A space for change: EDGE annual conference 2019


Martin Modlinger


Change sometimes comes in familiar terms. When at the EDGE conference 2019 in Brazil, the discussion came to accountability and reporting, on progress towards goals and on useful indicators, this was not at all surprising for first-time participants. Funders regularly ask their grantees to report on outcomes and activities, and change and adapt strategies accordingly.

But EDGE is different, and so the surprise lay in the reversal of roles: The debate centered on funders’ accountability towards movements, on their responsibility towards the partners on the ground. Cuong Hoang, co-chair of the EDGE board, demanded that foundations regularly report on their progress in supporting systemic change, and many funders in the room, especially those involved in EDGE’s Global Engagement Lab cohorts, could not agree more. Systemic change, moreover, clearly is not ‘only’ about jointly addressing the interconnected crises of climate change, environmental destruction, corporate capitalism, racism, and many other systemic crises and discriminations. For EDGE, systemic change is fundamentally about the redistribution of power, including also in philanthropy itself. This is remarkable, and demonstrates both the deep commitment of funders present at the conference to transformation rather than transaction, and the growing force of EDGE as a funder network. This is a space where the individual and collective shortcomings of funders are openly debated and addressed, and where people are called out for paying only lip service to common values.

Ariadne and Human Rights Funders Network are doing similarly terrific jobs of organizing funders around common issues, but EDGE goes further in its commitment to actually changing structures and power relations. This was most apparent in the conference format itself. The conference centered not on the funder-only sessions, but on the one-day ‘encontro’ with movements, designed by the civil society organizations themselves. More than 50 civil society leaders from around the world challenged funders to listen rather than talk, to support rather than demand, and, most importantly, to live up to the standards that funders so often set for movements. As one funder put it: ‘What does it mean for philanthropy to even begin taking risks on a level that activists are taking every day?’ In this sense, EDGE can be an uncomfortable space for funders, even in a beautiful and welcoming conference venue near Rio de Janeiro. Who wants to be challenged? Who wants to give up power? And yet, change only comes form such spaces of discomfort.

Before the encontro, the activists also had space to meet amongst themselves in a separate multi-day symposium. They were able to get to know each other, to learn from each other and form common strategies, regardless of whether this could or would feed into the meeting with funders. EDGE realized that such funder-supported movement-only convenings build connections most needed in today’s global interconnected struggles, and I sincerely hope other funders and affinity groups will follow this example. This alone would make the conference a success – but there was more. The conference exemplified EDGE’s dedication to solidarity with movements, to feminism, racial justice, and transformative change, all of which make this space and this community quite unique and a personal and political home for so many progressive funders.

Yet of course, one conference, one feel-good moment of joint vision and values, is not enough. It was also not the first conference, not even the first in EDGE’s history, to call for systemic change. This can only be a beginning. The true test of EDGE’s importance lies in the progress of its members over time. Actions will have to follow on these declarations, goals will have to be met. At the next EDGE conference, most likely in Europe, this is a progress report I am looking forward to.

Martin Modlinger is director of Renewable Freedom Foundation

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