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Applying an (Eco)system Approach to Funding — Experiences from Foundations and Philanthropies

Strategic Philanthropy | May 6, 2021

The webinar tackled the issue that traditional funding models in international development (and beyond) based on siloed interventions and a projectized logic, rigid log-frames and short-term frameworks are not a good fit to foster societal transformations required for the world to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.


0:01:48.0 S1: Yeah. In theory, yeah. I think that would require a lot more preparation on my side. But I think maybe as… I can sort of slowly kick off. And Julio, I’ll pass on to you in a bit. But just to start to thank everyone for joining this webinar on applying the ecosystem approach to funding. We’ll hear from three interesting philanthropies and foundations. So it’s great to see so many of you here and we have a really great line up. And I’ll introduce each of the speakers as we get to them. And once we’ve heard from our three speakers, we’ll move into a discussion and Q&A.

0:02:36.4 S1: So, as you listen and get inspired, do feel free to jot down your questions, pop them in the chat or the Q&A tab. And I’ll keep an eye on those and pose them to our presenters as we move into the discussion. I can’t promise we’ll get to all of them, but we’ll try. But maybe to start out with, Julio, I’ll pass it on to you and I’ll share my screen for you to talk through a slide there.

0:03:11.5 Speaker 4: Thank you, Sorin. And thank you very much, and to our guests that are coming to share their experiences with us. As I was tweeting my enthusiasm for this session today, someone replied by posting this chart, and I thought it would be quite appropriate to put it up here. So the reason why we wanted to have this conversation… Well, there’s many reasons apart from selfishly learning from some inspiring work, is that we… As we started working on our work or what we call deep demonstration.

0:03:51.9 S4: So trying to apply a system and a portfolio approach to development projects, it is becoming quite apparent that when… The moment, we start talking about the fact that we need to move beyond funding single-point solutions or supporting individual projects and we want to actually try to work with systems and with ecosystems, an awful of a lot of questions start coming up about funding modality. Why would you want to do that? Is anybody ever going to fund things this way? And isn’t this a difficult proposition, why would we want to try to do it? So I found this thing that was tweeted this morning a little bit… It resonates very much with our experience. So one of the things that we are basically trying to say is that there is one type of innovation which leads itself very nice to quick experimentation and to the funneling logic. Meaning you try many different things, and hope that one sticks and that becomes your unicorn if you want.

0:05:01.8 S4: And that is a type of innovation that is very suitable to work within an existing system. It doesn’t necessarily challenge it. It allows you to learn very quickly about certain things. However, if we want to try to work in… Around systems, a different type of innovation is needed, which has both a different type of lens, in terms of time, framework, but most importantly, require a very different underlying logic, in terms of the coalitions that you put together, in terms of the way you look and you understand issues and the way you actually intervene.

0:05:47.5 S4: So your hope is not to diminish your options over time, but actually to increasing them by providing people within a system with new options to tackle very difficult issues. So this has been a little bit, you know, logic on the left we call funneling. The other one we called layering. This is some of our emerging questions as we move, try to explore at least the shift from one model to another. What is actually happening out there? Who is thinking more or less along the same lines or at least is asking different type of questions in terms of how to fund and how to have impact.

0:06:30.0 S4: So our three speakers today come from very different organizations with different lenses to this. So we probably use different language. But the point is to actually have framing, and this is exactly why we invited them, because we know that still there’s quite a lot of discussions around this. We are newcomers in many different ways, so there’s no reason for us to re-invent the wheel, and it’s much better to learn from the experiences of others. So without any further ado, Sorin, I’ll let it to you to introduce our speakers.

0:07:07.6 S1: Thank you, Julio, for that introduction. And our first speaker is Erin Sines from the MacArthur Foundation. So Erin is the co-director of the On Nigeria initiative at MacArthur. With a co-director, she leads the foundation teams responsible for investments to reduce corruption and promote accountability in Nigeria. And Erin and her team at MacArthur are doing a lot of really interesting things when it comes to how they think about funding, the time horizons they work with, and how funding is provided to partners in support of what we call systems… Transformational systems change or with the systems logic. So let’s hear from Erin. Erin, over to you for around… You have around 10 minutes.

