On the coast of West Africa a great experiment is taking place. Liberia, a relatively small country with a population of 3.7 million people is housing a first of its kind program in the world, The Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat (LPS).
Although it has been reported that the region we now know as Liberia had been inhabited as far back as the 12th century, freed African Americans, commissioned by the American Colonization Society, began returning to this part of the Pepper Coast in the 1820s. The Republic of Liberia would later be founded on July 26, 1847. The union of indigenous Liberians and those who had returned, Americo Liberians, yielded a national legacy of a dichotomy of victory, advancement, injustices and division that would ultimately result in political unrest.
After thirteen years of civil war, foundations and philanthropists played an important role in the rebuilding of the nation. In the process they often met a severe lack of information and frustration with their attempts to coordinate with government officials and key leaders in Liberia. For a country that was in the throes of an expensive rebuilding process, this was an issue Liberia could not afford.
In September 2008, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state and Liberia’s president whose administration had established peace in the country, recognized this problem. After she and Natty B. Davis, the Minister of State without Portfolio at the time, met with several foundations in New York City, a solution was created.
The Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat (LPS), an innovative model in philanthropy housed in the Office of the President and funded by foundations, was conceptualized as the solution. LPS represented an opportunity for guidance for donors that had voiced a desire to support the President’s vision. Therefore The Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat was born out of a need for better information sharing between the Government of Liberia and philanthropists actively contributing to Liberia’s advancement as well as a mechanism to support and increase philanthropic dollars in the nation.
The foundational objectives of the program are to improve the quality of foundation and philanthropist-supported activities in Liberia while expanding and increasing the number and scale of work of private philanthropic institutions and entities. The Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat essentially establishes mechanisms to enable philanthropic engagement in the nation.
These objectives have been successful. One example of this is the creation of the LPS website (liberiaphilanthropy.org) that offers foundations up-to-date Government of Liberia (GoL) documents, information and contacts from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) currently working in Liberia as well as books, films and relevant links about Liberia. Before LPS this kind of information was scarcely found out of the country due to years of war.
The Annual Liberia Foundations Meeting (ALFM) is another major success of the program. The meeting gives foundation executives the opportunity to discuss and collaborate with senior government officials of Liberia. The meeting is a shining example of the improvement of information sharing, one of LPS’ key objectives. The ALFM also represents an annual occasion to reinvigorate enthusiasm for Liberia’s progress.
The program has also faced significant challenges. LPS struggled to find its placement and best approach early on. Many questions arose as the program became active in Liberia. The most significant being; should the program be subtle or assertive in its advisement to foundations and the GoL? Although, the subtle approach did not yield the same level of effectiveness as more assertive efforts, members of the LPS team did not want to lose the trust of their audience by supporting certain initiatives over others.
Also, the program’s relationships with GoL ministries and their programs were in need of clarification and transparency. The resulting lesson from these challenges was LPS’ decision to be strategic about coordinating Liberia’s needs and the philanthropic objectives of the country’s foundations partners. Ideally, those needs would take precedent and would supersede any perceived favoritism towards a ministry and/or NGO.
The program continues to cultivate its purpose and identity as it serves as a bridge between the government of Liberia and the philanthropic community. The world is taking notice. The Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat has been featured at the Global Philanthropy Forum and has been a focus for many news outlets including Huffington Post and Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies.
Riding on the momentum of global attention and effective coordination in Liberia, LPS hosted its first philanthropists visit in 2010. These visits were created with the intention of giving foundations a well organized and executed experience so they may have the opportunity to see Liberia’s current state with their own eyes. An estimated 70% of the foundation representatives that have made their first trip to Liberia did so during an LPS’ hosted philanthropists visit. These visits support LPS’ objective of increasing the number new funders to Liberia.
On the converse, as the program garnered praise and visible success it continued to face challenges concerning its identity as it straddled the fence of being present in the Office of the President and as a beacon of truth and information for the philanthropic community. The desire to be faithful and useful to all parties while maintaining its foundational objectives proved to be testing.
In April 2011 The Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat convened a meeting with its stakeholders at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy. The aspiration of the meeting was to discuss the evolving purpose and identity of the program, develop clear recommendations on key issues and begin a dialogue about the replication of a similar program in other developing nations. The two-day meeting explored the institutional future and financial sustainability of The Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat.
At the conclusion of the Bellagio Meeting three recommendations were considered; LPS would remain in the Office of the President, it would establish an advisory board and the program would continue being supported by foundations. This meeting proved to be an empowering step in the right direction for LPS. It was also a realization that although the program had accomplished much there were many opportunities to improve ahead.
2012 marked the end of the initial pilot of The Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat. By this time the program had grown to a team of four (with various consultants as support) under the leadership of the President, the Minister of State without Portfolio and the Program Director, Ms. Jennah Scott. LPS had secured the interest of various foundations/entities and the consequential financial support of those donors via its advisement, coordination of appropriate parties, annual foundations meetings and philanthropists visits. In addition, LPS had significantly strengthened information sharing between the Government of Liberia and the philanthropic community while serving as a resource for current and new philanthropic partners.
Even in the light of these great accomplishments, obstacles can still be found in the program. Members of the LPS team and its stakeholders continue to ask key questions. How does a philanthropic program survive in a political atmosphere? To what extent should LPS try to encourage foundations and philanthropists to support particular projects in Liberia? Can the program afford to continue to exists as is?
These questions may continue to rise throughout the life of The Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat and they are joined by new questions as Liberia and the program simultaneously progress.
This year The Sixth Annual Liberia Foundations Meeting discussed entrepreneurship and impact investment in Liberia; a sign of the financial independence that many Liberians are developing and exploring for the first time in many years.
2013's ALFM subject matter is symbolic of LPS’ growth. The nation's evolution from assistance to investment is parallel to the program’s maturation as it prepares to explore its future possibilities for growth over the next five years. The hope is to be a resource worthy of investment, independence and emulation.
Although there is uncertainty about the nature of the new challenges and triumphs that will emerge, what is sure is that this great experiment in philanthropy and all those that have fostered the establishment and growth of the program is synonymous with innovation, bravery and hope. A hope for not only a better Liberia but for a better developing world.