On Wednesday March 4 2020, funders, commissioners and local organisations from multiple sectors came together at The Abbey Centre in Westminster to re-imagine what supporting the process and practice of social change could be, not just through projects, programmes and organisations, but also through movements, communities and networks. The event was part of the Losing Control Network, powered by The Social Change Agency and Practical Governance.
More information on the programme can be found here. Both panels and group discussions were truly fascinating and broad in range – from sharing stories about the risks, pitfalls and robust efforts of funding social movements and local communities, to in-depth breakouts on complexity, youth activism, managing tensions and unhealthy dynamics, navigating power and influence, and moving towards new funding approaches like participatory grant-making and long-term, unconditional funding.
Three themes in particular struck me as relevant to the work we’ve been developing at SIX. Please note that the insights I share from the conference will follow Chatham House Rules – specifically, no direct attributions.
Channelling efforts towards social justice groups fighting against power inequality
Philanthropy is entrenched with the kind of power dynamics which can perpetuate the very inequality it seeks to solve. But to decentralise power, funders need humility and an acceptance around the inevitable surrendering of some of their organisational and individual power. In 2020, we kickstarted a year-long interrogation into the relationship between power and philanthropy through the SIX Funders Node, which supports individuals in philanthropic foundations from around the world to work more effectively and authentically.
The Losing Control event powerfully echoed how we at SIX strive for the Funders Node to be a pioneering demonstration of how philanthropy should engage with power, to challenge and be challenged. One global activist called out the ways that the “Second World” (read: philanthropy) hurts the social movements it contributes to, challenging the audience to put front-of-mind possible outcomes of additional harm, alongside practices which inherently ‘other’ the people they fund. For this activist, redistributing power uses the language of white supremacy and “internal systems of oppression and internalised trauma,” and challenges funders to bear in mind when funding social movements, the “literal life-and-death risks of activists, who are often up against extreme power.”
Embodying more than funding
The second theme that stood out to me was exploring the roles of funders, a conversation which surfaced in several sessions, including the breakout by Collaborate CIC & Newcastle Business School on shifting funding to better respond to complexity, and the Social Change Agency’s breakout on how funders can avoid perpetuating unhealthy power dynamics. Philanthropy is increasingly being regarded as more than a redistribution of wealth, but also as a practice which supports fundamental shifts in society. In light of this, some funders shared ways in which they were experimenting with different approaches to how they support their beneficiaries – moving into a co-production role, reconceptualising what they can do as an enabler, advocate, coach, and educator, as well as a funder.
Philanthropy as solidarity
Finally, one remark at the very end of the conference challenged the audience to see philanthropy as a form of solidarity; and not just solidarity, but reparation. This concluded several conversations which emerged over the day about working with people based on the principles of their work, using “appreciative enquiry” when measuring the success of grantees, and – mirroring the 10-hour course offered by SIX – putting systems thinking in both context and practice.
The event was well organised, facilitated with expert knowledge, and spacious enough to provide a chance to deep dive into topics without losing sight of the overall topic. The lens of Losing Control gave me cause to reflect on how SIX has been designing experiences and convening for over 10 years – mixing funders with businesses, businesses with universities, universities with governments, governments with youth leaders, and so on. In a world like ours – ever-connected and deeply interwoven, what better way to build meaningful exchange than through the conversations of losing control, redistributing resources, and shifting our systems of power? The value of this kind of work is never more necessary than now.
Josiane Smith is Partnerships and Growth Manager at Social Innovation Exchnage