Collective Mind Community Conversations

Inside philanthropy and networks

by Emily Goodman, Senior Advisor, Collective Mind

Collective Mind hosts regular Community Conversations with our global learning community. These sessions create space for network professionals to connect, share experiences, and cultivate solutions to common problems experienced by networks.

In July 2021, Collective Mind hosted a unique Community Conversation panel discussion about philanthropy and networks. The session featured experts who work across the philanthropic space and have deep experience with networks ranging from global and national to hyper-local levels and across the gambit of social causes. The panel included Heather Hamilton, Executive Director of the Elevate Children Funders Group; Hilesh Patel, Leadership Investment Program Officer of the Field Foundation; and Katie Davies, Manager of Strategic Networks Initiatives with Ignite Philanthropy.

Together, the panelists explored the most urgent topics on their minds as funders and funder organizers for social impact, and talked about the trends they’re observing within philanthropy as it evolves toward more progressive causes and systems-change work. The panel helped elucidate some of the mysteries behind philanthropic decision-making and strategy, and sparked conversation among participants about how networks can reimagine their approach to and relationships with donors.

Highlights from the conversation

Understanding the decision-making structures of philanthropies helps network practitioners see their work through a donor’s lens and ask themselves the questions donors need to have answered. According to the panel, grant seekers commonly overlook the disconnect between program officers (POs) and where high-level funding decisions are made. POs are engaged on the ground, hearing directly from leaders and impacted communities, and have a current view of how the field is evolving to help advise on strategy. But ultimately, the Board of Directors controls the purse strings and sets the strategic agenda, with POsimplementing their decisions. Boards often prioritize questions of financial risk when making strategy and investment decisions, as well as the potential for fiscal return or reward. Among the range of types of foundations, POs will also have different levels of autonomy and instruction and at times won’t have a lot of flexibility in what they can fund. For networks, this can be particularly challenging as the work and value of networks can be amorphous and long-term, presenting more perceived risk from a business point of view.

Furthermore, networks may not necessarily fall into the framework of how traditional Boards think of how change happens. By design, networks work collectively toward a goal or contribute to a solution, rather than being able to specifically claim impact as their own, which makes their value proposition less straightforward and tangible than programmatic outputs and numbers. To demonstrate impact for donors and stakeholders, groups will sometimes overclaim and attribute wins to their own efforts, which misrepresents the work and can undermine the notion of a shared purpose. This can muddle the message of how collective impact happens and its value. It is therefore both on networks to be thoughtful, effective storytellers and have strong mission clarity, and on donors to educate and challenge themselves on their conceptions of the role and value of networks to affect systems change and foster an enabling environment where change happens.

Effective philanthropy requires more and better Board education. At its roots, philanthropy assumes a binary between those doing work on the ground and seeking funds and support, and those with resources who make big decisions on behalf of social change work but have limited practical knowledge or experience of it. This dynamic is challenging to navigate and also problematic. More and more, POs are working to educate Boards, which are often composed of wealthy individuals, about social change and to create change within foundations on the inside. There is emerging interest in the philanthropic space to learn from and with communities of change and to become more responsive and accountable across leadership and decision-making. Networks can help POs in their efforts to push and educate leaders within foundations to understand more about movements, collectives, and networks, and how donors can be more effective partners for change.

One way this can be done is through measurement methods that are more true to life and the work of social change. Donors often miss that funding networks means that progress won’t always be linear or explicit. Not only can fixed metrics and reporting requirements put a burden on grantees and have undue influence on the work, but limiting impact work to spreadsheets and formulaic processes can drive artificial outcomes and stifle the chance to glean real learning and value. For some foundations, there’s a new effort to pivot traditional reporting requirements and formats to be more flexible, conversational, and focused on multi-directional learning. These processes reframe accountability to center what grantees and donors can learn from each other about how the field is evolving, what role they all play, and what progress is being made. Doing the work to understand why networks and coalitions are important leads to understanding the nature of networks and systems change.

Donors are also starting to embrace how the image and dynamics of leadership are shifting through the work of networks and movements. Whereas traditional leadership is marked by an individual with certain, often normative characteristics and the vision and actions they represent, networks and movements center the leadership of groups and shared efforts. In networks, there is often no one leader: leaders are pulled from different sections to be part of broader work, and the model and mission doesn’t prioritize individuals as leaders. These challenges to traditional notions of what leadership looks like both mirrors and goes beyond how the face of leadership is already changing generationally. Understanding networks for how they upend traditional leadership is another way to educate philanthropic Boards about collective action and collaborative leadership.

Miss the session? View the recording here.

Thanks again to our amazing panelists!

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