Episode 21: Systems change in the philanthropy sector. Heather Grady & Tanya Beer interviewed.

About this episode:

In this week’s episode, Heather Grady from Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors (RPA) and Tanya Beer, an independent consultant, present the Shifting Systems Initiative Evaluation. The evaluation explores what systems change means to the philanthropic and funding sector, and evaluates the contribution of the Shifting Systems Initiative to the sector.

Our discussion examines systems change practically, and explores alternative entry points such as ‘doing the inner work’, working together, implementing intersectional systems thinking, and trusting in order to cede control and take risks.

Heather and Tanya bring up the fact that thinking about race and systems change is often given low priority and is grossly underfunded. This limits effective action, confirming the perception that systems change and anti-racist action are an inefficient use of philanthropic organisations’ time and resources. We discuss how to move past this blockage into identifying entry points for practical action.

Heather proposes longer-term, more adaptive and responsive funding as a solution that would benefit both the grantees and the funders, who can free up resources and time. Tanya suggests adapting the risk framework so that a lack of systems of change is perceived as the real risk.

Episode 21: Full Transcript

​​The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 21

Systems change in the philanthropy sector. Heather Grady & Tanya Beer interviewed.

Tanya: [00:00:00] But if we as humans, the people on the funding side don’t experience a transformation and how we relate to others in the system and how we understand ourselves, we won’t ever get to the point where we can really work deeply on power in a relationship of solidarity with each other. So I think about that as necessary, that inner work has to be happening alongside the thinking work, the technocratic work, the seeing the system differently, or you’ll never get to some of those deeper levels of transformation.

Kate: Hello, I’m Professor Kate Bird and I’d like to introduce this episode of the Power Shift: Decolonising Development. In this episode, we’re talking to Heather Grady and Tanya Beer about the evaluation of the Shifting Systems Initiative, which looks at philanthropic organisations and how they’re seeking to change the way they work.

We talk about long-term, unrestricted and more adaptive and responsive funding from philanthropic organisations. We explore what the systems change initiative has contributed to the sector, if anything, and what is the [00:01:00] relationship between giver and receiver, and within that relationship, how important is race and power.

We talk about whose knowledge counts and why some knowledge is dubbed ‘indigenous’ and deemed to be inferior to hegemonic and Eurocentric thinking and how sometimes knowledge from the majority world is captured, repackaged and sold back as a technocratic product.

We talk about the relative importance of systems thinking, working together, scaling innovation, power and empowerment and the inner work and also how to move from talk to action. So listen on for more. Bye for now.

Charmaine: Welcome, Heather. Welcome, Tanya. And it’s good to see you again, Kate. So welcome everybody to the Power Shift: Decolonising Development, the podcast series seeking to bring together thinkers, practitioners, and activists to share ideas, inspire change and identify tools for practical action. I am Charmaine McCaulay, a body psychotherapist, director of Kokoro and lead facilitator of the groundbreaking training program called Racism in Real Time. And my co host is Professor Kate Bird, director of the Development [00:02:00] Hub. As a Black psychotherapist and a White development professional, we are using our own lived experiences and professional skills to frame the way we approach the topic of decolonisation. Over to you, Kate. 

Kate: Thanks, Charmaine. I’d like to introduce our two speakers today.

They are Heather Grady and Tanya Beer. Heather Grady is Vice President at Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors, RPA, and she co founded and leads the Shifting Systems Initiative as part of her work with RPA. Tanya Beer is an independent consultant. She focuses on strategic learning facilitation for organisations and collaboratives.

She’s co author of the evaluation of the Shifting Systems Initiative. Before going freelance, Tanya was Associate Director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation, which pushes evaluation practices in new directions and into areas that are hard to measure, such as advocacy, communications and systems change.

So you can see that we’ve got both sides of the equation here represented in our conversation, and we’re very interested to speak to you, Heather and Tanya, about this Shifting [00:03:00] Systems Initiative and what you found out about it. Now I’m going to pass back to Charmaine for the first question. 

Charmaine: Thank you, Kate. Heather, could you describe the Shifting Systems Initiative, its work with the philanthropy sector and what you see as the overlaps between system change and decolonising, localising, and anti-racist agenda. 

