16 January 2024

How philanthropy can fund the infrastructure for narrative power

In October 2023, I participated in a gathering in Bogota, Colombia, of 120 narrative practitioners and funders whose work builds the narrative power of global justice movements. Hosted by International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS), Puentes, and the Global Narrative Hive, Confluence assembled a cross-section of storytellers, strategists, and resource stewards from around the world to illuminate the narrative ecosystem and cultivate conditions for greater collective action.

On the final day, 45 participants who work in philanthropy convened for a private session to reflect on funding practices that strengthen narrative change efforts and sector norms that stand in the way. IRIS invited me to moderate a panel showcasing grantmaking approaches that resource distinct yet complementary parts of the global narrative ecosystem. It featured Paco Camacho (Asia Foundation), Bruno Duarte (Open Society Foundations), Medina Haeri (Oak Foundation), and Ivens Reis Reyner (Nebula Fund, an Oak Foundation grantee).

I began by contextualising the convening in philanthropy’s expanding support for narrative change — an appetite I’ve contributed to as a funder of narrative infrastructure and power building. What set Confluence apart from past gatherings was that it prioritised grantmakers with experience funding this emergent field. Their familiarity with narrative change fundamentals allowed for in-depth conversations about our responsibility to engage in more productive organising within philanthropy and better support each other in this collective work.

There was sharp recognition of the imperative to close the gap between the quality of resources that funding institutions most often provide and the resources practitioners need to work boldly, effectively, and at scale. Narrative practitioners generously shared their knowledge throughout the convening, identifying what philanthropy has overlooked and surfacing priorities for funding. Those priorities included:

  • Spaces and spaciousness that enable deep listening and durable relationship building
  • Collective imagination and visioning toward a shared North Star
  • Coordination across strategies, countries, regions, issues, and identities that deliberately break down arbitrary silos created by funding streams
  • Practices that cultivate healing and solidarity
  • Engagements that emphasise how the work is done (process and methodology) rather than what it produces
  • Approaches that are unproven or experimental, don’t have a predetermined agenda, and facilitate the ability to learn by doing

In essence, practitioners pinpointed where the norms of philanthropy must change if the sector seeks to be a competent partner in advancing narrative change. Building from this, I asked each panelist how they contribute to these changes. My first question was for Medina:

Among the narratives that govern philanthropy, the most paradoxical is that a sector with so much abundance chooses to operate with a scarcity mindset. How do you counter this narrative in how you do your work?

Medina: In philanthropy, we are most focused on the injustices that people are suffering and spend less time dreaming positive visions of the future and the infrastructure that needs to be reinforced to make that future a reality. As staff, our job is to communicate what the experts in the field tell us about these realities — good and bad — with our leadership to help unlock resources. As human rights and feminist funders, we see the importance of working with others. That’s why we come to spaces like this to try to build, dream, coordinate, and collaborate together because we recognize that there are a lot of financial resources and a lot of experience in this room — and we can build something more powerful together than we could build alone.

Medina and I worked in tandem for years to make the case to gender justice and human rights funders for supporting narrative strategies to counter growing backlash against feminist movements, and this work culminated in seven private foundations launching a donor collaborative. I asked Ivens about this initiative:

Nebula Fund was a response to activists’ requests for resources to fortify their narrative strategies. What was the process for determining its funding priorities?

Ivens: A fundamental piece was a consultation with actors that do narrative work and movement building with a gender justice framework. Using what we learned from that and our first Request for Proposals, we developed a five-year strategy. The idea is to fund things that haven’t been tried, and with the understanding that it’s okay to fail. We might only have a drop in the ocean of the funding that activists need, but we should not let that paralyse us. At dire times, we need to try new strategies. Sometimes those strategies have to be something you’re afraid of but see its potential. We’re trying to do the work with flexibility, a high-risk appetite, and a commitment to long-term funding.

Amid what many call a polycrisis, funding without an expectation of immediate impact could seem counterintuitive, yet a long-time horizon is what it takes to engage in narrative work with clarity of purpose. Narrative practitioners pointed to this paradox repeatedly during the gathering, so I asked Bruno:

How do you navigate the tension between urgency and patience?

Bruno: I always try to figure out the origins of what we are discussing. For me, in supporting Afro-Brazilian leadership, I looked for archives — moving image or photography archives — that registered Black people’s participation in building democracy in Brazil. At first, when you look at the media or communication spaces, you don’t see this history. So, I take a step back and say: we have been here for a long time, so where is this information? How can we support initiatives that bring to the surface the history of Black movements?

We have a strategy on elevating diverse voices in the public debate and with a strong component of intersectionality. We look not only for storytellers from Afro-Brazilian communities, but Indigenous communities and other historical marginalised groups. This is important because otherwise you keep acting in a colonial way of telling stories about these groups as though they don’t have the capacity to tell their own stories. I come from the field and am a communicator first. I didn’t know much about philanthropy before joining OSF, and what moves me in this work is the connection I have with people and trying to give them the budget that allows them to work with dignity.

In supporting the excavation of lineages that have been excluded from the historical record, Bruno expanded what it means to work on narrative over time. He also introduced the importance of applying a power analysis in one’s grantmaking to ensure that past mistakes of erasure are not replicated. The decisions about where philanthropic capital is applied or not applied has the potential to amplify some things while omitting others. My final question was for Paco:

What connection do you see between narrative infrastructure and collective care?

Paco: Our political analysis understands that the narrative ecosystem is people. It looks at environmental factors that both enable and impede stories from being heard: infrastructure, access to resources, information, training, networks. These things can either facilitate or inhibit storytelling. In the Philippines, human rights communication workers are traumatised as part of their jobs. They get arrested on trumped up charges. They’re targeted with misogynistic attacks and disinformation, but they have to be constantly plugged in. We need to look at trauma within a sector that experiences a lot of stress and anxiety, not just over the last year or even five years, but across decades.

Sometimes funders bear responsibility for putting communication workers in positions where trauma is reinforced as they pursue their work. Philanthropy needs to rethink the duty of care that comes with supporting narrative change. Do no harm is not enough; we need to maximise care. This includes supporting non-traditional forms of wellness and trauma healing. Something we’ve done is created a collective of communication workers where we practice collective care.

There’s more appetite for funding disruptive work to interrupt authoritarian narratives than for long-term, generative, positive narrative changemaking, but commensurate investments need to be made there. We find ourselves needing to support and enhance these enabling conditions — creating safe spaces, strengthening bonds between actors, practicing solidarity in networks — rather than just thinking about changing the narrative itself.

As Confluence ended, there was a clear desire to build on the momentum and continue the journey together. If you feel compelled to join, there are many ways you can start today.


Mandy Van Deven
Founder, Both/And Solutions