From pioneering to building for lasting impact: 25 years of MAVA grantmaking

By Lynda Mansson, Director General, MAVA Foundation

This year marks the 25th anniversary of MAVA grant-making. Established originally as a vehicle for our founder’s personal philanthropy, MAVA’s grant-making has evolved over time. I’d like to briefly reflect on the different phases of MAVA’s existence and how it has led us to where we are today. Over this period, MAVA’s grant-making has grown from CHF 6.5 million in 1994 to an average of CHF 75 million per year in recent years. Through the end of 2018, we had disbursed a total of CHF 840 million in support of 1,046 projects.

First phase: Pioneering – 1994-2007

Although MAVA was founded in 1994, in some ways, this phase starts even before the formal establishment of the foundation. Our founder, Dr. Luc Hoffmann’s early philanthropy was driven by a highly personal choice of projects. Both before MAVA was set up and throughout this first phase, he often supported people he believed in both for conservation projects and in their research. He identified important sites (the Camargue in southern France, Doñana in Spain, the Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania, the Bijagos islands in Guinea Bissau, and the Prespa Lakes in Greece, Albania and Northern Macedonia) and began supporting conservation efforts long before their importance became widely recognized- support that MAVA has continued and strengthened through today.

During this phase, Luc nurtured the beginnings of organizations that have become key leaders in the conservation movement over the years including IUCN, WWF (International as well as many of the national offices), the Ramsar Convention and many others. He helped established smaller, local NGOs to meet specific needs, such as the former FIBA (Fondation Internationale du Banc d’Arguin) for the Banc d’Arguin national park and SPP (Society for the Protection of Prespa) for the Prespa Lakes.

Luc was very hands-on in all aspects of the foundation. Even though by 2004, he had hired a programme officer, Holger Schmid, and part-time assistant, Silvana Tschudin, to support him, he answered the phone himself and responded directly to all requests for funding. Holger recounts an important evolution in MAVA’s story: ‘A symbolic step in the direction of the next phase of MAVA’s existence was Luc’s agreement to install a second telephone line, thus allowing me to also deal directly with grant seekers.’

During this time, MAVA had a very involved board who reviewed each full project proposal and made the final decisions on funding. In these days, there was more funding than projects, so a very high proportion of projects submitted were able to be funded.

Second phase: Professionalising – 2008-2015

By 2009 the team had grown to six people including specialists for each of the regional programmes as well as for finance and administration. This included Thierry Renaud to lead the work on West Africa, Paule Gros to lead the work in the Mediterranean, and Holger Schmid to lead the work on the Alpine Arc.

The team worked in Luc’s home until 2010 when more radical changes were introduced. At age 87, Luc decided to take a step back from his day to day involvement in the foundation. He handed over the Presidency to his son André Hoffmann, moved the team offices to the IUCN building in Gland (Switzerland), and hired me as Director General with a mandate to professionalise the foundation.

André says ‘When I took over from my father as President, it was a daunting task to fill his shoes. I could see that we needed to professionalise the foundation given its size and growth. The first thing I did was to restructure the board to play a more strategic and less hands-on role. This also required a commensurate change at the level of the staff and Lynda was brought on board to lead that process’.

This coincided as well with a marked increase in funding available for granting due to a change in 2007 in the way the family funded MAVA. This increased the size of the portfolio of grants and the need to be more structured.  Many changes were introduced into the life of the foundation (more detail on these changes will form a future blog), including the definition of a clearer strategy to help focus the kinds of proposals we were receiving.

In this period, with more robust communications about our funding priorities and an increased profile for the foundation, the number of projects proposed exceeded funding available and the selection became more competitive. We found the system of reviewing one project at a time no longer served us as well. Thus, we introduced an allocation team comprised of the heads of programmes, the head of finance and me. The purpose was to debate the merits of the different projects proposed and choose those of highest quality and best fit.

The team was further expanded to nine people and staff were increasingly empowered to proactively engage with partners. Team responsibilities – and capacities – grew. Paule says ‘This was a fascinating period to live through, with many changes in the way we operated which ultimately resulted in much stronger relationships with our partners’.

In 2014 the foundation made the decision to merge with FIBA, based in West Africa. This was to increase our presence in the region and improve our ability to support our partners there. Charlotte Karibuhoye, the Director of the West Africa Programme reflects that ‘the merger helped move us closer to our goal of being an engaged donor.’ This added two additional offices in Senegal and Mauritania – which were later consolidated into one office in Dakar and increased the total number of MAVA staff to 20.

Third Phase: Building for lasting impact – 2016-2022

Luc planned not only the beginning of the foundation, but also the end in 2022. Although Luc died in 2016, André is committed to leading the foundation in the same spirit as Luc, up to and including the closure in 2022.

Planning for our last cycle of existence solidified with the final strategy for 2016-2022. This last strategy puts a huge emphasis on deep collaboration – both with partners as well as with the donor community (for more details about this, read Julien Sémelin’s two blogs here and here.) Our grant-making within our programmes is largely oriented around building collaborations working towards specific outcomes.

The other major emphasis is on sustainable impact. No donor, including MAVA, wants to see work they have supported over the years stop once they withdraw. This is accomplished through a new programme of grant-making and support called ‘Impact and Sustainability’, investing in organizational development of key partners, leadership development and sustainable finance mechanisms. Thierry, now Director of ISU says: ‘Adding these new tools in our grant-making toolbox not only secures the impact of our projects but allows us to have a lasting impact that goes beyond our grants.’

André reflects ‘MAVA has lived through several distinct phases in its existence. Our aim in this final phase is to consolidate the legacy of the foundation for the long-term. The path from 1994 to 2022 has been – and will continue to be – one of adaptation and impact. ‘

We hope that MAVA’s investments will continue to bear fruit well beyond 2022. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘Don’t judge each day by the harvest that you reap, but by the seeds that you sow’. We hope that MAVA’s funding throughout the years will have contributed to seeding a strong and healthy forest of conservation actions and actors.

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