0:07:57.7 S2: Wonderful. Thank you very much for the invitation to be here today. I look forward to learning from all of you and sharing a little bit about what we’re doing and learning. So let’s see… I’m gonna share a little bit about the background of the foundation and the On Nigeria Program. And I’m also gonna tell you about how we work in order to contribute to systems change. So just a minute of background.

0:08:24.8 S2: The MacArthur Foundation is a private foundation located in Chicago in the US. It’s about 45 years old. We also have offices in India and Nigeria, and those offices are around 30 years old. About six years ago, the whole foundation went through a really significant reorganization. We started the reorganization with 25 programs that worked in something like 45 countries, and we ended the reorganization with seven programs that work in the US, India, and Nigeria.

0:09:00.6 S2: So one of the models… The new models of programming is called a Big Bet, and that’s what I’m gonna talk about with you today. So Big Bets are meant to be time-limited programs that are designed around an opportunity or a problem. And they’re designed to exist for about 10 years and then they exit. And they’re all meant to strive for some kind of transformative change in an area of profound concern with the understanding that MacArthur will not be involved in that topic forever. MacArthur has four Big Bets: One is on climate solutions, so working to prevent climate change. One is about criminal justice reform in the US. One is working to reduce nuclear threat around the world. And then finally, there’s On Nigeria, the Nigeria-based anti-corruption program.

0:09:49.7 S2: We started in 2015 and will exit in 2024. Our exit is public. All of our grantees, partners, peers know about our timeframe. We have a large team in Nigeria and then a smaller team in Chicago. So from the start of On Nigeria, we knew that we would be funding Nigerian organizations. With a topic like corruption, we felt really strongly that messaging solutions, demand for policy change had to be led by and informed by Nigerians. So we have something like 100 grantee partners, and maybe 92, 93 of them are Nigerian organizations, and they’re quite diverse. There are civil society organizations from all over the country representing very diverse constituencies. Government agencies, there are media houses, entertainment companies, universities, and faith-based organizations, so quite diverse.

0:10:51.1 S2: We have four overlapping and mutually reinforcing portfolios. One is a criminal justice reform portfolio. The focus is on implementing policy and adopting informed and enlightened anti-corruption policy that creates an enabling legal environment. We support independent media and journalism. So English, local language reporting, print, radio, TV and online. We have a portfolio that’s advocacy, accountability, and community participation, so this is quite diverse organizations from all over the country. We’ve got women’s groups, pastoralist communities, all the way to elite policy advocacy organizations located in major cities.

0:11:37.7 S2: And then finally, there’s a behavior and norm change portfolio that’s led by faith groups and also entertainment and content creators. So a little bit about how we work now. We think that a strong, deep connected civil society, independent media, functional justice system with a lot of coordination among the actors, plus really good anti-corruption policy framework and communities that have some agency and capacity to bring attention to the issues that matter to them, will bring lasting change to Nigeria. So our grant making is all geared in service of that. But we also hypothesize that the way we work can contribute to systems change. So one thing we do is that we ask all of our grantee partners to work in coalition. This is hard and dangerous and sensitive work, and so we think that there’s power in numbers. And this has proven to be true. To that end, we use what we call the cohort approach.

0:12:39.7 S2: So instead of making one advocacy grant here, one there, we make a package of, let’s say, 10 to 20 grants at the same time to organizations across the country working on similar issues. They all write their proposals at the same time. They share information as they’re writing their proposals, identify possible areas of overlap or coordination. They get their money at the same time. And then they agree to share information with each other over the life of their three-year project. And we find that collaboration happens organically. We don’t require collaboration, but we do find that it happen sometimes.

0:13:17.5 S2: So they meet now about twice a year to share information, plan, strategize, and we’ve noticed that it helps reduce the duplication of effort. Say for example, there’s one organization that has really strong monitoring and evaluation skills, so they’ll often design the data collection template for the group. And then the other 19 can just adopt it. So that’s a way of peer learning and also saving a lot of time. They’re also able to divide up a state or region more effectively, they coordinate their advocacy visits and talking points. And what they tell us is that they like to work in this way.

