I joined Omidyar Network six years ago in large part because I was fed up with the grantee/funder model. Time and time again I saw nonprofits drift from their vision and purpose, moving away from what they saw as the greatest needs of the people they serve and towards the desires of philanthropy. It was disheartening. And I’d come to realize that saying philanthropy should not exist in the near term is a bit like saying that buildings should not exist: It’s great to be an idealist but when you want to go to bed at night and it’s raining, what do you do?
The reality is we’ve built a social sector that relies on funding from philanthropy. We live and work in a capitalist society. If we want to create change, we are not, for the most part, able to do that work without funds. So, if we all need roofs, but we don’t like buildings, what do we do? I, like so many others, entered the sector ready to roll up my sleeves with the hope that I might be able to help reshape its architecture.
For this reason, I was excited to join the advocacy and policy committee of Fund for Shared Insight, a national funder collaborative that promotes listening and feedback in philanthropy and the social sector. I joined the committee just as Omidyar Network was stepping into a new strategy that was more focused on addressing causes of growing inequities and ever-widening societal divisions. As the head of learning and impact, I was being asked how to continue to center listening and feedback in our work as we stepped into our new strategy, and I was eager to learn together with other funders.
Around this time, Fund for Shared Insight shared its landscaping on how to meaningfully connect with people and communities in the context of policy and advocacy. My expectations for the committee were anchored by this. I imagined we would surface principles, tools, and best practices which would allow me to build on the listening and feedback processes established by my predecessors Roy Steiner and Masha Lisak.
I’ll admit I was wary when I realized that, instead, the primary focus of the committee was going to be participatory grantmaking (this would eventually evolve into Shared Insight’s Participatory Climate Initiative). It’s not that I did not believe that more participatory models of grant making were needed — in fact, within Omidyar Network we were launching our own participatory models and I was (am!) very proud of the work my colleagues were doing (e.g., The Community Infrastructure Fund for Mutual Aid, Powering New Economy Fund).
Rather, I was wary because I was concerned we would be taking a lot of time and attention from people of color and historically marginalized communities for the purposes of learning as a group of funders. I feared that collectively we may not have enough skin in the game or political capital in our own organizations to follow through not only with the work but also to act on what was learned. The last thing I wanted to do was to repeat harm to communities by working transactionally.
As usual, we didn’t know what we didn’t know until we stepped in and started the work. One of the earliest, and for me one of the most important, lessons learned, was that we were not participatory early enough in the process. We tried to leave the scope of the initiative open for the participants to define to ensure they had sufficient power. To that end, as funders, we set only the highest parameters in a few sentences, and yet the climate change language we used did not resonate with the communities we sought to support. (This lesson and others are shared in a new Participatory Philanthropy Toolkit released by Fund for Shared Insight earlier this year.)
The fact that we would have been more effective if we had been more participatory in the very definition of what and why we were working, for me, blew apart any sense that feedback and listening was something we do as a discrete part of a process or a particular stage of strategy. If we needed to engage before we uttered sentences about our intentions, we were really talking about whether we had the right people in the room and whether we had created a space of belonging within our work and our organizations. Almost immediately we’d gone from talking about something we do to talking about who we are and want to be.
I also underestimated the power of bringing a group of funders together around the Participatory Climate Initiative. I now believe that having a funder collaborative support this work, rather than any one funder, may have de-risked the project significantly. By joining forces as funders, working through Fund for Shared Insight, and fully empowering the design team and facilitators, we sidestepped the disorder, short attention spans, and budget constraints of any one organization. I’ve learned that many of my philanthropic colleagues are more risk loving and progressive in how they’d like to move change as individuals than the current construct of their philanthropic organizations often allows. Funder collaboratives, like the Participatory Climate Initiative, can empower many of us in philanthropy to explore and do work that is more aligned with what we believe.
In other words, free from any one institution’s parameters, we were able to align on our desire to center the needs and the requests of the communities we sought to serve. We were able to ask, “what will it take?” with open hearts and step in, letting Katy Love and Winifred Ollliff, consultants to Shared Insight who facilitated the initiative, center the priorities and values of the design team as much as resources would allow. For many of us, this freedom remains in contrast with how doing this work manifests inside our organizations.
That is, of course, where the real work begins. Most of us joined the Policy and Advocacy Committee because we sought to learn what it might take to better shape meaningful engagement strategies and expand the possibilities within our own institutional homes. Generally, I am proud both of the work we have done as a committee and within Omidyar Network in shifting norms towards an expectation that meaningful engagement requires building trusting relationships and cultivating a sense of “we.” At the same time, I now see that while trying to help philanthropy move away from co-opting strategy from non-profits, I accidentally co-opted a learning opportunity within my own organization. If I had centered relationships from the start, I would not have joined the Committee alone. I would have joined with other Omidyar Network program representatives so that my colleagues felt more connected to the work and what was learned, furthering its resilience and influence within Omidyar Network. I share this lesson candidly in the hopes that others may take it to heart.
At this point we all know a laundry list of critiques of philanthropy and many of us, myself included, entered the sector in the hopes of helping to reshape its architecture. As we individually and collectively spend our careers pursuing social change, we know it is inevitable that as we work to make these changes, we will hit the limits of what is possible in our own institutions. That is why communities like the policy and advocacy committee are critical. The space they provide helps us to create sparks, build alliances, and broadcast what is possible — and reminds us that no one group or institution is the work. The work is the power of our collective action. It will take many organizations and our collective labor and commitment — as well as time — to shift how this sector works.
Jessica Kiessel is the former senior director of learning and impact within the strategy group at Omidyar Network. You can find her on LinkedIn.