Ruth Levine, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

TITLE: Program Director, Global Development and Population

FUNDING AREAS: Women's well-being and empowerment; global and U.S. reproductive health; government transparency and accountability.

CONTACT:rlevine@hewlett.org, 650-234-4500

IP TAKE: Levine is a crusader in linking reproductive rights to international development, and in working with world leaders to expand access to family planning as a component of sound economy policy. At Hewlett, she oversees the foundations development and population portfolio (singular!), and directs millions of dollars annually to promoting reproductive rights at home and abroad.

PROFILE: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation awards more than $300 million in grants a year, making it a philanthropic force in global development. Ruth Levine heads the foundation's development AND population portfolio. Unlike in many foundations, the areas of reproductive health and economic well-being are inexorably linked at Hewlett. Though not "obviously" connected in everyday thought, this makes sense. The well-being of women, who are marginalized the world over including in the context of their reproductive rights, is essential to the world's future economic prosperity—if for no other reason than the fact that women are half the world's population. When women do well, and when women are free to decide when and how to have children, economies perform far better than when women are oppressed. Levine understands this, and her perspective have a major impact on grantmaking policies at Hewlett.

Levine comes to Hewlett from the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID), where she held an appointed position with the Obama administration as her agency's deputy assistant administrator in the Bureau of Policy, Planning, and Learning. Levine previously worked as a research fellow at the Center for Global Development, a D.C.-based policy research shop seeking to influence world leaders and thinkers to achieve a greater good.

Levine is an academic by training—she holds a Ph.D. in economic demography from Johns Hopkins University, and she's an ambitious researcher and writer. (She also has a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Cornell University.) She is the author of several books on global development policy, and was a "principal" staffperson on the UN Millennium Project Education and Gender Equality Task Force, which effectively made recommendations in 2006 on how to combat global poverty into the future, in response to a request from the UN's Secretary General.

But Levine has plenty of experience on the implementation side of development policy, too. At the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, Levine began her career in international affairs while working on family planning service delivery in  East Africa, Egypt, India, Latin America, and the Caribbean. She has also advised and worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on global vaccine delivery initiatives. 

At Hewlett, Levine continues to prioritize both the quantitative and human aspects of development work. On the one hand, she and the foundation that employ her are into metrics and demonstrable results. But Levine stresses that sometimes grantee successes come by sharing stories that promote awareness, and information sharing on issues surrounding reproductive rights can have major impacts on a country's policy environments. 

In an essay on Hewlett's website, Levine cites some examples of how storytelling, sometimes even more than traditional educational programming, can have powerful impacts on reproductive health outcomes in environments where sexual norms are usually taboo:

"I’m not talking about random, tug-at-your-heart-strings anecdotes. I’m talking about finding ways to elevate and put into context stories people tell about their own experience. It’s a core part of the notion that we can focus resources so that people’s own voices can be heard, from within their own communities to distant capitals. And by being heard, be understood and help lead to positive change.

Let me give just a few examples. In our grants to protect reproductive health and rights in the U.S., we’re following closely the “provoice” work that Exhale is doing to find and tell the stories of women who have had abortions. One in every three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime, but because of stigma few have the chance to talk about the often complicated thoughts and feelings that accompanied their decision to terminate a pregnancy. The women who’ve participated in Exhale’s abortion storytelling project do have that chance. They report a greater sense of wellbeing and acceptance; those who’ve heard or read the stories are far more likely to empathize more and judge less, regardless of whether they change their views on abortion.

We also admire the partnership that the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has developed with MTV to connect viewers of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom to accurate information about birth control. These reality TV shows, showing the truth of what girls’ and boys’ lives are like when they become responsible for a baby, are a radical departure from any standard approach to educating young people about the risks of early and unprotected sex. They aren’t necessarily intended to be educational at all, which is probably what makes them work. Study after study has found that these shows don’t just grab viewers’ attention; they also make it more likely that young viewers will have important conversations with their parents, and end up with healthier attitudes about sex. Remarkably, one recent study estimates that up to a third of the impressive drop in teen pregnancy in the U.S. can be attributed to changes in behavior resulting from watching 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom."

Or, more concisely, Levine appreciates when people tell the truth.

Like Levine, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is into straightforwardness, and this applies to their giving too. Any prospective grantee can approach Hewlett at any time. But Hewlett's dollars are in high demand, and even a foundation as big as Hewlett is can't fund every worthy cause that sends it an email.

In a meeting with Inside Philanthropy, Levine revealed Hewlett often identifies new grantees through existing ones working in the same field. So if you're looking for Hewlett support in particular, it might be useful to talk to other Hewlett-backed reproductive rights organizations to discuss potential Hewlett partnerships.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is pretty generous with its grantees. Its grants average out to about $100,000 a piece, but Hewlett often makes multi-million dollar awards for big, ambitious projects. And Hewlett awards plenty of smaller grants, say $30,000 or so, as well. Unlike many of its peers, Hewlett is as interested in NGOs it hasn't heard of as it is in large, established organizations. Hewlett's reproductive health portfolio is pretty large; it makes dozens of grants in this program area every year.

For additional information on the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's reproductive rights initiatives, check out Inside Philanthropy's foundation profile here.

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