Shifting funding practices: leaning into our collective power
A few weeks ago, Philea hosted an event bringing together philanthropy networks, practitioners, social movements, researchers, advocates and nonprofit leaders to think about what the philanthropic field could look like if funding practices shifted to better meet the challenges of our time. The theme of the event—“What if”—invited us to think about how philanthropic actors could better embrace the complexities of the work that needs to happen on the ground, better serve communities and nonprofit leaders, uplift voices and shift power to be more equitably held in our societies.
As we logged on from the comfort (or discomfort) of our screens to challenge ourselves to look at our blind spots and biases, it dawned on many of us that this wasn’t actually an exercise inviting us to “imagine” but rather to think about what was getting in our own way. The sector has been talking about shifting funding practices for a while whether through trust-based philanthropy, participatory grantmaking, more diversity and inclusivity in teams and boards and healthier dynamics between funders and grantees. None of these practices is new. Yet as a sector, we have failed to fully embrace them as our new operating principles, even as multiple crises over the past few years have challenged us to think bigger, bolder, and nimbler. So, why so?
Norm change is hard and takes timeand tends not to come naturally. Even in a sector like ours driven by impact, we all get caught up in our own ways of thinking, working, and partnering. Being agile and innovative in our practices takes deliberate focus, resources and a willingness to embrace a certain amount of uncertainty in the outcomes these shifts will generate, especially when navigating complex and evolving environments and actors. Shifting norms also takes collective energy and momentum, because it isn’t about isolated leadership, but about bringing a whole field along to shift the tide.
At WINGS, a global network of philanthropy support organisations committed to ensuring philanthropy reaches its fullest potential, we focus a lot of our time and energy on what it takes to build strong support ecosystems for philanthropy. We believe that stronger connectivity between organisations and actors can enable a sector to move swiftly, embrace complexity and take action to adapt to ever-changing contexts and challenges. Our sector is in constant evolution, as a true reflection of the societies in which we operate and the communities we serve, and none of us lives in isolation. We are all defined by our surroundings, our attitudes and behaviours dictated by how players around us act, naturally influencing our own actions and how we show up in this work. Investing in strong ecosystems carries the potential to start shifting systems and practices because it creates more channels to share and challenge actors on ways to operate, collaborate, learn and influence each other. Strong ecosystems can also help build a collective vision of who else is out there, what they are doing, providing space and infrastructure for best practices to seep through and be adopted more widely. In our latest report, we’ve shared a number of resources to provide philanthropy support organisations with tools and frameworks to assess their environments and work more collaboratively and effectively together to build more just, equitable and sustainable societies.
Investing in infrastructure players is investing in a space where some of the power dynamics can be broken down and collective voices can be stronger to push for change. We see this every day with our members working to bring practitioners together, make the case for investing more flexibly, educate and challenge donors, encourage community giving, bring funders together around joint commitments to support bold investment and more. The multiplier effect of philanthropy support organisations is considerable for change to trickle down to every part of the philanthropic ecosystem.
So as we meet in these virtual spaces to challenge our practices, and revive the fire in our hearts and minds to carry this work forward, we need to remind ourselves that we are not alone. As we go back to our organisations after these energising exchanges, we need to remember the power we hold in our voices and in our actions to help philanthropy achieve its highest potential, together.
A colleague recently reminded us at WINGS that the story of the single hero/leader still occupied so much of the space in the philanthropy narrative, when in reality change doesn’t happen that way. It happens through broad movements of people joining forces, through a multitude of small wins and everyday heroes and leaders. We must push for these shifts to happen quicker because time is running out, and we need everyone to join in this effort. This event was designed to inspire action, so I’ll end with a call to action: let’s shift the focus of our conversations from “what if” to “how to” and from “whether” to “when”.