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Unlocking Collective Action through Big Gifts

Date: January 31, 2023

Shivani Garg Patel

Chief Strategy Officer, Skoll Foundation

Kathara Green

Chief of Staff, Skoll Foundation

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Since its formation in 1999, the Skoll Foundation has advanced bold and equitable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems by investing in, connecting, and championing social entrepreneurs and other social innovators that seek durable systems change. Over the past two decades of work, we have observed that these social innovators navigate through the complexity of systems change by engaging a wide range of stakeholders, juggling evolving timetables, acting on inflection points, and working in collective, collaborative, and creative ways.

Further, research reinforces the power of relationships to drive change. In “Creative Coalitions: A Handbook for Change,” Crisis Action outlines the power of exceptional networks as it relates to mobilizing collective action. Collective Change Lab’s research demonstrates how central relational ties are to achieving systems change.

In understanding the critical need for collective action and collaboration to achieve impact, the social innovators in our ecosystem consistently share with us that large, unrestricted sources of funding are essential to unlock the type of collaborative opportunities that are critical to driving lasting systems change. However, funding like this has not been historically offered at the scale needed. As a result, social innovators tell us that true collaboration and innovation are difficult to resource and scale.

When MacKenzie Scott’s giving ramped up a few years ago, characterized by large, unrestricted gifts, we recognized it could have transformational impact on social innovators and our ecosystem at large. The scale has been unprecedented: since 2020, Scott and her team have deployed over $14 billion to more than 1,600 nonprofits. While we have much to learn about the broader and longer-term impact, studies by Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) and Panorama Global shine an early light on what we are learning about the implications of such large unrestricted gifts.

From the early research on MacKenzie Scott’s giving, we see that large, multi-year and unrestricted grants unlock a wide range of potential in the field. In particular, it is encouraging to observe how these gifts enable more collective action and collaboration for the recipients and the social innovation ecosystem at large. Through the findings, we see three key outcomes of big gifts emerging as key elements to sustain collaborative and collective efforts: the space to operate at an ecosystem level, to act and learn collectively, and for more innovation and risk-taking.

Bolstering the Ecosystem

Many of the social innovators the Skoll Foundation supports assert that embracing an ecosystem approach is critical to achieving systems change and collective impact. In the CEP study, roughly 40 percent of organization leaders interviewed describe their grant as strengthening their organization’s entire ecosystem, reaching beyond the recipient organization itself. Leaders point to new partnerships and regranting the funds, ultimately creating momentum for larger movements.

The insights shared by Panorama Global’s learning circle of organizations who received funds from Scott mirror CEP’s findings. They also identified the elevation of entire systems, noting new collaborations with peers and investment in capacity strengthening for communities. “The unrestricted grants offered organizations space to learn and experiment — lessons that can be shared to uplift an entire field,” they write.

Acting and Learning Collectively

Not only do Scott grantees embrace an ecosystem mindset, but they also act and learn collectively. In the CEP survey, 94 percent of respondents reported they will use the grant to fund mission-related activities; of those, 80 percent pointed to new collaborations and partnerships as a way of doing so. “The reserve is especially critical given the volatile nature of funding in the civic engagement space and for us to be able to sustain the deep support, funding, and collaboration needed to advance our work,” reported one leader.

Grantees also mentioned the connection and learning opportunities with other Scott grantees. “It creates that cohesion and relationship-building between others that have also gotten the grant,” shared one respondent. To cultivate such relationships and learning communities, the Skoll Foundation was an early supporter of Panorama Global’s Collaborative Learning from Impact Philanthropy cohorts, bringing together Scott grantees to learn from each other over the course of a few months.

We hope that these new and strengthened relationships support systems change in the future.

Embracing Risk and Innovation

The final element to sustain collective efforts enabled by large, unrestricted gifts is the willingness to embrace risk. In the CEP study, two of the four major impacts of Scott’s funding on nonprofit leaders were a shift from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset, and more innovation and risk taking. Innovation and risk taking were referenced by more than 40 percent of interviewed leaders, pointing to the financial security that their grant has offered them. For us to have money to pilot something to see how it goes is just a miracle from heaven,” said one respondent.

Innovation and risk taking is enabled by the types of funding available to social innovators. In the 2020 report, “Embracing Complexity: Towards a Shared Understanding of Funding Systems Change,” philanthropy’s risk avoidance was noted as a clear barrier to achieving systems change. “Philanthropy is a sector that is well positioned to take risks — but is also one of the most risk averse,” stated one social innovator in the report. The report went on to highlight the large, untapped potential for the funding community to step up its activity to support systems change efforts, which inherently involves more uncertainty and longer time horizons.

We hope to see new types of collective action and collaboration emerge through this expanded innovation and risk-taking mindset, as well as expanded funding pools that embrace uncertainty and encourage innovation.

An Opportunity for Philanthropy: Unlock Collective Action

The social innovation and philanthropy ecosystems will continue to unpack the long-term impacts of MacKenzie Scott’s giving. However, one theme is already emerging loud and clear from the early findings of CEP and others: large, unrestricted gifts unlock and sustain collaborative and collective efforts through ecosystem-level collaboration, the opportunity to act and learn collectively, and innovation and risk-taking mindsets.

This data reinforces the experiences and observations over the years from the social innovators we support. We are heartened to see this theme emerge from the learnings, and we anticipate that these factors will lead to more lasting and durable systems change across the ecosystems Scott grantees are working in.

Even with MacKenzie Scott’s infusion of capital, there is still a need for more large, unrestricted gifts to promote this kind of collaborative work. The philanthropic ecosystem has an opportunity to shift and meet the needs of the field. At the Skoll Foundation, we will continue to lean into unrestricted funding in our work, and we hope that more funders join us to promote this type of giving and consider ways that all of us can embrace collective action, collaboration, and risk.

Shivani Garg Patel is chief strategy officer at the Skoll Foundation. Find her on LinkedIn. Kathara Green is the chief of staff at the Skoll Foundation. Find her on LinkedIn. Follow the Skoll Foundation on Twitter at @SkollFoundation.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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