Heather: Thank you very much. And Kate and Charmaine, it’s great to be here and great to be with Tanya again.

We haven’t seen each other since the evaluation completed. Just to say a few words about the Shifting Systems Initiative, we launched it in 2016 at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. I was approached by Edwin Ou from the Skoll Foundation, who said our foundation funds a lot of wonderful organisations around the world with unrestricted funding, generally long term.

We’ve always been hoping that other funders do the same and yet we find that the philanthropic community is not doing that, is giving short term restricted funding by and large. So, how can we work together to make changes in the philanthropic sector more broadly and really encourage funders to [00:04:00] collaborate more and to place longer term, less restricted, more adaptive and responsive funding with grantee partners around the world.

So that we can have more of an effect on the systems that the grantee partners are trying to work on to change. We were joined very early by the Ford Foundation, Porticus and then others along the way, the Chandler Foundation and Jasmine Social Investments. We’ve really gotten ahead of steam over these years.

So, 7 years later, what we noted was that systems change went from being a phrase that was hardly heard in the philanthropic sector in 2016 to being bandied about so much that people could no longer say what this really means. There wasn’t a cohesive, coherent narrative discourse or set of practices within the sector.

So we commissioned an evaluation and brought in Tanya and her colleagues and asked them to take 6 months to really do a deep dive into both what our initiative had contributed to the sector, if anything. But more importantly, I think what’s happening vis a vis the concept and the practice of systems change in the philanthropic [00:05:00] sector and in funding more generally.

And what I think that has to do with issues like anti racism, decolonisation, and localisation is that what had happened over time is that a lot of funders said, “oh, of course we want to support systems change,” and they would do some more self diagnostic tools, or they would do a systems map, or they would incorporate one or a few practices without actually unpacking those concepts that are at the root of what happens, frankly, if you look at the basics of it, between some institutions and individuals who have accumulated and are distributing wealth and other individuals who are doing the very hard work of social change, economic change, political change.

So what is the relationship between the giver and the receiver? And that’s where I think it comes to these questions of race and power and localisation and so on. 

Charmaine: Thank you. I really appreciate what you’ve just said, and the overlap there. My next question is your evaluation highlights that intellectual property from the Global North, or as other people call it from the minority world, it’s valued. Whereas [00:06:00] for me, it feels as if there’s a pejorative and condescending attitude towards knowledge from the Global South, or majority world, which is framed as culture and indigenous knowledge. How do these concepts reinforce the status quo?

Tanya: That’s a great question. You know, the evaluation approach was really trying to understand and reach out mostly to folks doing the work that Heather mentioned be on the recipient end of philanthropic and development dollars, their experience of how the philanthropic sector in particular is promoting and shifting or not their practices around systems change.

And one of the things we consistently heard from many of the folks that we interviewed was that they found that the way many philanthropic actors and I would include in this, the consultant sector, who comes in and acts as intermediaries or evaluators or strategy consultants, come in often into learning spaces, or in their interactions between a grant applicant and a foundation, and they find that there’s a framing around systems thinking and systems [00:07:00] change.

That is how the foundation or philanthropy articulates the kinds of change that they’re looking for. And those frameworks and the language around them are coming from, in many cases, Global North situated institutions and disciplinary traditions and consultants, et cetera. And the experience that many people reflected back to us was that that sort of technocratic language is actually saying back to many communities the exact same concepts that they’ve been struggling and fighting to make happen in their own communities all along, but packaged in a language that makes it highly technocratic, relatively inaccessible, and then forces activists and actors in community to shape to the language of the funder, the agendas of the funder and erases their own history of having done that kind of work, advocating for a different kind of relationality, advocating for shifts in power, changes in mindsets, changes in governance structures, et cetera, erases the fact that folks have been working on that for as long as [00:08:00] colonisation has been around and so what we heard over and over again was that the packaging of systems change language held up as the paragon of what we’re heading towards, ends up just reinforcing some of those very power hierarchies that the systems change is supposedly supposed to address, right?

That calling local knowledge, culture, et cetera, implies that it’s not as sophisticated, implies that it’s not as well thought through, implies that it’s not research based or evidence based and therefore doesn’t have value in actually leading towards social change. So we heard that quite a bit from the folks that we interviewed.