0:14:00.2 S2: They’re surveyed anonymously, they participate in focus groups administered by a third party, and they tell us directly that they like working in this way. They’re not competing for money, they have peers and partners, and many of them unsolicited tell us that they plan to work with these new peers and partners after On Nigeria ends. Our grantees have really informed our strategy and way of working in a very significant way. In the early days of the program, they told us that they were gonna need some additional support to do the collection of their own monitoring data and to analyze it, to make decisions with it. So we hired an outside firm to work with them, to provide tailored one on one support for monitoring and in some cases, evaluation. We’ve done the same with communications, and also behavior and norm change approaches.

0:14:55.0 S2: Through surveys, the grantees, tell us what kind of skills they want and wanna work on. And we have a pot of money that’s separate from our grant-making budget, and we use it to fund these skill building initiatives. So as a rule, the foundation doesn’t evaluate individual projects, we only evaluate at the strategy level, because we think the strategy outcomes are far more important than the individual project outcomes. At the start of On Nigeria, we hired an external learning and evaluation partner, they’re called EnCompass. And the focus here is really on learning, so they collect data on strategy progress and facilitate these regular learning sessions for staff, but also for grantee partners, to understand and use the data to make changes to our work.

0:15:41.4 S2: Incidentally, we have baseline and midline reports that are available on our website. I could share if anyone’s interested. And the learning has really been invaluable to us and grantees. We’ve all made important decisions based on that data. We ended some portfolios early in the program, when it showed that, although the grantees were doing excellent work, there was no political will to make progress in, let’s say, the electricity sector.

0:16:07.3 S2: Another thing that we’ve learned over time is that, to be successful in Nigeria, it’s critically important that we ensure, that resources are spread across the country, the six political, geopolitical zones; North, South, East, West. We’ve also always been very attentive to gender balance. But in the second and final phase, we’ve asked our grantee partners too, to ensure that they are thinking about gender, age, geography, ability, faith, ethnicity in their programming, in hiring.

0:16:37.8 S2: We think that will be a way to… Again, bring a more diverse coalition of people, groups together, to work on these pressing issues. This is also a new area for a lot of folks who were, again, offering some outside support to help people, design programs, think about these issues in a new way. So we realized that skill building, collaboration, and the gender equity and social inclusion lens that we’re now using, were so important to the success of our program, that we actually made them strategy objectives, and we’re measuring ourselves and how well we’re doing in those areas. So you can look at those reports to see how things are going.

0:17:22.5 S2: So when we get to 2024, we know that there’s gonna be more work to do… Work certainly what won’t done. But we are already proud of the progress that we’re making and the grantee partners, more importantly, are making. And we think that we’re gonna be able to say, that we’ve left behind a stronger accountability ecosystem, a stronger and more harmonized criminal justice system, a more independent media sector with higher quality reporting. And we strongly believe it’s gonna be stronger than when we started. We also think we’re gonna be able to say that, more diverse communities from across the country are gonna be better able to demand attention to the local governance issues that really matter to them.

0:18:06.1 S2: And so we think that’s important, certainly for anti-corruption, but also for civic space, democracy, human rights, and any challenges that Nigeria faces in the future. So, I’ll end with that. Thank you very much, and I’ll look forward to any questions you have later.

0:18:19.5 S1: Thanks so much Erin. It’s super interesting. And I can see that already you have a question in the chat. But in the interest of time, let’s move on to our next speaker, and then we will sort of tackle questions towards the end. So our next speaker is Cassie Robinson, from The National Lottery Community Fund. Cassie is the Deputy Director of the Funding Strategy at the Lottery Fund, where she’s responsible for innovation, policy, and practice. She’s also the Co-founder of the Point People. At the Lottery Fund, Cassie and her team worked with developing funding strategy among other things.

