‘What did you really think of the opening plenary?’
That was the question I got from several colleagues at the Innovations in International Philanthropy Forum. They figured I would be skeptical as a grantmaker to grassroots women’s organizations, after listening to Chris Anderson encourage donors to make ‘big bets’ on a small number of ‘audacious’ proposals. Seven of them, to be exact, which the Audacious Project seeks to fund to the tune of $634 million.
I was indeed skeptical. After all, funding social entrepreneurs is not the same as funding social movements, which are key to addressing global crises. But I was also intrigued: imagine what grassroots women’s organizations could do with a $50 million grant. In that sense, the opening plenary did its job, sparking valuable debate that percolated throughout the symposium.
During the reception afterwards, a few donors reflected on Chris’ insistence that ‘scale matters in philanthropy.’ We talked about what it will take to address climate change and the global migration crisis. One funder affirmed that ‘big problems require big solutions.’ I, on the other hand, pushed for funding more small-scale, locally-controlled work that seeks to build resilience from within communities, rather than deliver solutions from outside.
But even as I argued for this approach, I thought about the reality of many of the local groups that I know well. These small women’s organizations facing war and environmental disaster bring lifesaving benefits to their communities. But despite having a clear vision of social change, they rarely amass the collective power needed to transform oppressive systems.
Could scale be part of the solution? Perhaps—if we understood better how scaling for social change differs from scaling for product dissemination or service delivery.
That understanding might redirect us from an infatuation with size and single-track approaches to greater appreciation for initiatives that can be adapted, replicated, connected and (where appropriate) institutionalized. It might also steer us away from a model of philanthropy that channels local civic energy into a handful of donor-driven projects and NGOs rather than into social movements capable of creating systemic change.
After all, there’s nothing particularly innovative about the consolidation of grantmaking dollars. It’s a trend we’ve been seeing for years now, one that mirrors the concentration of wealth born of income inequality that’s now a hallmark of the US and much of the global economy. As one colleague commented, ‘I’m all for funders stepping up their giving, but not to an ever-shrinking pool of grantees.’
And yet, the plenary speakers were absolutely right in saying that we’re not bold enough when it comes to funding solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Grant-seeking organizations, including public foundations, have too often internalized a culture of scarcity, foreclosing even the possibility of the kind of seven-figure grants that the Audacious Project intends.
I’d like to see social movement funders, and women’s funds in particular, take up the challenge of the opening plenary. We don’t need to remake non-profits in the image of Google, as Chris Anderson envisions. But we do need to be bold. And we do need to ensure that initiatives achieve their potential—which is, after all, the essence of scale. Are we bold enough to imagine a funding model that finances progressive social movements on their own terms? That would be truly audacious philanthropy.