Charmaine: All right, thank you. The third one, your report states that different assumptions are held by different groups and individuals. Some emphasise working together, some emphasise scaling innovation and power and empowerment, and others support the inner work. So as a psychotherapist, as a body trauma psychotherapist, my work really does, for the most part, focus on the inner work.

And [00:09:00] I personally see that this is a foundation without which other elements of change cannot happen. So what I’m saying, if you haven’t done the internal work, and if you don’t understand what motivates you, what gets you going and your defenses and whether you feel defended. So what I want to know is, can you tell us a bit about how you see the relationship between these different elements working or not working?

Tanya: Yeah, it’s really good. I’ll start. And then Heather, maybe also you can reflect on how you’re seeing those relationships play out among philanthropists. So, I feel like one of the pieces of wisdom we heard again and again from the folks we had an opportunity to talk with was that, we probed a lot on when you see some of a thunder of development effort living out what you imagine to be the real aspirations of systems change versus when they’re not, what is it that you’re seeing? There’s a lot of technical stuff around, like, how they fund, what the structure is, what they focus on, the kinds of organisations they fund. But often people ended up coming back to, the individuals representing those organisations are entering into the conversation and the relationship in [00:10:00] a fundamentally differently embodied way.

Many described it as they begin with open ears and questions and listening, and they recognise that they themselves are situated inside a system with necessarily limited view of what’s happening, that they can’t understand it, a system more fully from where they stand without hearing and relating to others.

And that ability, people told us again and again, is a piece of inner work. It’s the ability to come to terms with your situatedness, to come to terms with the fact that you are part of both a history and the current functioning of a system. And so one of the things you’ll see in the report that came up several times too is this idea that we can kind of create a lot of new training programs or different frameworks or different funding strategies and a lot of those different technical pieces that make funding more supportive of systems change. But if we as humans, the people on the funding side don’t experience a transformation and how we relate to others in the [00:11:00] system and how we understand ourselves, we won’t ever get to the point where we can really work deeply on power in a relationship of solidarity with each other. So I think about that as necessary, that inner work has to be happening alongside the thinking work, the technocratic work, the seeing the system differently, or you’ll never get to some of those deeper levels of transformation.

Heather: Tanya, I want to build on that. What a great answer. And I want to say a little more. First, I think that the table that’s in the report on the different assumptions that funders and others make about how you change systems, I think that list is very good and I don’t want to discount some of the other ways that people will say this is fundamental.

So, for example, you change systems by working together. I think that’s absolutely true, without collaboration, when funders are working in silos, whatever support they’re giving will have less impact rather than a collaborative approach. There’s another one about using systems thinking and that’s just, I think, rooted in a lot of wonderful practices from North, [00:12:00] South, East, West, where you’re thinking about problems and context in a more intersectional, in a multidisciplinary, in a more comprehensive way and embracing complexity. So I think that’s important. There’s the element of scaling, people believing if there’s impact in one place, if we really want to tackle a problem, whether it’s climate change or destruction of nature, or a large unhoused population. Yes, if we are doing things that work, if we’ve innovated on something that’s working, we want to scale it in the sense that we want to share the practice more widely and see if others are interested. So, those are not unimportant conditions, but I think the inner work is so essential and it’s often either not done at all, or it’s left to last.

And I just want to add on to what Tanya said. If you think about the attributes of a funder that is working in a way that’s really respectful and anti racist and really challenging the status quo of how funding is done, it’s about trust, it’s about ceding control to others, it’s about humility, going back to listening.

It’s also about taking risks. [00:13:00] I can’t tell you how often I’m talking to funders who say I don’t want to support that work because that’s an untested small organisation. And how will I know? And they won’t take a risk on that, but they’re very comfortable giving 10 million dollars to a university or something else where there’s no particular cause and effect of the impact of their money.

They’ll take a big risk with their own company, but they won’t take a risk in a really wonderful organisation that happens to be far away from them and not in their same social circle. There’s a lot of factors at play here that are about otherness. And about belonging and about the approach and I just want to say, we see people in the philanthropic community who enter the community with these attributes of listening and humility and trust and so on. Often they’re coming from being an activist themselves and they bring that into their work. There are also people who are naturally more that way or not. The problem with a philanthropic system is once you’re in it, it mitigates against those qualities.