0:19:00.1 S1: And in this context, they’re doing a lot of interesting things such as looking at how to co-create funding strategies across the fund, so bringing together different the internal stakeholders, experimenting with new approaches, or involving external stakeholders, as well as focusing on new areas to fund. So super interested to hear more from you, Cassie. Over to you again, you. And again, you have around 10…

0:19:23.0 S3: Alright, thank you. It’s lovely to be here and nice to see so many people. I’m gonna actually share some slides, but yeah, just before I do that… I won’t say much more about my role, I think you’ve covered it. But just briefly, yeah, I work at the National Lottery Community Fund, which does what it says on the tin: Spends National Lottery money. But our focus is on communities, there’s different distributors for lottery money in the UK, some towards arts, some towards heritage. And I work at the Community Fund, and we distribute about six hundred million pounds a year to community initiative, and broadly with a focus on how to grow more thriving and prosperous communities, that’s kind of our overall remit. So I’m gonna just talk actually about one of our new funding programs, which I’ve had to take our funding committee on quite a journey towards. And we just had our first decision-making panel at the end of March, where we managed to get nine out of 10 initiatives, up to 45 million pounds. So, we’re right at the start of this journey. I’m learning as well, and I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I’ll share with you where we have got to so far. Can you see my screen?

0:20:57.1 S1: Yes.

0:20:58.2 S3: Right. So I guess I just wanted to touch on… Initially, this is actually the same piece of work that Julio had on his slide, which is by Jennie Winhall. Primarily by Jennie Winhall. Just ’cause I wanted to acknowledge the fund has done work that they would describe the systems change before I arrived, and some of that work has been… Has been good work, but I would say primarily the work that the National Lottery Community Fund has been doing, labeled as systems change, was really mostly about changing the existing system. So lots of really interesting work around shifting power, using participatory grant making, doing all kinds of different sorts of funding.

0:21:47.6 S3: But it did feel like it was mostly still working in the existing system, which is why I’ve found this diagram a really helpful way to move the dial on this kind of funding. I also apologize, my slides are very wordy and I’m probably actually gonna almost read some of them, just… But I think it just really helps to understand what we’re trying to do. So the Growing Great Ideas program has a focus on supporting transformation or a long-term change, and it’s really about going beyond individual organizations.

0:22:22.3 S3: And I suppose the highlighted bit that’s crucial is we’re really looking for initiatives that are generating an infrastructure through which many other things are possible, and that the generative nature of the work is what’s really important. I’ll share these slides as well, so I won’t read them word for word, but we are also… Yeah, so we’re looking to invest in ecologies, platforms, ecosystems, assemblages, networks. And it’s been very hard to get those words agreed at the fund, ’cause we normally have to write we’re a for everyone, very generalist funder.

0:23:07.2 S3: But I have really wanted to use some different language because I’ve wanted to do suggest it is not the same as what we’ve done before, and so language has felt incredibly important. And yeah, we’re looking to invest in things to grow and deepen over time, so we’re looking at the soil and refreshing soil, and this idea of attracting more to an ecology as it grows. And this is one of the kind of diagrams that I’ve been using to get our funding committee on board. It’s from the Geels Socio Technical Transitions Theory, which talks about the landscape, the regime, and the niche, but we also added in the soil and the roots and the sort of culture. And for all the things that we’re funding through this program, we’re looking for them to be working at these multiple levels or layers. And that feels really important and quite different actually from a lot of the previous funding that the Community Fund has done, which tends to mostly just fund that niche level and at the roots level, but not really thinking about the kind of institutional kind of change that is also required and the kind of narrative landscape level change.

0:24:32.2 S3: This is me trying to compromise. I love that diagram in the language I’ve been using, but this is how I had to translate some of the language for our committee. So I was trying to help them, when they were making the funding decisions, trying to help and think about, “It’s not this on the left hand side, it’s this on the right-hand side.” And this is what we’re moving from, towards. I won’t go through them all, but I shall share them. And again, there’s just loads of words, but I’ll just pull out a few. This is us sort of trying to explain what we will fund. And I guess some of the really important things I’d pull out here is that we are looking for initiatives that start with a new philosophy or a new logic, like Julio touched on.

