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Transforming through philanthropy | In conversation with Damien Lane

Damien Lane is a partner at Episode1, with 20 years experience investing in private companies. We talk to him about applying business smarts to philanthropy, and he opens up about epiphanies that transformed him into an evidence-driven philanthropist.

What was your approach to philanthropy before joining Founders Pledge?

Like a lot of people who give to charity, I would just react to whatever was put in front of me. Someone raising money through a marathon, a local school building a library, and so on… And I suspect that’s how most people get into philanthropy.

But when you consider how much analysis and hard work goes into the creation of your wealth - how competitive and thoughtful you’ve been - it really doesn’t make sense to be reactive in how you give it away. To purely base my giving on who was standing in front of me in the right place at the right time… It was pretty brainless of me.


What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about charity so far?

At Founders Pledge Forum last year I had a stark realisation. In the past, if I ever did any due diligence on a charity, my go-to metric was overheads: how much they spent on salaries, marketing, etc. If a charity had a nice office in an expensive area of town alarm bells would go off in my head.

It finally sunk in that if you want to make sure as much good as possible is achieved for a certain amount of money, overhead cost isn’t a good metric to look at. Understanding that was a real game changer. If a charity implements a poorly designed program that doesn’t achieve good results, but scrapes every penny and is extremely lean, that doesn’t make them effective. And if a charity has designed a really clever program that gets amazing results, it doesn’t actually matter if a large part of their funding goes to overheads. If anything, spending that extra money on great people could be the reason they can implement their program so effectively.


So the main takeaway is; ‘look beyond the most obvious data’?

Yes, and be more rigorous in general. Don’t assume that wherever you give your donation it will be equally effective. And then the next problem is - unless you can make this a full-time thing - how do you actually determine whether something is effective? That’s where FP comes in as an incredibly useful initiative.


Why do you think many donors choose where to donate without fully applying their 'business smarts'?

Speaking from my own experience, I think donors don’t think critically when they don’t have a framework. So they end up either going for something geographically relevant, or something that appeals in the moment.

And on top of that, the whole process is very opaque. If you’re investing in a business there are loads of readily available KPIs and metrics you can use to determine whether it’s a successful company. What I didn’t realise - and I think most people don’t - is that there are metrics like this you can look for in charities as well. The problem is that this data is usually hard to access and pretty dense to get through, even if you are looking for it. Which is why having someone like FP to do the legwork for you - finding the right data and comparing across charities - is a game changer.


Is your family involved in your philanthropy?

It’s interesting, actually. I remember seeing Scott Harrison’s (founder, charity: water) talk at Founders Pledge Forum. I was incredibly impressed. So that evening, I went home to my two teenage daughters and wife, and what happened absolutely blew me away. I got the Ipad out during dinner - something we’d normally never do - and I found a presentation by Scott online. It was 45 minutes long. So I started it, expecting everyone to want to switch it off after 20 seconds. But instead, we all watched the video intently until the very end.

My daughter’s school arranges an annual charity trip to Uganda, and she’d never before expressed any interest in it whatsoever. The Monday after that dinner she went straight into school and signed up for the next one. We still talk about that video as a family today.


Having gone through the process, what’s your number one advice for the pledgers just getting into philanthropy?

It’s a bit like getting into anything: seek advice from people who can A) make the process easier, and B) help you make the right decision. Sure, the cause and interest is a personal thing. No one can decide that for you. But Founders Pledge shortcuts the process of deciding who to deploy to.

To put it another way: I do a lot of running, and I have an on-line coach who helps me out. I tell them what my goals are, how long I’ve got to get there, and what I’m working with. They provide me with the right resources, suggest a training schedule, follow up with me, and so on. I would never achieve my goals if I didn't have them on board. The same goes for philanthropy.


So given your new outlook on charity, what made you decide to donate to Development Media International (DMI)?

It all just came together perfectly: there was a time-critical element to it. DMI was raising to close a funding gap for a specific project, which had been vetted and recommended by Founders Pledge researchers. If they didn’t close the funding gap, the total funds already raised would be pulled, and the whole project would fall through. So there was a lot of leverage to be had with my individual donation. Founders Pledge sent me a rigorous research report, and DMI’s work aligned with my personal values and interests. It ticked all the boxes.

Originally published on 13 August 2018

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