You have people above you in the hierarchy saying, are you sure we should make that grant? Have you double checked it? Have you done enough due diligence? We have our [00:14:00] peers saying, who are the best organisations to fund? Are you sure? Do they have a track record? And of course, we have the fact that organisations receiving funding don’t, if I use the old idiom, they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.

So if a funder is acting in a way that is not helpful and not respectful and not listening, it’s hard for organisations to call them on it, because then you create the awkward moments and you’re worried you’ll lose your funding. So these are really patterns of power that get replicated over and over.

And I think that’s why the inner work that you do Charmaine is so important. 

Charmaine: Yeah, I just wanted to add to that and I think you explained it really well so I’m also hearing that’s built into the organisation, is almost I want to say, a natural pushback to things that don’t feel okay. Right. So they may say it doesn’t sound okay, but I think really what’s happening in their own internal body, this doesn’t feel right.

I don’t like this. I don’t know anything about this company. So really I’m not going to do anything, but then that gets translated to, I don’t think it’s okay. When actually it’s much [00:15:00] deeper, right? So I’m going to be guessing how difficult then it is for change to actually happen if there’s a built-in system of almost a concreteness that you can’t really expand because as soon as you expand, the concrete walls go squish, squish, squish, squish, squish.

And so all the innovations that you and Tanya have been talking about almost then by default get stopped, and how hard it is then for everybody else who actually believes in the things you’re doing, how do you change the belief to make it happen, if it’s really hierarchical and the power changes the configuration of what you want to do?

Heather: Yes, absolutely. 

Charmaine: My last question before I turn this over to Kate, this is more of a personal question to either one, whoever you’d like to answer. So racial equity and coloniality is mentioned in your report, but I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about your own personal journey, your own personal experience of how race, internal racism, colonial mindset, and the fact that you are white, and you’re in this system. Can you talk about some of the issues that did come up from you. [00:16:00] So I know that this is rather personal but I would really appreciate if you could sort of go in there and so we could hear actually what’s going on internally, when you’re in this kind of situation. Thank you. 

Tanya: Heather, do you want to start? 

Heather: Sure. You know, I think at our organisation and many funding organisations, we’ve been doing work over the last several years on diversity, equity, and inclusion, as we call it. And we’ve tried to make time and space for what we call brave conversations and going more deeply.

And I think that applies to this work when you’re working on systems change more broadly. The challenge that I have is it becomes something that’s kind of bolted on to the day job. It is some of the most important work that I could possibly be doing in a given week, month or year.

And yet it turns into a process of training courses and going very deep into a conversation with people of different races, different ethnicities. ethnicities. And then suddenly the conversation is over and we go back to our day to day work. I think multiply that times[00:17:00] the giving and the receiving of financial resources, the giving and receiving of advice, and how we never make enough space to really go deeply and bring the work to a place where we ourselves are transforming.

Charmaine: Can I just add to that then, and I hear how you’re saying that it’s bolted on the end, and I would just say, what a privilege. Of being white, that you can bolt it on. You know, I can’t ever bolt on. It’s always there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And so I guess one of the things that I get irritated about is the privilege.

And it’s also that it is and it isn’t. It’s like, you can never take your whiteness off, but there’s an assumption that your whiteness is not impacting and it’s only impacting and it’s only necessary to look at in very siloed positions, so I would like to challenge you to say, it’s not just in the silo position.

It’s not just in your interaction. Your whiteness is always there constantly. 

Heather: I completely agree. Yeah. Yes. 

Charmaine: Tanya?

Tanya: There’s this moment, so the evaluation field and talking about the sort of subjectivity of an evaluator.

Because also I’m White and the whole evaluation team is [00:18:00] White, middle class, wealthy by global standards, cisgendered women. That was the evaluation team. And we were in the position of having to make sense. Both gather data and then make sense out of it for the Shifting Systems Initiative team.

