In a crowded calendar of funder meetings, I always make a point of attending the Grantmakers without Borders annual conference. That’s where I usually find the most cutting-edge discussions of grantmaking issues in an open atmosphere of exchange and exploration. This year in New York on 13-15 June was no different. A gathering of 225 public and private international grantmakers and many of their grantees made the conference, called ‘Just Giving: Global Social Change Philanthropy’, a refreshing and reinvigorating romp through some of the toughest issues we face in working for social change around the world.
For me the conference is most valuable because all practitioners take as a starting point that they achieve the biggest bang for their buck by investing in social change grantmaking. There are many different visions of what that means, and how to do it, but the entire conference is a three-day dive into how to use money to solve the root causes of social problems.
For many that means taking social movements seriously. Many participants look at social change historically and see that important social progress for the marginalized and excluded has nearly always had some kind of social movement behind it. Long term, loosely organized, messy conglomerations of grassroots organizations, non-profit organizations, academics, media and government officials, all rebounding off each other in more or less the same direction to achieve social goals. At this conference those movements included those for democracy in North Africa, environmental justice, transgender rights, various aspects of women’s rights, and climate change. And in each case I was inspired by the willingness – no, the enthusiasm – to dig deeply and figure out how to do it.
What is a movement? How do they work? How can funders support them? How can funders get in the way of progress? So I learned, for example, that democracy did not come to Tunisia and Egypt by Facebook alone, but by the slow, patient building over many years, and the courage of people who did more than click “Like” on their computer screens. And that in thinking about climate change negotiations, we can go beyond the arcane counting of tons of carbon and the minutiae of treaty clauses to supporting millions of farmers around the world in promoting a vision of family-oriented farming, which reduces both fossil fuel use and the land degradation that is one of the major sources of the problem.
I was struck by the willingness to challenge the established wisdom of philanthropy. Speakers bucked the trend on monitoring and evaluation, for example, by arguing that focusing on foundation effectiveness through logical models not only misunderstands how change occurs but looks in the wrong places for results. Social systems are complex and unpredictable, and foundations are at best one contributor of many to the forces that push and resist change. So more dynamic concepts of how change happens and how we can encourage it, and taking seriously and systematically the inherent learning that we do all the time with our grantees – and hopefully the people we are trying to help – is as good a bet for figuring out what works and what doesn’t as a pre-set and pre-digested plan.
Above all, it was the pervasive sense of openness and wondering that characterized this conference. It felt like a joint exploration where no one had the answers; in fact perhaps these questions have no answers. But in continually asking the questions, we all move forward.
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Chris Allan is a freelance consultant on social change philanthropy with Picher Allan Associates LLC. http://www.chrisallan.info