19 African and American adults stand in a line, flexing their biceps
The SFF team, March 2022

Though We Be But Small, We Are Mighty

by Sylvia K. Ilahuka, Writer & Editor

It ain’t easy giving away all this money — but we’re doing it! And doing it so well that the Council on Foundations’ 2022 The State of Global Giving report lists us, Segal Family Foundation, as the second largest U.S. grantmaker in Sub-Saharan Africa by number of grants given. (Turn to page 72.) How’s that for being a top funder (that you’ve maybe never heard of before now)?

A screenshot of the Council of Foundations report showing Segal Family Foundation as the second largest US funder in Africa

This is a big deal because behind the honor is the hard work that got us here. SFF is a small organization, especially in comparison to our counterparts who also made the list. With a team of just 20 thus far (of which the grantmaking core is even smaller), we managed to give a whopping 636 grants over three years — sandwiching us between the Ford Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that are staffed in the hundreds and thousands respectively. Wow! In each country where we have partners, our incredible program officers run the show. They identify promising organizations, learn more about them, and bring them to the SFF table if they see fit. Rinse and repeat. Beyond the financial support, our program officers also carry on Active Partnership — which means that we have a living, dynamic relationship with our grantee-partners and do our best to connect them to a variety of resources both within and outside SFF.

Reaching number two on this list is also a big deal because of where SFF has come from. In the beginning, the Segal family, led by founder Barry, traveled to and through East African countries themselves, looking for locally-led organizations that were doing good work, and writing checks. Everything was done by the family, much of it over the kitchen table and with a little help from friends. Many flights, car breakdowns, and muddy roads later, SFF is here today in a form far from your run-of-the-mill family foundation. What was once an annual roundtable meeting to share ideas and visions has evolved into large annual general meetings with hundreds of attendees. Even with this growth and diversification to include current partners, former grantees, and former staff members, our board still includes three generations of Segal family members who are actively engaged in informing the foundation’s vision and direction.

Six American adults sit around an outdoor picnic table in Malawi
The Segal family in Malawi, in the early days of the foundation

In all this, the biggest shift has been in our grantmaking process both on the part of our team and that of the recipient organizations. In the seedling days of SFF, grant recipients were primarily Africa-based organizations led by Americans — simply for the reality that they were often easier to identify on the basis of shared background. As the team grew to include program officers from the very countries where SFF’s work is concentrated, this gave us a network of locally-tuned ears on the ground to connect with homegrown visionaries doing remarkable things. Now our grantmaking superheroes are all Africans living on the continent. The grants we make are also unrestricted — meaning that while our hub teams decide who gets how much, the recipient partner organizations themselves have the autonomy to decide where the funds will be best used. From the early days until now, the partners have been central to our work.

7 Black adults wearing matching T-shirts smile at the camera

Changes have come, we’ve been open to them, and they’ve led us to where we are today. It’s remarkable that we have managed to make this volume of grants with this size of team, but that just goes to show that it is in fact possible to be efficient in the world of philanthropy. Segal Family Foundation is committed to making sure African funding is African-led: a grantmaking team such as ours that is contextually familiar with the communities our partners serve increases the trust factor. The trust factor makes it possible to focus on the important part, which is supporting local visionaries to do what they do best. And that’s what we do best. :)

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Segal Family Foundation

Social impact funder and advisor building a network of visionary local leaders and global donors to advance positive change in Africa