance small agricultural businesses in Latin America and Africa.
Ellers traces the founding of globalislocal back to her decision to leave Wall Street following the birth of her son; in the early ‘90s, she became involved with collaborative funding and philanthropy out of her own passion for economic development. Even as a well-connected donor, Ellers encountered roadblocks as she developed her own philanthropic portfolio.
“I was just doing this for myself,” she says. “And then I just got a little annoyed. Back then there were a couple conferences that were really the only places you could go to convene with like-minded funders and smart NGO leaders, and, as we evolved, social entrepreneurs. But they were invitation only.”
She more fondly recalls local networks of female philanthropists in her area as a spark and her time at The Philanthropy Workshop, a Rockefeller Foundation education program on strategic giving, as a final step in realizing globalislocal.
“As I learned more and more about the issues—and the impact that is possible—I knew that I had to create a way to share it with others,” she says. “I never, ever intended to do this,” she adds with a laugh. “It got to a point where I had to do it.”
The same Wall Street discipline that shaped Ellers’ thinking for years now pervades the globalislocal structure. The philanthropists are “investors” and “partners” and before an organization is added to the funded “portfolio” a projected social return on the investment must meet minimum requirements. It’s a model built on careful calculation of impact as much as it is on more subjective or emotional social or environmental measures. Metrics include household income, viable crop yields, volume of accessible water, access to health care professionals, and business productivity.
Annual investments from participating partners generally range from $3,000 to $15,000 and Ellers encourages members to meet face-to-face with social entrepreneurs on the ground in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to learn about the issues intimately themselves. Each year, partners receive impact reports that inform their next round of investments. “You’re not just leveraging your money,” Ellers says of the collaborative approach. “You’re leveraging all of your resources. Different people and different foundations have different kinds of resources. It’s knowledge, it’s network, it’s access. People don’t talk about access a lot. Access is sometimes way harder than money.”
Ellers also mentions globalislocal’s ahead-of-the-curve grantee curation as a source of pride: “Our investees are really great,” she says. “We’ve invested in some of these social entrepreneurs before some of the biggest funders in the space have found them.” Besides Root Capital, examples of recently selected social enterprises include the One Acre Fund, which channels loans to farmers in Kenya and Rwanda as they try to increase annual yields, and Partners in Health, which provides patient-centered health care in settings where resources are scarce.
Ellers says that she didn’t set out to make globalislocal itself an all-women group, but she’s embraced the natural development. “Women enjoy collaborating with their peers,” she said a few years ago upon receiving a leadership award from Women’s eNews. “And the majority of the most vulnerable people in the world are women and children. When targeting the causes and consequences of poverty, by definition, we’re targeting women and children. So there’s this great sense of connectedness.”
Still, as gratifying as the results can be, Ellers admits that the type of philanthropy globalislocal pursues is a hard-fought long game. “We focus on solutions to poverty in the developing world,” she says. “Already you’re talking about really challenging, multifaceted, interlocking puzzle pieces. Even when you’re addressing the root causes and providing the access to opportunity for the community to make choices about how to climb up the ladder, these are long term propositions. You don’t go from living on a dollar-a-day to middle-class in five years.”
As for the fund's next steps, Ellers says, "Ultimately, globalislocal's goal is to increase dramatically the number of investors and volume of investments actively engaging these issues. To this end, globalislocal is actively exploring strategic alliances and partnerships in the United Sates and abroad."