Tales from a philanthropy lab


Andrew Milner


We were sitting on the stage in a circle, which seemed in itself to presage a worryingly participatory session. As an observer, I hate to be drawn into this kind of thing, but sitting out wasn’t an option. ‘Be a bit playful,’ said Manish Jain, of Shikshantar Andolan in India, one of the facilitators and think differently. It may not sound much like a lab, except for the last bit, but that’s what it was called – an engagement lab, where conference co-chair, Chung-Wha Hong had urged us to ‘get our hands dirty’.

It was one of the more intriguing features of the EDGE Funders conference. The idea was that you picked a topic from the seven on offer and then worked with the others in the group over three two-hour sessions to explore it thoroughly and get to know each other into the bargain. This provided an antidote to one of the common frustrations about conference sessions, that they’re only just getting going when they have to finish. Finally, if you feel you’ve got somewhere, you go into a session called an action lab and produce recommendations or ideas to put to the conference at large.

The one I had picked was ‘What’s the Story? A Lab on Worldviews and Narratives’ – as a writer, it seemed the obvious one. How did it pan out? It was a bit of a bumpy ride in some ways, in fact literally at times as the icebreaker featured not only deep breathing, hugging and high-fiving but bumping hips, too. We heard how you might set about trying to undo the assumptions which underlie the dominant notion of how the world works. Culture ‘hacking’ is one possibility: introducing an idea into the mainstream in such a way that it takes on a life of its own.

Alnoor Ladha from The Rules, which describes itself as a global network of activists, talked about the wetiko campaign as an example of how you can do this. Wetiko is an Algonquin concept which really means cannibalism and they applied it to their first encounters with Europeans. Indulging it has two results: it produces an emotional coldness – an ‘icy heart’ – and at the same time, creates the desire to eat more flesh. For The Rules, it was an appropriate metaphor for capitalism.

The results, so far, have been articles in academic journal articles, a website and a series of popular articles. We also heard about developments in Turkey and how repression and a climate of fear created by the authorities was stifling a more optimistic outlook, about the achievements of the buen vivir movement in Latin America and its struggle to adapt itself to larger groups and to changed circumstances.

And then there was the participatory side… In one session, we divided into groups and tried to define (a) the current dominant worldview (b) an alternative based on social justice and (c) an earth-centred view. Group A had the easiest task, but even for them, it was easier to describe its characteristics than to define it. And while we were all debating this, our time ran out…

In the final part of the three sessions, we were encouraged to imagine ourselves as a non-human entity (no holds barred – there was a mobile phone, a guitar, a bear, a sandcastle as well as an assortment of rivers, trees and winds) and to say what we felt about the discussions we’d had so far and, in the same incarnations, what course of action we would recommend to funders.

Overall impressions? Every session started off with some kind of group exercise which didn’t seem to have much to do with the business at hand. Icebreakers have their uses – even though as a repressed Anglo-Saxon, I’m less comfortable with the more physical ones – but an icebreaker at the start of every session seemed more like 1960s California than 2017… well, anywhere.

I suppose the point was to stress that worldviews can and do have a strong emotional/spiritual dimension, as well as a material one but for a sceptic like your correspondent, it felt a little overdone. A point that recurred throughout the last session and a source of evident mild frustration was that no funders were present, so, from a practical point of view, there was no discussion of the issue that involved both sides, funders and grantees.

That said, the organizers deserve credit for experimentation and for encouraging participants to use their imagination. It was a good deal more involving than the ordinary conference workshop and, if nothing else, the time passed more quickly. In the event, my own impression was that the organizers were asking too much of the participants’ willingness to think differently.

Most of us grappled gamely but vainly with the idea of simultaneously imagining ourselves as a sandcastle – or whatever – and making recommendations to funders. Either one alone would have been taxing enough. I also felt, rightly or wrongly, that what was being suggested was the creation of an alternative, but equally monolithic ‘narrative’ about how and why we lived and should live and that, even if this were desirable, it would hardly be possible given the different perspectives that were represented in the group.

At the end, we all stood around in a circle holding hands, and were encouraged to reflect on what we had got out of the exercise. There was more silence than speech in the moments that followed. Most people seemed frustrated or puzzled by the sessions. One participant probably spoke for many when she said ‘I don’t know what we’ve done here.

It wasn’t a grievance, more a desire for explanation. But as one of the organizers said, ‘it’s a lab’ and a lab is where experiments happen. Sometimes, you mix the ingredients in the flask and no reaction occurs. On the other hand, sometimes the equipment explodes and that happened, too, in another lab. We weren’t the only group coping with tensions and frustrations and these occurred in a more volatile form in the lab on ‘Investment Strategies towards a Just Transition’, where confrontations occurred and someone even burst into tears. Not your normal conference response.

In the end, we didn’t get as far as an action lab. We were too confused to produce ‘action points’,  but some groups navigated the tensions more successfully even if the recommendations they produced were often more exhortatory than practical.

To give a few examples scattered among the seven groups: funders should urgently democratize their funds and their funding and look at spending down; less data, more stories when it comes to measuring impact; evaluate the approach, rather than its outcomes and be flexible, because change happens in odd ways; funders come out of your silos – movements did so long ago.

On the whole, the experiment was a worthwhile one. Despite whatever head-scratching the format and design produced (one group in its feedback said that, in retrospect, they would have designed the lab differently), no-one seemed to hate the process – except perhaps the person who burst into tears – and, speaking for the group I was in, there was plenty of goodwill produced. If EDGE’s idea was to shake us out of our comfort zones, they probably did, even if not always in the ways anticipated.

Tagged in: EDGE Funders annual conference 2017

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