And there’s so much power in the sense making and how you go through the process of making sense of what you hear and deciding what stays in and what’s out, what stays unsaid. And so really one of the things we grappled with as a team and grapple with in every single moment of work is this question of, like, how do I, in my bodiedness, my Whiteness in this system, also situated in the Global North, and all of those other characteristics I just named, how do we create an approach to this work that is more conscious of the assumptions we’re bringing to the interpretation of data, the gathering of data, the social active meaning making? One of the things I had to do in this evaluation was to say, how do we use the more [00:19:00] participatory approach to open up channels for people, not us, people who do not look like me, to actually contest the assumptions and hypotheses of the Shifting Systems Initiative to offer alternatives and not try to look for central tendencies that sort of just, here’s the big themes and kind of erase out all the difference because it’s in the difference that matters. Anyway, and my own personal struggle in that space is like, I need to figure out how to consolidate this and pass it on in a way that makes sense. And trying to build in checks in the participatory-ness of the work that would guard against the fact that I am inevitably seeing this from my position of Whiteness.

So anyway, I have to tell you, like in all candor, the experience for me makes me regularly question whether I even should be spending time as an evaluator doing this work and how problematic that can be if I don’t find ways to push myself and our team and they me to really see our situatedness and our lens [00:20:00] and invite people to critique the assumptions we’re making as well.

And I feel like increasingly, I’m aware of, if you’re not paying attention to it every day, it just slips right back into all of these unquestioned questions about how the world functions. 

Heather: I just want to recognise Tanya and the evaluation team for the sensitive way they did that.

And I know Tanya, I mean, it was very apparent to us that we had an evaluation team that yes, had the characteristics she just said, but we’re so conscious of that more so than other consultants and evaluators that I have worked with. And I remember one particular discussion, a fascinating discussion, where I was invited to be there on the call and not allowed to say anything, which was great, and it was unusual, and I think there were interesting ways that our evaluation team was approaching these issues and how you structure a process that is more equitable. 

Charmaine: And just my last one, I was looking through the evaluation report, and I say, it’s excellent.

One of the things that struck me, and maybe it was there, I did not see the identities [00:21:00] markers saying that Heather Grady is a White person. I didn’t see Tanya Beer is a White person. I might have missed that. But for me as a person of color, that’s one of the first things I’m going to be looking for.

Because it tells me right off the bat who you are and what positions you will be taking. Right? So I don’t know if it’s there and I just didn’t see that. But if you’re going to do another one, please, please, please put your identity. And say who you are, because it does represent a particular ideology, it does represent a particular geopolitical stance, and it also represents your gender so for me and other people like that, I would appreciate if you could just mention that. Now I don’t know, in your worldview if that’s what you do but on papers there for psychotherapy, that’s one of the first things that we have to do, that there’s no such thing as being neutral. So thank you. 

Tanya: We put our approach in the back because we thought, oh, this will be the approach and who we are, how we’re situated in it is an appendix.

It will be boring to people. And I think now, in retrospect, I’m thinking that it obscures. If you hide it like that, it [00:22:00] obscures that question of how you’re positioned and what their own limitations and stance might be as we’re trying to make sense of data and how did we do it.

I think maybe that was a mistaken assumption on our part that it would bore people. 

Charmaine: Well, we got to know who you are and that’s really important. 

Kate: Yeah, can I just jump in very quickly to say that I’ve collected data across the world, so not in Latin America, but working in many African countries and a number of different Asian countries, and in my write ups I’ve never once said that I’m White.

And now doing this work, I realise, I mean, I’ve talked about my perceptual filters. I’ve talked about how I perceive the world. I’ve very consciously talked about the fact that we view the world with eyes that are informed by our histories, by our training and so on. So I’ve talked in that sense, but I’ve never once stated as a middle class elite, educated White woman. I’ve never used that phraseology. And I think I am becoming better informed by sitting in this chair, co hosting this podcast and listening to a whole range of voices, and from obviously my conversations with Charmaine, I think I’m [00:23:00] now better informed about positionality and about my own innate power as a White woman.

So I suppose I’m becoming better informed myself and something before I go on to the kind of questions that we’ve discussed in advance. I just wanted to flag back to something that Heather was saying about the need to do this work almost in the spaces in between. So you’re doing this work in the spaces in between other work, and somewhere in the report it mentions that this kind of work, the work on personal transformation and the work on systems change is actually grossly underfunded.

