Scale and Sustainability: An Inside Look at the Peery Foundation's Global Giving

Although the Peery Foundation has existed on paper since the late 1970s and has been an active grantmaker since 2001, its current incarnation dates to 2008, when Dave Peery started working full-time to scale up and professionalize the foundation, as well as expand its reach.

Dave is one of the four children of Dick Peery, the Silicon Valley real estate billionaire, and his wife Mimi. Dave's effort to move the Peery Foundation into a new era is a great example of the changes happening in philanthropy as a younger generation takes charge of family philanthropy with an eye toward doing things differently. In 2009, he hired the foundation's first professional staff member, Jessamyn Lau, to help shape the foundation’s grantmaking strategies—which came to include an ambitious push into global development issues through support of entrepreneurial approaches to reducing global poverty and collaboration with like-minded funders through a group known as Big Bang Philanthropy.

Lau now serves as the foundation's executive director, and I recently caught up with her to see what’s going on with Peery's interesting global portfolio and what’s on the horizon for the foundation.

Related: Jessamyn Lau, Peery Foundation

The Peery Foundation’s Global Portfolio invests in early- to mid-stage social entrepreneurs, operating with a venture approach. Like venture capitalism, it's keenly focused on backing outfits with a strong team, and says that this is actually the most important factor in its decisions of who to fund (a view you'll also hear from VCs). Next, and naturally, the foundation is looking for a great idea that can have impact. And, like VCs in search of fabled "unicorn" companies that can grow valuation, the Peery Foundation is always thinking about the brass-ring in philanthropy, scalability.

Lau puts the issue this way:

The potential for scaling and sustainability is very important in our regional and global portfolios. We’re looking for organizations that are already thinking about how they might scale and what growth would appropriately look like, even if they don’t have it all figured out by any means.

Lau uses a term you'll hear often from VCs, "proof of concept," and in this context, it means that an organization has shown that their idea works in different settings and "it’s not just an anomaly that works in just one geography and one population at one point in time."

The Peery Foundation provides funding for groups when they're working to validate their concepts, and then, if things are looking good, steps forward with bigger funds to help bring the model to scale. That next stage, as Lau describes it, is about saying “okay, we know this works and we know it can work in multiple areas of the world or the country, or the continent, or wherever it might be. Let’s really embark on a plan to scale this up and... eventually to build toward that vision of reaching the size of the problem."

As for the kinds of models Peery favors, it's very focused on market-based interventions that lift up the world’s poor populations. The foundation gives two reasons for that preference:

First, we feel that harnessing the potential of markets can achieve and sustain social impact at a larger scale than existing charitable approaches. Second, when properly executed, market-based solutions tend to interact with the poor, or their clients, in a way that provides dignity. 

These days, the term "market-based approaches" is somewhat hazy and means different things—from a for-profit model that generates hard cash to a more general adherence to a systematic business approach to solving problems. Lau says that the foundation is trying to stay flexible on this point, guided by the funding preferences of Peery family members, who collectively have spent considerable time in poor countries. 

The way that we’re thinking about it right now is, what we mean by market-based approaches is while we really do have a bias towards organizations that do have some sort of earned revenue, it’s not a requirement, by any means. We definitely fund organizations where there isn’t a clear or immediate path to earned revenue, I think based on the understanding that, for some issues, the market is not appropriate to bring revenue into the mix.

As for the exact development challenges the foundation focuses on, there's flexibility on this front, too. Peery has put money into groups like the One Acre Fund, working to increase the incomes of poor farmers, but it's also very interested in health and education, as well as other issues. 

Ultimately, the Peery Foundation views itself as a work in progress. One commitment that it's been most emphatic about in recent years is to be an approachable and "grantee-centric" funder, which is a sentiment we wished we heard from more foundations. 

Lau says that potential grantees are encouraged to contact the foundation if they think their work may be a good fit, even if they have some doubts. "We'll be responsive to your inquiry and upfront about whether it makes sense for you and us to spend time digging in to your model.” 

Global funding to organizations can be either one-time or multi-year unrestricted grants, typically ranging from between $1,000 to $100,000 per year. 

One last point to bear in mind: While the Peery Foundation remains a relatively small funder, there's significant wealth potentially waiting in the wings here. Dick Peery is worth $2.3 billion and (speaking of scale) we wouldn't be surprised to see this foundation giving at a much higher level down the line. 

Related: Peery Foundation: Grants for Global Development