Innovation in philanthropy – What new skills are needed to meet these new challenges


Dharmendra Kanani


Don’t do this while you read this but bear with me: Promise to close your eyes – behave like you’re in a school class and act on this instruction – peer pressure is so immense that by closing your eyes it will give you a sense of self and independence of mind. Now do you feel you are always right in a meeting? Do you like control?  Want system change? Want to stand out? If you answered ‘yes’ like most of the audience at the EFC AGA second plenary – you are a control freak, clever, and want to solve things. Now stay with me: you are constantly dealing with rapid change which is simultaneous, and accountability and measurement are your new watch words professionally – but you should throw predictability out of the window and feel the new reality of the power of letting go.

Leave your ego at home, identify your place in the wider system and think about where you fit in the system of change – don’t forget others may have the answer and that asking questions is magical! Like Mary Poppins said, go to the root cause, and with a spoonful of courage – try new concepts, use intuition and heart set rather than mind set. You should be bringing in the Trojan horse of change and stand on the edge of the system. Innovation is not sharing what you know but what you don’t know -‘creating space to learn together….This was part Harvard business school, part mindfulness and part Mary Poppins – but all of it was delivered by a Princess! Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands had the audience in her hand, making us all do tricks and follow her every word like we’d been hypnotised by this tall, confident, raspy voiced Dutch guru asking us to follow the yellow brick road of change. But I wondered whether this was received as theatre or real nuggets of wisdom that we should all take pause to think about and reflect on.

The Princess was followed by an example of all that she preached.  The wonderful Ruby Johnson – a feminist funder – meaning that the voices, experiences and decisions of women sit at the heart of all they do. FREDA is a 5yr old global foundation working through a digital space – virtual in all senses, with joint learning; being agile and prepared to change tack – central to is operating strategy. Starting with a lovely example of Radio Udayapur  – Ruby demonstrated what power sharing meant; how empowerment of women – if you really believe that those who are victims suffering and or in need also have the solution to their situations – then this was an classic example of taking an asset based approach to the problem of child marriage in a rural heartland in India.  By empowering child brides through the clever medium of local radio – they were able to change a local approach to child marriage. There are lessons in this approach for wider international development aid and how funders can cede sustainability rather than reliance on them, or on shaky governance systems in the countries they choose to invest. It was refreshing to hear a funder confidently state that giving up the power of decision making and sharing it, brings real value and a different starting point to conversations with applicants and grantees. For FREDA it is the community of applicants and grantees that make the decisions on who gets funded.

I can imagine many thinking this is ok to do this with small amounts of money and on international development but not back home – which is a pity, as this approach could seriously drive a momentum of change in how funding operates, but it’s a tough ask and leaves one thinking about the use and purpose of boards, governance, and accountability.  But as Ruby said – they were willing to dream, not afraid to fail and learn from it, and to be creative. I can’t end this blog better than in the words of Arundhati Roy, whom Ruby quoted to conclude her contribution: Another world is not only possible; she is on her way. I can hear her breathing.

Dharmendra Kanani is a consultant.

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