And I think both of these things go together, the fact it’s grossly underfunded, and the fact that it’s something that is squeezed in between the other stuff. As Charmaine rightly said, we don’t take our race off. We’re White all the time. Charmaine is Black all the time. So race and identity is there all the time and it’s influencing the way that we work and how we see the world, how we behave in the world, and how we behave in interracial teams all the time.

So it’s interesting for me, the degree to which it’s unfunded, and the fact that has to [00:24:00] fit in the spaces in between. So I suppose that’s a statement rather than a question, but I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on that. 

Tanya: Yeah, so we spoke with foundations and intermediaries, consultants and nonprofit or civil society organisation leaders and actors and activists across the spectrum and it was interesting because we heard some of the foundation folks said, we have these inner work conversations internally and we spend too much time on it, because it never translates then into action.

And so we get lost in this navel gazing about race, diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, the multiple frames, sort of an operation there, but instead of saying, okay, so what would it actually take to integrate that into the full depth of the way we show up in the world in relation with others? So I think this is the backlash that’s happening in philanthropy. Foundations are saying we’re spending too much time on this inner work, but I wonder to your point about it’s chronically underfunded. I think we’re in this really precarious point right now of foundation saying, just like many nonprofits are saying, I’m going to give up on this whole concept of systems change, or I’m not even going to bother with it [00:25:00] because it’s just a bunch of talk and nothing’s different.

We’re seeing in foundations. This is maybe a gross generalisation, but I’m seeing a lot of evidence from the folks we spoke with that they are also sort of exhausting themselves on conversations that they feel aren’t leading to anything. And I think that’s going to trigger a backlash, or maybe already is.

So I think that’s a really weird puzzle to try to figure out Kate that it’s a funding issue. What kinds of experiences are we setting up for foundations to have not just inward facing, but in relation to others out in the world that could be transformative, I think there’s a real problem right now with how that’s playing out that we’ve got to fix.

We’ve got to crack that nut somehow. I don’t know if you guys are seeing in the folks that you’re talking with, but 

Kate: I think that’s a really interesting point because it’s, okay, we’re having a conversation, but what are the entry points for practical action? So where is something that we can develop real traction around?

And that’s certainly something that Charmaine and I are really interested in working to do is to lock together a set of practical tools that can be applied, but you can’t apply practical tools without also doing the [00:26:00] inner work. So it’s kind of like, how do you do both at the same time? Do you have to sequence it? Is it that you have to spend a certain amount of time on inner work before you can do the outward facing stuff? Or is it something that you have to work on simultaneously because you can’t keep the momentum going without that simultaneous action? And I would suspect the latter that you’ve got to do both at the same time, but also you’ve got to do a certain amount of the inner work because otherwise what you will do is you will start spinning empty words and you won’t actually believe what you’re doing.

You won’t believe it and you won’t be authentic in what you try to do. So my next question is the Shifting System Initiative seeks to encourage philanthropic funders to work more collaboratively and direct longer term, more adaptive, responsive resources. But these changes could potentially narrow the field of organisations and movements being funded with longer term funding and close alliances, benefiting a smaller pool.

This change will benefit elite organisations and those that already have the capacity, and smaller, weaker organisations will close. Do you recognise this as a danger? And if so, do you see a way of [00:27:00] managing or mitigating this? 

Heather: Maybe I can start with that one. I think it’s a really good point that you make and maybe something that a lot of funders haven’t thought much about, but I would say a few things.

First, I think there is a lot of money in philanthropy and there is a lot of money that gets wasted and a lot of the waste is the time and effort and cost of the extensive application and reporting work that is both done by grantee partners and done within the foundations themselves, it’s an incredible, it’s like a philanthropic industry built up around this machinery of giving and receiving and reporting on funds.

So I think part of it is just lifting restrictions that happen, and so I think we can free up money from those kinds of efforts and work to actually go toward the real work that organisations are doing. I think another thing is, it’s true that some funders have assumed that there’s kind of a phenomenon, like the looking for the hero or the shero, the organisation that is [00:28:00] doing the very best work.

