Re-Organizing Power For Systems Change

Written by Augusta Hagen-Dillon, for the Prospera blog.

IMG_0119Over the course of three rainy days in Barcelona, over 200 EDGE participants pushed each other to consider our individual and collective role in re-organizing power for systems change. Barcelona was an inspiring location for these conversations, with the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú currently governing the city in minority. The policy agenda of Barcelona en Comú includes defending social justice and community rights, promoting participatory democracy, introducing mechanisms to tackle corruption and developing new models of tourism from Barcelona. Hearing from the activists and policy makers involved in setting up and running this platform was an inspiration.

During the conference, EDGE participants raised big questions about the current state of philanthropy, including how to ‘break the cycle’ in which foundations and the ‘excess’ resources they invest are often a direct product of the very systems their funding seeks to transform.

As funders, tackling questions that get to the core of our values and practice is so important, and provides a much needed reality-check and opportunity to consider where we want to go as a field. But as valuable as it is to focus on the big-picture vision, attention needs to be paid to small changes in our everyday work – from emails to proposals and reporting. Back at my desk for a few weeks, I wanted to share a few reflections from the EDGE conference that have stuck with me, and begin to connect those ideas to concrete actions.

Work on deep listening:
Over the course of the conference, representatives from a diversity of movements spoke about their work, their challenges, and offered concrete proposals for how philanthropy can and should deepen and improve its support for a Just Transition. The stories they shared were remarkable, and I believe that listening deeply, and considering how their experiences shed light on how philanthropy can and needs to change is the only way to begin to effectively re-organize power.

I was struck in particular, by how many of the panelists- from Daniela Dolenec, a social science scholar from Zagreb working in democratization and contentious politics, to Miguel Stedile from Movimento dos Sem Terra argued that realizing gender equality is both a necessary and strategic core component of the Just Transition they are working to realize. Yet, in parallel, I met many funders who said that ‘gender’ or ‘women’s issues’ is not something they work on or know about. Although I have not done the research, I would be willing to guess that less than a quarter of the funders at the conference have a specific focus on women’s, girls’, and trans* rights.

The movement representatives at the conference told funders about their priority issues and the kind of support they need. We heard it loud and clear: recognizing and addressing deep- seated gender inequality, and understanding how that power imbalance influences and is linked to other issues, from agricultural reform to domestic worker rights is necessary for the Just Transition.

How can this be done? The Gender Justice Initiative has compiled a number of resources for foundations interested in funding women and girls, including how to incorporate a gender lens into grant making, case studies of what this can look like and a number of resources on feminist philanthropy. Beyond these specific tools, many members of the Gender Justice Initiative are available for consultation for those organizations interested in expanding to this field.

Work on collaboration:
In the face of increasing backlash and the rise of right-wing leaders, the sense of urgency and responsibility to tackle all issues immediately is overwhelming. Indeed, there was a tangible sense of anxiety and concern throughout the conference. But as tremendous as the challenges are, it is important to remember that we share the responsibility. We can’t do it all, but perhaps more importantly: we shouldn’t. As Caitlin Stanton of the Urgent Action Fund US noted, when it came to a debate about long-term versus short term, rapid response funding, it isn’t an ‘either, or’ but a ‘both. While it is very difficult for a single organization to apply ‘both’ or more strategies effectively, working with partners to ensure a full range of support and sustainability of movements is key.

This is true for the field of philanthropy as a whole: we need to work together to recognize our comparative strengths, strategize with openness and transparency, and above all, be willing to put our organizational egos aside to cede control when and where it makes sense.

Collaboration is by now a buzzword frequently professed as a key to the success of any social change endeavor. But what often gets left out of the equation is the necessary investment of time, relationship building, risk-taking and willingness to fail for true collaboration to take place. I have no doubt that the funders at EDGE have a wealth of experience and knowledge that, if pooled together, could spark transformative change on a number of levels. Yet finding ways to effectively share that knowledge and build partnerships remains a tremendous challenge.

How can we begin to fix this? From the range experiences in Prospera’s Network (such as GAGGA and Leading from the South), we have developed a few key reflections on building effective collaboration:
1. It takes time. Effective collaboration is most often a long term investment, and it is important to dedicate time and energy to understanding each partner’s perspective, as well as build internal ownership of a collaboration within your own organization.
2. Each party must understand the value, outside of funding. It is important to take time to identify together each partner’s objective in the collaboration, as well as the collective goal before you seek financial support.
3. Be context specific: Partners need to adapt their approach to work effectively outside of siloes, but what this will take is different depending on the organizations involved and the location of their work. For example, differences in language and framing between movements can prevent organizations from understanding a gender-just approach. Funders need to take the time and effort to understand the concept in the context of their work.

There are numerous other strategies and steps to successful collaborations. I hope the EDGE community continues to research, document and share what works and doesn’t in building effective such partnerships.

Learn from local funds:
There is a tendency within social justice philanthropy to focus on the global scope and nature of economic, social and political challenges. While it is true that ‘issues’ like climate change and income inequality are global, the specific repercussions are shaped by local circumstances, and there is tremendous power in small-scale actions and movements of resistance. An important reminder every came from Miguel Stedile in his remarks during the opening plenary: ‘We are successful when we start small.’ In this way, questions put forth by EDGE participants, from how to effectively support movement building and to counter backlash are best answered by learning from those who are already working on these issues at a local level.

Partnering with and learning from local or national funders that are based in the communities they serve can be a very effective way for larger, international foundations to identify and build more effective strategies to resource systems-level change, from the bottom up. Many local funds emerged from the movements they support, have built relationships and trust with key actors, and are more nimble to respond to rapid changes in their context. They often have more experience with how to fund and support movement building, including core, flexible funding, convening groups and supporting work across issue areas. Furthermore, many funds based in the Global South have valuable experience in dealing with the repercussions of closing space for civil society, including financial restrictions, as these are issues many have encountered and dealt with for years.

A number of funds based in the Global South are already members of EDGE, but expanding the membership to include more and facilitate opportunities for learning and exchange is key. Reaching out to networks of funders, (like Prospera, the African Philanthropy Network, the Global Fund for Community Foundations and others) is another way to connect with local funds and learn from their valuable experiences.
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The EDGE funders community, with many women’s funds as members, can, as one participant described it, become the ‘engine’ for transformative change in the social-justice philanthropic community, by sparking and feeding the fire of collaboration and creative strategizing. But to do so, we must hold each other account and continue to challenge ourselves to strengthen, change and adapt the daily practice of our philanthropic work.

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