Brave and safe spaces: philanthropy and systems change

I don’t often get invited to events for ‘senior members of the funding community’ in the UK – perhaps because the work I’m involved in is quite unusual.  Because of this, I had a sense of trepidation about joining the recent retreat convened by Lankelly Chase. I anticipated glazed eyes and blank stares, a lot of complacency and siloed thinking, as this is the response I often get when I offer my take on systemic change philanthropy: “Well, your little experiment sounds very nice but my work is strategic, it’s focused on impact, we’re professionals creating social change, not dilettantes talking about ‘systems change’”.

But now ‘systems change’ is everywhere.  This is perhaps a counter-response to the over-simplification of the world often present in what’s called ‘strategic philanthropy’.  What we are seeing now are more philanthropists embracing collaboration, complexity and an ecosystem approach. Yet, apart from an agreement that we need to address root causes and that to do so is complicated, there appears to be dozens of strategies for creating systems change.  This may speak to a shifting consensus about the need for systemic thinking but may also render the term a meaningless buzzword.

The phrase must be evoking something though if the wide range of funders present at the retreat for ‘philanthropists working in systems’ was anything to go by.  My trepidation at being the token radical speaking about patriarchy and structural inequalities quickly dissipated.  I met senior members of the funding community who were working in fascinating ways and across sectoral divides. Speaking to Vidya Alakeson about Power to Change’s approach to building community wealth and to Farrah Nazir about the Wellcome Trust’s ideas for bringing community perspectives into health research, it felt as though the convening had tapped into an unmet desire to bring some imagination into funding processes.

What emerged for me was a new appreciation of two organisations I am engaged with, that have been talking about ‘systems change’ long before it was common. One is the Edge Fund.  Lankelly Chase’s Director, Julian Corner, said: ‘The process you take to get to the outcome becomes the outcome you get’.  Edge Fund takes a step back from thinking about ‘root causes’ and ‘complexity’ and asks ‘How do we determine the social problems we’re seeking root causes for’ and ‘Who defines what issues we address’?  By modelling participatory grantmaking, Edge Fund offers an alternative to the current model of elite-driven power present in most traditional philanthropy.  The other organisation is The EDGE Funders Alliance (confusingly, no relation to Edge Fund, although Edge Fund are members of the EDGE Funders Alliance).  EDGE is a network that seeks systemic alternatives to our current, interconnected crises. Their recent webinar, Systems Change Philanthropy: Where next? outlines a process that starts with an acknowledgement of the systemic crises we face (such as extractivism, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy), and the need for critical self-analysis i.e. we are part of the system and philanthropy is a result of inequality. Also, we must embrace an alternative praxis – there is no easy path but learning, experimentation and sharing are essential. To do this, they say, we must ‘Create brave and safe spaces.’

One such ‘brave and safe space’ was the Lankelly Chase convening.  As I emerge from the retreat, I’m galvanised to connect the dots between the local, the national and the global. My ‘systems change soundbite’ is that big visions should be grounded in the grassroots and that championing local solutions shouldn’t become an excuse to think parochially. Collaborative spaces are essential. Contrary to what some philanthro-capitalists may believe, we can’t create systemic change alone. Systems change philanthropy involves being aligned on a broad vision and seeking complementarity in our practice. This requires both the local and the global, a change in worldviews alongside a change in daily activities. To ensure systems change doesn’t become a mere buzzword, we need more brave and safe spaces, to think big and test small. Lankelly Chase’s work is beginning to create such spaces.

For more information on The Edge Funders Alliance visit here.


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