And, of course, we know there’s been an expansion of competitions in the philanthropic sector in the last 10 years. So prizes that go to the very best organisations and I think what that has done, that in particular has a risk of obscuring so many other organisations that are doing great work.

What we often say to funders is in your work, in giving and trusting more and giving longer term, less restricted support, it’s not that you’re looking for the few big organisations that are doing the best work. It’s more of a portfolio approach to say, if there’s an issue that you care about, there are many different organisations of many different sises and ages, with many different intentions that can be a part of what you’re thinking of as what you would find important to fund. I don’t think that one has to exclude the other, but I think it takes a lot of careful thought for funders to think we’re not just going to concentrate our funding in the biggest, most well known, trusted organisations.

Tanya, what do you think about that? 

Tanya: Yeah, I totally agree with all of that. And I’m also thinking, so funders tend to think about, like, this is our [00:29:00] strategy and we have portfolios, et cetera. And I’m wondering too, if we could move towards a way that funders think together more that they are part of a funding ecosystem.

There’s this fabulous, amazing, small funder called Seeding Justice in Portland, Oregon. And they have made the choice to find, they find the smallest emergent grassroots leaders and organisations who are doing like deep justice work, and they give them seed funding, but they stop funding them after they’re a certain sise.

And they help to facilitate their transition to connect with other funders and I don’t want to speak for them, but I think they think about themselves as trying to combat this risk that funders who do long term funding fund the people they already always know.

And how do you support a broader civil society of emergent leaders and actors who are really driving deeply rooted change? And so I wonder, I think that’s the thing I’d add is, can we also think about funders playing different roles in the ecosystem to think more holistically about the kind of healthy civil society mix that [00:30:00] we need and can contribute to together? Would require a pretty different orientation, I think, for how funders think about themselves in relation to each other.

Heather: Yes, I just want to build on that and I don’t want to omit mentioning funder collaboratives. That has been a real phenomenon in the field. I know in my work at RPA, it’s expanded greatly the number of funder collaboratives, particularly in the areas of environment and climate change, but I want to give an example.

There’s one called Plastic Solutions Fund. It’s one of the projects that we host that was actually built on a movement, on the #breakfreefromplastic movement to end single use plastic. And funders make long-term, unrestricted commitments to the Plastic Solutions Fund, which then goes out and has a fantastic network around the world, finding local organisations in many different countries that are doing the hard work of challenging the expansion of the plastics industry and stopping it at source.

And I think there’s some interesting innovations that are happening that both provide a more stable, secure funding stream for organisations, so they’re [00:31:00] not on that terrible fundraising treadmill, but also don’t overlook the real power and importance of dispersed support for organisations that are really doing the hard work.

Kate: Thank you so much. I can feel a lot more optimistic having heard from both of you how this form of funding could work in a way that will support small and new organisations to grow and build sustained work over a longer period. That’s great. One of the things that the report talks about is the lack of follow through in the sector.

And you’ve both actually mentioned this in this conversation. There’s a lot of talk about systems change, but not enough action with progressive change seen as a risk and you challenge this risk averse thinking and identify that a lack of systems change is actually the real risk.

I wonder if you could say a little bit more about this. 

Tanya: I’ll give a quick response to that from the data, but I think also, Heather, you with your close connection to so many funders and their internal thinking, you might be able to really give some good insight in this. I’ll just say we heard, quite a few folks in our data gathering talk about [00:32:00] how they experience funders’ orientation around risk is really grounded in reputational risk to the funder. And that kind of sounds shallow and in some ways, of course, it is, but that doesn’t mean funders don’t genuinely care that their funding has impact on the world.

That’s the frame for risk. But we really got a lot of push to say, what happens if you decenter the funder and the risk to the funder in the risk framework and instead start thinking about what risk do we create to the planet and to the people in it when funders are not willing to go deep and hard on shifting power, on changing mental models, that we just stay in this churn of maybe short term adjustments and incremental improvements to broken systems. But if we could shift the risk framework and really push boards in particular to think differently about who bears risk, who bears what risk, and what foundation could really actually bear given how few accountability mechanisms they have to the outside [00:33:00] world.

We might be able to move towards more transformative work if we can unhook that way of thinking about it. 

