Kathy Calvin: 'Money is welcome – but it isn't everything'
Corporate expertise is just as valuable in changing the world, the UN Foundation's Kathy Calvin tells Sarah Arnott.
Thursday 09 December 2010
As it looks to philanthropy to fill the gaps left by public spending cuts, the British government could do worse than turn to the United Nations Foundation for ideas.
The foundation today announces a £500,000, two-year extension to its ground-breaking $30m (£19m) partnership with Vodafone. And chief executive Kathy Calvin has set her sights on replicating the model wherever possible. It could even give the banking industry the opportunity to drag itself out of the global doghouse.
"I don't think there is anything like the UN Foundation in any other country," says Ms Calvin, who started her career in the media before moving to run corporate social responsibility for AOL TimeWarner.
"I had a couple of head-spinning years when I joined the UN Foundation," she admits. "There was bafflement that we had been doing things the same way for so long and were still having the same discussions."
The foundation is an unusual beast. It was created in 1998 with a $1bn gift from media mogul Ted Turner – who, as president, is at this week's UN climate change summit in Cancun – as a way to channel funding to UN humanitarian causes. Ms Calvin's goal, since becoming chief executive in 2003, is to shift the business model away from simply making grants, to one where the organisation is a platform for public-private partnership programmes drawing on not only corporate money but the vast pools of expertise to support UN development programmes.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the top job is about funding. So far the foundation has spent about $800m of Mr Turner's money. Thanks to dollar for dollar fund-raising efforts, it has delivered almost $1.7bn to support UN causes from cutting child mortality to meeting the challenge of climate change. But Ms Calvin is not only looking for money. She is looking for partnerships with skills the programmes need.
"We are a bridge between all sectors, government, private and non-profit, and that is a fine place to sit," Ms Calvin says. "Money is obviously always welcome, but it isn't only about money – it's also about what a company can do with its employees, its technology, its marketing department, or simply as a door-opener to markets we wouldn't otherwise know."
The Vodafone partnership is a case in point. From the beginning it was founded on joint decision-making, rather than simply funding. It was also highly effective, establishing a measles initiative that has now vaccinated more than 600 million children in 60 countries and cut measles deaths by 74 per cent, for example. But that was just the beginning.
"Slowly, it began to dawn on us that Vodafone was sitting on top of the most transformational technology in the world and that mobile phones could have an impact on poverty, health and development worldwide," Ms Calvin says. "That was a new way of using the company, by harnessing all its expertise."
The result is a multi-strand programme covering disaster relief communications and mobile health systems that operate in some 22 countries around the world. "We couldn't have done it without Vodafone, and they wouldn't have had access to the UN workers without us, so partnership brought strengths from both sides," says Ms Calvin, with obvious delight that the programme is being extended.
"The relationship has moved from a financial commitment to an employee commitment to a technology commitment and then through to a longer-term commitment," she says. "For me, that is a perfect demonstration of how a partnership works when it works best."
It is a model that is already being replicated in other areas. Oil giant Shell is the biggest partner in the newly-launched Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a $60m initiative pushing the large-scale adoption of cleaner and safer domestic cookers, for example. Ms Calvin is perpetually on the lookout for new opportunities. One area with "real potential for better partnership" is the pharmaceutical industry. Some drug companies are already big players in the development sector, either making drugs available at cost or providing equipment, such as needles for vaccination programmes. There is scope for much more and the UN Foundation is in talks with three different groups about full-blown partnerships.
But the really big prize is banking. "Financial services companies are the ones we will see breakthroughs from," Ms Calvin says. "There is huge scope for innovative financing, getting more value from money, finding new ways to provide funds when governments are constrained."
The foundation already has links with major banks – Morgan Stanley is a member of the Cookstove Alliance, for example. And there are individual developments that give a hint of the potential: such as the Pledge Guarantee for Health, underwritten by the Gates Foundation, which provides bridge loans so recipients of grants from the Global Fund no longer wait 18 months for the much-needed money.
"The banks will be the big, big players coming up," Ms Calvin says. "These kinds of skills live in two different worlds but there are lots of places in the system where a little more professional finance approach would come in handy."
For the banking sector, such a move might rehabilitate its tarnished reputation. Ironically, the recession could also help Ms Calvin recruit more corporate partners across the board, as recovering companies considering their social responsibility err toward the safety of a group commitment rather than going it alone.
Meanwhile, the biggest challenge for the development sector is making a clear connection between donation and results – another area where lessons from the private sector could help. "It is very hard asking for anybody else's money right now without making sure they get a clear report of the impact it has," Ms Calvin says.
For Ms Calvin personally, the big challenge is to turn the UN Foundation into a long-term concern before the money runs out. The Turner money was not an endowment. It comes in the form of an annual $50m cheque, the last one due in just four years' time. But, like any private sector CEO, Ms Calvin has a long-term strategy, built on salting away a proportion of the annual lump sum, as well as shifting some operating costs on to donors and negotiating new deals with large partners such as the Gates Foundation.
If she pulls it off, the transformation "from spend-out to built-to-last" will be her proudest professional achievement, Ms Calvin says. That and the elimination of polio – which is on track, within the next four years, to become only the second ever disease to be deliberately eradicated. "Getting rid of polio would be a real achievement," she says.
* In 2003, Kathy Calvin was appointed chief executive of the UN Foundation, set up in 1998 with a $1bn gift from media mogul Ted Turner
* Prior to the UNF appointment, Ms Calvin was president of the AOL Time Warner Foundation, the media giant's philanthropic arm. She joined pre-merger America Online in 1997 as chief communications officer, after a brief stint at a public relations agency.
* From 1985 to 1996, Ms Calvin was a director at US News & World Report, following eight years as Senator Gary Hart's press officer, including during his 1984 Presidential campaign. The political background helps in lobbying of Congress to sign off the US dividend to the UN, a UNF job which got harder after last month's Republican-dominated mid-term elections. "We're facing a much more fiscally conservative and potentially UN-hostile Congress, so there's a big job there," Ms Calvin says.
* She lives in the Washington DC area. She has two children, aged 27 and 25, and re-married in 2006.
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