Jamie Cooper on her collaborative approach to giving

As part of our Change Makers in Philanthropy campaign, Jamie Cooper, Chair and President of Big Win Philanthropy, discusses the inspiration behind her giving, her strengths as a philanthropist, and how she works directly with governments to scale impact and sustainability.

Jamie Cooper in Ethiopia

Jamie Cooper in Ethiopia with Dr. Kesete Admasu, CEO of Big Win Philanthropy

Jamie's philanthropic career

Over her philanthropic career spanning more than two decades, Jamie has invested hundreds of millions of pounds into providing greater opportunities for children and youth and supporting equitable economic growth, peace, and security in emerging economies. 

Jamie previously served as co-Director for the Shine Trust and co-founded the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). She launched Big Win Philanthropy in 2015 to support African public-sector leaders driving to ensure that the generation of children being born today will have the means to contribute fully as adults and that their countries will be well-positioned to reap a demographic dividend. This has led the foundation to focus in the areas of brain development, education, and youth employment and to take a cross-sector approach to delivering transformational change.

What inspired you to get involved in philanthropy?

In my early jobs, I worked on innovative state and local government policy, spanning issues from voting rights to economic regeneration to environmental justice. I really enjoyed bringing together people from different sectors and with diverse experiences to find solutions to important challenges in the context of limited public resources. I've always had a strong sense of our mutual responsibility for the welfare of all people in our community, whether that be local or global. So, philanthropy was a natural choice for me, and I went on to work for a non-profit educational organisation in New York. I got involved with the Shine Trust, another education-focused venture, after moving to the UK in the late Nineties.

As a high-net-worth woman, did you find you had a different approach to giving than men?

I think my strength as a philanthropist has always been that I listen to people about their aspirations and help them realise them, rather than worrying about my own goals or ego. Whether that’s down to being female, I don't know.

In my experience, there has been an evolution in the philanthropic sector from a focus on physical infrastructure and looking for ‘silver bullets’ to a more nuanced understanding of the complex drivers behind entrenched social and economic issues.

I think part of that evolution reflects the increasing number of women and others with different lived experiences taking a role in philanthropy—though their work has often been behind the scenes.

What were some of your early achievements?

In 2005, CIFF was working with NGOs to provide palliative care to AIDS patients in India. We realised the extent to which children who became orphans due to AIDS were ending up in institutions or on the streets. The government was wary about pouring money into expensive, difficult-to-organise treatment. But, working with a government leader, we arranged effective medical care for 1,500 people and demonstrated that keeping parents healthier for longer was more cost-effective for the state than the burden of managing AIDS-related opportunistic diseases and then picking up childcare costs. The authorities agreed and we were eventually asked to support the government in designing a system to provide access to treatment for 40,000 people—more than we might ever have aspired to reach without the government as our partner.

Another AIDS screening and antiretroviral programme we worked on in Zimbabwe reduced transmission from infected mothers to their babies from 30% to just 6.7%—and the country is now on track to virtually eliminate mother-to-child transmission. The results of the programme led the World Health Organization to change its treatment guidance. It has now become the standard treatment, which has had a major effect around the world on efforts to stop mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

How has your approach to giving changed over time?

Both of these projects showed me that working directly with governments, rather than just NGOs or other intermediaries, allows a degree of scale, impact and sustainability that is otherwise unachievable. Something that starts small can soon become regional or even national. If governments are involved in the development of projects, they are more likely to take responsibility for their long-term operation and funding, making them more sustainable, too. 

With Big Win, the emphasis has been on enabling public-sector leaders to set the agenda, appreciating that they know best the context and priorities of government and their people, and that they bear the ultimate accountability for execution—so it must be something they are passionate about. 

For example, we’ve been working with a team of Ethiopian ministers to implement a range of nutrition interventions to reduce child growth difficulties in one of the country’s worst famine-stricken areas. This has included operationalising a truly multisectoral response, through one plan, one budget, and one report, and using monthly growth monitoring for children under 2 years. We have worked to expose the team to potential interventions through site visits and we have provided funding for a programme-delivery unit which will eventually be absorbed into the government. The African Development Bank recently awarded the project a $31.2 million grant.

My approach has also become more long-term in focus—looking not only at how countries can address the needs of their populations today, but at what their next generation will need tomorrow. Many countries have moved away from just wanting assistance with basic health and education needs to providing the sort of educational and other opportunities young people have in richer parts of the world. My work has increasingly been about fulfilling these aspirations, too.

What advice would you give to other philanthropists, particularly women?

My advice to all philanthropists would be the same. Make sure you have real clarity about the precise impact you want to have within a cause and a reliable, systematic way of tracking progress.  Passion plus activities does not equate to impact.

Think about scalability and sustainability from the outset. Get governments involved, if possible, and develop projects that add to and can be supported by existing local infrastructure.

It’s right to give the people running initiatives day-to-day, such as public leaders and those on the front-line, most of the credit. They, after all, are the ones who will face the consequences if things go wrong. But high-net-worth women donors should maintain a strong profile within philanthropy circles to be able to share their experiences and learnings.

A specialist philanthropic advisor can also be a great source of information and guidance, as well as putting you in touch with people who can help you get projects off the ground. The Charities Aid Foundation, for instance, provided very important assistance to the Shine Trust around the rules of UK giving and sources that could guide our understanding of the landscape. 

What impact has the increase in high-net-worth female donors had?

I would anticipate that there has been more emphasis on issues that philanthropists weren’t giving enough attention to, such as gender equality, childbirth, and research into how conditions like heart disease affect women differently to men. 

I strongly believe that the more diverse the philanthropic community is—with greater gender, racial, and socioeconomic balance—the more it will reflect different perspectives and find better solutions. 

While I have always worked with women leaders through my philanthropic work, more recently I have also focused on helping women achieve senior public leadership positions. Big Win co-developed and supports the Amujae Initiative at the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, for instance. The programme encourages and trains extraordinary African women to vie for the most senior public-service leadership roles, preparing them to compete and succeed on an uneven playing field. Women will play a vital role in changing the world for the better if they are properly supported.

What are you most proud of in your career?

The realisation that I could create much bigger projects and have much wider impact by working with governments. And my willingness to learn, grow and radically change the way I see and interact with the world.

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