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Kevin Starr

September 08th, 2022

‘Kevin, now that you’re a funder, everyone’s gonna tell you, you’re a genius. You are not a genius.’’

Kevin Starr, CEO, Mulago Foundation

We think of impact as observable material change for the betterment of the world that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And that’s the cool thing about philanthropy – we get to make good things happen that would not have happened otherwise. [But] wow do you really know when you’ve had that impact? 

Know what you’re trying to accomplish; measure the right thing; show that change happened and make sure it was you. …We like to ask people: if you were going to measure only one thing, what would it be? And it always proves to be a useful question to ask even if it’s not possible to capture the mission in just one thing…. This is the trickiest part – attribution. Because your impact is the difference between what would happen with you, minus what would happen without you…. You as a funder have got to get good at it yourself, hire someone who’s really good at it, or follow someone who’s really good at it. 

We stay in unrestricted funding as long as we think we might get there still, and we get out when it becomes clear we can’t. And this proves to be a really satisfying way to fund. Getting some skin in the game makes it way more interesting. I like to surf big waves, climb mountains…this is really fun. I loved medicine, this is better.

What’s really good about accountability for impact is that it creates a more equal dynamic with the doers. It’s way more equal. And if you’re accountable for impact, you’re as grateful to them for their impact as they are for your money. You’re now interdependent and you can be real partners instead of lip-service partners. Everybody in this room knows that the doers feel like they have to bullshit sometimes. And that reminds me of the best philanthropic advice I ever got. One of my board members goes: ’Kevin, now that you’re a funder, everyone’s gonna tell you, you’re a genius. You are not a genius.’’…Lasting impact is the ultimate expression of justice and love of humanity for that matter. …. If we made ourselves accountable for impact 20 years ago, we’d have made ourselves a world where resources flow most efficiently to those people most able to make change……  

This is an edited extract from a keynote address at the Philanthropy Australia national conference 2022.

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