Avatar

Reflections on Funder Experimentation

It has been nearly one year since our intrepid group set out to answer the question: Can we generate resources in a way that brings greater autonomy, agency and sustainability to social justice leaders and organizations?

Each member of our group has a different story about what brought us to this endeavor. For me, it started from a sense that relations between social justice leaders and funders are so broken that talented leaders are openly talking about leaving the field. I heard so many stories of distress in recent years that as a funder I felt a personal responsibility to figure out a different way forward. I didn’t know if it was possible, or what that way might look like, but I felt like I at least had to try.

We knew we couldn’t change the whole system. But we had an instinct that by spending time together exploring this question in collaboration with one organization we would gain insight, and that this insight could ripple through our work.

I did not expect that this experiment would leave me forever changed.

“We saw the walls that separated us as leaders and funders fall away, and this experience gave us an entirely different sense of possibility.”

The three months that we invested at the beginning of our process in building muscles around collaboration, experimentation and innovation moved our group to the deepest level of trust, honesty and connection that I have experienced between movement leaders and funders in decades of being in the social justice field. At our best, we saw the walls that separated us as leaders and funders fall away, and this experience gave us an entirely different sense of possibility. By embracing a mindset of abundance, and moving out of a mindset of scarcity, we saw that the “resources” at the table were far more than financial. It is a feeling that I will carry with me long after this process has ended.

I am so grateful to the “outsiders” who so generously gave their time to our project. These pioneers who are working on the cutting edge of experimentation and innovation in the social justice sector helped to jump start our own thinking. I met people who pushed me to imagine investments on a completely different scope and scale, who asked questions I had never heard before, and who showed me worlds that I am curious to explore further.

I could not have predicted that our story would follow such a cliché narrative arc, but it has. We had challenging setbacks, and moments of doubt and panic. Unanticipated changes in staff capacity of some in our group made it hard to move forward on the original timeline. Some days I wondered whether we would find a way forward at all.

“We are used to holing up and building something until it is perfect and ready to be out in the world, not rapidly test and name failure, and then iterate and move on.”

I realize in retrospect that part of why we were in such a fog was that we were trying to build what, for funders at least, were very weak muscles around experimentation and innovation in the midst of an intense process of innovation. We are used to holing up and building something until it is perfect and ready to be out in the world, not rapidly test and name failure, and then iterate and move on. It took practice, a structured process, and time, to get more comfortable. It also took space, time, and real staff capacity to be creative and generative.

And then something happened that truly surprised me.

I assumed that much of our experiment would be focused on working together with an organization to bring in resources outside of traditional philanthropy. It pained me to name it, but if relations were truly so broken between leaders and funders, at the very least my obligation was to experiment with other ways to bring in resources.

To create space for that exploration, we first thought we needed to figure out how to decrease the time leaders spent with traditional funders. One of our first questions was, what was the minimum that leaders might need to talk to funders to engage them? We quickly learned that the issue wasn’t the quantity of interactions (which wasn’t insignificant — in the case of Forward Together we identified 35 separate institutional relationships to maintain!) but the quality.

“It turned out that the silver bullet was us. This fearless group of people took a leap of faith…we realized that even our small group has far more potential to generate resources than we could have imagined.”

So we took a different tack and asked whether a relationship that allowed for deeper conversations between funders and leaders around strategy and a shared sense of purpose was possible. Sarita Gupta, Executive Director extraordinaire at Jobs with Justice, generously shared her experience with building a funder table that confirmed we were on a promising path.

And so it appears that we came full circle. After initially trying to figure out how social justice leaders might spend less time with “traditional” funders, we realized that one innovation that could be a game changer was to change how leaders and funders spent time together. Last fall we tested a hypothesis that we can come together differently as a group and this can potentially generate more resources (financial, and far beyond that) in a way that is supportive and generative.

I thought we would be moving away from funders, and in the end we are approaching them with a different sense of possibility. I won’t lie, there were times when I worried that our reluctance to explore alternative revenue generation experiments might have been a failure on our part. I knew there would be no silver bullet in this experiment, but maybe somewhere I was secretly hoping we might find one.

The funny thing is, I think we did. It turned out that the silver bullet was us. This fearless group of people took a leap of faith. It took time, patience and skilled facilitation to support us in bringing our best selves to this project. In embracing abundance, we realized that even our small group has far more potential to generate resources than we could have imagined. Our experiment is over, but this process is not. We are only beginning to see the ripples of possibility that have been set in motion.

Photo: Fluctuations (Water Ripple) by Hiroyuki Takeda (Flickr: onigiri_chang)


Leave a Reply