Heather: Tanya, you’re so right about that. I want to add something we haven’t talked about yet, which is measurement of impacts and where risk comes from vis a vis that. So it’s so interesting, what we have in the philanthropic sector is funders that are providing funds and unless it’s an award, it’s a grant and it’s like a contract and it’s, we are giving you this money and in return, you will deliver such and such. And the risk, instead of taking a step back and thinking, every funder wants to make a difference. That’s the one constant across funding. I’d like to make a difference with the funding that I’m giving.

But then they, but then if it’s a one year grant or a two year grant with very specific key performance indicators and very specific outputs, the risk becomes, will the report not be written? Will the convening be a failure? Will the government policy not change within two years? The systems change happens fundamentally at the level of paradigms, at the level of mental models and mindsets.

It’s about values and attitudes and beliefs. [00:34:00] It’s about relationships. It’s about resource flows. And the problem is that funders are worried about the lack of success of their particular grant. If that’s what we’re measuring, it’s a whole different question, but that’s not what the risk is. The risk is that discrimination continues unabated.

The risk is that environmental destruction continues unabated, but that’s not the level at which we’re measuring impact or change. So, it becomes this loop of unhealthy measurement frameworks, and then things like risk and trust get built onto that. 

Kate: Some great answers there. Thank you very much. I’m very aware that we’re running out of time, but I’d like you both just to very quickly give our listeners and viewers your number one top practical action that they can take to contribute to this progressive program and process of change.

Heather: You want to go first? 

Tanya: All right. Number one is hard. Number one only. I’m going to speak to evaluators out in the world who are in this position of this metric trap that we’re in, and we end up reinforcing that. I’m going to say, here’s my ask to my field is, I want [00:35:00] us to start thinking about how we use evaluation and learning to open up democratic channels for contestation of power, and that’s jargony. But I feel like if we can use tools like boundary critique or other sort of methodologies that help us actually get to the business of saying who values what and whose priorities are we prioritising? And lay it bare, so we have to look at it and deal with it. So that foundations and philanthropy can’t make promises to equity that have no backup, no action, that there’s some mechanism to say that where the rest of the field can challenge our thinking on what matters, what are you valuing? How are you deciding what’s in and what’s out?

And try to really open up a more democratic contestation of those assumptions to challenge that power that’s embedded in the philanthropic sector. 

Heather: I’ll take a page from Tanya and say, I’ll talk to my sector, which is advisors and consultants in philanthropy and say, we need to be bolder to [00:36:00] speak truth to power to our clients.

In every sector, government, business, civil society, it’s hard to speak truth to power. It’s equally hard or perhaps harder when you are a consultant or an advisor to philanthropic institutions. But when we see behaviors, when we see inner behaviors that are not good, when we see that inner work is absolutely crucial before doing all the bells and whistles of new tools, we need to push on that more.

Kate: Thank you for your challenging practical next steps for your sectors. And I hope that our listeners and viewers will find a way to apply those pieces of advice in their own professional work and actually in their lives. I would like to thank you both for joining us today and to thank Charmaine.

And Charmaine, would you like to say a quick goodbye? 

Charmaine: Yes I think we did the one, one minute, what do you call it? Backstop? 

Heather: Hard stop. 

Charmaine: Oh, I didn’t even get that right. So it’s going to take me some inner work to get to the right configuration of the words. I’m going to the one minute hard stop. So I’m just so glad that both of you could come and I want to say thank you.

I hope we get to meet again and thank you, Kate, again. Thank you all. 

Have a good day. 

Heather: Thank you [00:37:00] so much. 

Tanya: Take care.

This weeks guest:

Heather Grady is Vice President at Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors, RPA

Heather Grady is Vice President at Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors, RPA, and leads the practice area of Environment and Climate Change. She co-founded and leads the Shifting Systems Initiative as part of her work with RPA.

Tanya Beer is an independent consultant.

She focuses on strategic learning facilitation for organisations and collaboratives. She’s co-author of the evaluation of the Shifting Systems Initiative. Before going freelance, Tanya was Associate Director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation, which pushes evaluation practices in new directions and into areas that are hard to measure, such as advocacy, communications and systems change.

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