Some reasons philanthropists and aid agencies significantly limit their impact

Please see my thought “A new paradigm of international aid” for a more detailed analysis.

  1. They focus on symptoms instead of the root causes of the problems.
  2. They focus primarily on tangible investments and projects yet the human spirit, leadership, conflict, empowerment, ownership, and many other key elements that are crucial to international development are far more important.
    • Some organisations will seek to work in these areas, yet will still focus on tangible indicators rather than directly focusing on the core intangible factors (such as attitudes).
  3. They only fund planned and costed projects yet the most powerful and least costly interventions occur by being highly flexible and adapting to the situation as it occurs.
    • Example 1: The Institute of Advanced Leadership have helped end two wars. They have the capacity to transform the attitudes of belligerents to increase the chance that they give up fighting. However this sort of work isn’t something that you plan a year in advance with precise targets. It is something that takes a lot of background work to get to the point that important work can be done. Then there will be a small window of time (like a few weeks) where critical work can be done that can transform a country.
    • Example 2: IAL were asked by the former Vice President of D.R.Congo to train the top 3000 people in the country. At the time we were unable to find funding. We’d like to try again as the training would probably be worth billions of dollars to DRC, and could easily reduce deaths by 10’s of thousands (or possibly far more). However, the project isn’t definite yet – so getting funding would be extremely difficult.

4. Most funding is for more of the same things that have always occurred (even if those things haven’t been overly successful.)

    • If you identify what is missing (and what could have the greatest impact) then you’ll inevitably find that there is no budget for what you seek to do.
      - TL

P.S. 1. – Another issue I face is that most funding agencies don’t recognise the difference between:

Conferences (like many major U.N. gatherings) – that are primarily “talk-fests” which often have little impact and follow-through.

Training programs that teach knowledgewhich are important when knowledge is the missing-ingredient, but which typically don’t change the root-causes of problems. (e.g. If you teach an ex-rebel who is now a President, how a central bank or electoral system should work, this may not necessarily result in them becoming committed to transparent and democratic processes.)

Training programs / Workshops that transform thinking, attitudes and approach.  Only a minute percentage of trainers have the capacity to create major deep-level transformation. But the few who do can help transform the root causes of violence, bad-leadership, and to some degree corruption.

P.S. 2 – Another key factor is an over-emphasis on the question “What percentage of my donation goes to the poor?”.

Most of the least-effective aid programs could score highly on this measure.

    • Donating food, and thereby putting local farmers out of business.
    • Creating dependency by rewarding begging and a hand-out mentality.

And many of the most-effective aid programs would score badly on this.

    • e.g. If I give up a $250K p.a. job and then raise $100K which I use to pay myself and all my expenses so I can train many of the top leaders in a country to be great leaders, and to convince rebels to give up fighting, then none of the donations goes directly to the poor. However the impact is huge, and it empowers people to create powerful results themselves. [NB. If my salary is considered a “Head Office expense” then 0% of expenses go to the poor. However, if my salary is seen as a “Project expense” then 100% goes to our African activities.]

P.S. 3 –   A very interesting talk “A new way to judge nonprofits” by Dan Pallotta at TED2013. can be viewed or downloaded at

Dan Pallotta established a charity that raised $500m but was put out of business due to old-fashioned beliefs about how charities should be run. He finishes his talk by saying
“Our generation does not want its epithet to read, ‘We kept charity overhead low. We want it to read that we changed the world and that part of the way we did that was changing the way we think about these things. So next time you’re investigating a charity, don’t ask about the size of their overhead — ask about the size of their dreams.”

 - Tony Lenart,,
Ph. +1-202-6810008, +61(0)296866003, +256(0)772788000