TRECC partner model with UBS can address big social problems
We spoke with Phyllis Kurlander Costanza, Head UBS in Society and CEO UBS Optimus Foundation, a Swiss philanthropy foundation that is a strategic partner of TRECC. They believe that lasting change is best achieved by working in partnerships, supporting scalable projects, and by using data to measure impact.
Can you tell our readers about the origins and mission of the UBS Optimus Foundation? How is it unique?
The UBS Optimus Foundation was established as a partner to UBS clients and employees in order to help them improve the lives of the most needy and vulnerable people. For the last two decades, our foundation has focused on health, education and protection of children – as these are some of the most essential factors to ensure a successful future. We have supported innovations from inception to scale, working with social entrepreneurs and enabling social finance to tackle some of the most pressing global issues.
UBS Optimus Foundation has been involved in the TRECC program for four years. What triggered the decision to invest in this program? What are TRECC’s major achievements in your perspective and what are your expectations for the future?
TRECC exemplifies programs we support since it involves collaboration among multiple funders and stakeholders. We believe that the problems facing the world, especially in education, are highly complex and cannot be solved by any single funder or actor. This is why we are proud to partner with the Jacobs and Bernard van Leer Foundations in supporting the establishment and growth of TRECC. We are impressed by TRECC’s ability to integrate itself into the policy landscape in Côte d`Ivoire, the access it has to key decision makers and its ability to mobilize additional funding. We are very excited to continue our partnership through support for the CLEF and ELAN facilities.
The UBS Optimus Foundation was quick in 2020 to launch a Covid-19 Response Fund enabling your clients to donate to low- and middle-income countries. Is it the same funding mechanism you use to finance other programs around the world, including TRECC?
The UBS Optimus Foundation has multiple funding mechanisms all oriented towards mobilizing additional capital toward the most pressing issues of education, healthcare, child protection and most recently, the environment. All of our funding comes from our clients who partner with us because of our expert staff and the unique programs, TRECC being an excellent example. Our Covid-19 Response Fund was established based on our experience in responding to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. We worked with partners to develop and support programs focused on preventing the spread of the virus, detecting cases as they appeared and responding as the situation unfolded.
UBS is well known bank focused on wealth management. You can leverage private sector expertise to support government efforts and create sustainable change. How do you see the contribution of the private sector to education?
Although education is at its core a public good, we believe that the private sector can and should play an important role. The private sector brings additional capital, access to networks, and management practices that can serve the goals of quality education.
We have supported multiple low-cost private providers of education as well as Public Private Partnerships that combine the best of the private and public sectors. Those providers include Rising Academies in West Africa, for example. They operate their own low-fee schools and license their curriculum to other schools. They also improve schools previously run by governments and others. When Covid-19 hit and schools shut, Rising Academies was able to migrate some of its programs from the classroom to radio. Optimus supported them in this effort with a Covid emergency response grant. That resulted in some 12 million children in 25 countries receiving radio-based education in 12 languages after schools shut for lockdown. We were very pleased with that success because it showed how we can partner up in a crisis and have a huge impact.
The private sector can also contribute innovative financing mechanisms, such as development impact bonds, or DIBs, that align the interests of multiple stakeholders in ultimately benefiting the children we are trying to serve. DIBs are a relatively new, highly effective tool in development finance that blend philanthropic donations with private investor funds. The UBS Optimus Foundation has pioneered this evidence-based approach and had great success with its Quality Education Development Impact Bond in India. And we’re just getting started. Watch this space! We expect to see DIBs expand in 2021.
You have more than 15 years of experience in the philanthropic sector, supporting governments and civil society organizations around the world. Would you share with us your three key learnings?
If I had to pick just three key learnings, I would pick the importance of partnerships, the focus on evidence and the need for scalability. Partnerships are crucial. Whether with our clients, governments or other foundations, we always attempt to build broad coalitions. Broad-based changes are the most effective and lasting. They produce advancements where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Rising Academies was one example of how this can work to great effect. The Quality Education India DIB is another. These will create long-term change and they are just the start. But it’s unfair to name just two of the many programs sponsored by Optimus, so I’ll stop there. There are many more that have a proven, lasting impact and Optimus has a reputation for picking winners.
Secondly, evidence is key in the social sector, for without it, we can never understand the true impact of our efforts. We’ve made huge advances in using empirical data to measure impact. This remains essential. Lastly, the projects we support must have the potential to scale up. Without that, we are not making the most of our limited resources. The amount of funding that we and other foundations have at our disposal is small compared to the overall need. For this reason, it is important to remain strategic when considering how our projects can have long-term systemic impact and the ability scale up.
Phyllis Kurlander Costanza is Head UBS in Society and CEO of UBS Optimus Foundation. As Head UBS in society, Phyllis is committed to making UBS a force for driving positive change in society and the environment for future generations. The UBS in society team ensures the firm is creating long term positive impact for clients, employees, investors and society.
She’s also dedicated to finding innovative ways to tackle some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental issues. In her role as CEO UBS Optimus Foundation she applies an investment-based approach, making it simpler for clients and their families to manage their philanthropy and maximize their impact.