0:25:26.0 S3: Equity is important in everything that they do for people and the planet. I’ve already talked about the infrastructure point. I’m really trying to get a sense that they are really moving away from something and towards something new, so this idea of transition is really important. How people have been working is something that we’re also looking out for. Can we see that they have been… That asking good questions and kind of exploring and inquiring as they go, and do they have a rigor to how they do that? And also looking at like the momentum behind some of these initiatives, like are they… Is there an energy and a ripple effect around them? ‘Cause that also feels really important for this kind of work and yeah, are they working? Is this not just a single initiative but growing ecology?

0:26:22.8 S3: And the last one feels really important about power as well. Are they creating new and different power and a shift in what is valued? So all of the grants that we’ve just awarded in this first round are for 10 years, so we’ve… You know that the most that we’ve tended to fund before is up to five years, so we’ve doubled the length of the funding, and these are 10-year grants. And we’ve also tried to move away from the language of core costs because whilst I really understand why that’s important, it’s just, again, almost like the language of we see this money and these ecologies as being alive and growing, and that kind of vitality which the word ‘core’ can maybe mislead around.

0:27:15.3 S3: And we’ve also tried to be, I would say in some ways, we are still clearer about what we won’t fund rather than what we will. I guess that’s kind of emergence in a way. And we’ve had so many applications that are not the right fit, and we’re gonna have to start doing some webinars because we realize people are really grappling with it and that’s our responsibility. But we’ve tried to say what we won’t fund, and whether it’s furthering the agenda of a single organization, or that it’s only trying to involve a single approach to change, or where we really can’t see something that’s being re-imagined. And those are the kind of things, and we’ve also been trying to look at how we can visualize what we will fund or the kind of different types of structures that this infrastructure might be like.

0:28:12.6 S3: And this isn’t actually the thing, but we’re working with the designer that did this. We’re looking also at the support for the program, so recognizing that if you’re gonna fund ecosystems or ecologies, what else do you need to do around that? So the reason the other three are blank is ’cause we… We know those are the things we need to do, but we haven’t… We haven’t sort of commissioned that work yet. So we’re working with an organization who’s looking at what are the new tools that are needed, like whether that’s different contracts, different kinds of legal guidance, and different kinds of, yeah, partnership agreements. But we’re trying to make sure we provide some of those new tools as part of the funding.

0:28:58.1 S3: We’re gonna commission an organization to work at the moment with these nine grants, who are in and of themselves ecologies, but I guess, make up a wider ecology, and so working with people that can do narrative and culture work. We are also gonna commission people to do what we’re calling this a deepening of the ecologies, so the relational learning kind of work with the cohort. And then working with our evaluation and evidence and insight team to think about what is the role of data here? How are we thinking about progress? What is the language we wanna use, that’s not impact, but is contribution and… Yeah, so thinking about that. Am I running out of time?

0:29:49.6 S1: A minute or two more.

0:29:52.6 S3: Okay, yeah, I guess, we are… So this is a new program for us, and so there are lots of assumptions we’ve made and things that we need to test: Whether ecologies can shift structural barriers that get in the way of change? Can our governance, at the fund, be flexible enough to follow the work? Can the ecology’s governance be flexible enough to follow its own work? And you know, can we fund an ecology and not just the people in the organizations? There’s a few others in there. And then just even with our legal team, you know, we’re having to ask them new questions about our contracting, which I won’t go into, but yeah, just I finished with some of the feedback we’ve had. You know, that a three-year organizational strategy means that people were so out-of-date it became meaningless, and this idea of just being more flexible over 10 years has been really appreciated by people.

0:31:00.4 S3: And I like this idea of the ecology phrasing or modeling, which suggest developing, distributing, creating, and transferring energy and ideas. And these are the last two. Yeah, so grant agreement that gives security for long-term thinking whilst providing the security for agility and responsiveness. And that the actual purpose of an organization is also emerging and evolving over time albeit held in the frame of a strategic mission. So yeah, so that’s one of the programs that were underway with. And we’ve made, we’ve made nine grants and we’ve got some more going to another panel in four weeks time.

0:31:46.5 S1: Thank you, Cassie. So interesting, and I can see you also have already a question for you in Q and A. But let’s move on to our third speaker, Gautam John from Nilekani Philanthropies. So Gautam is the director of Strategy at Nilekani Philanthropies, and prior to this this, he spent several years with the Akshara Foundation, and he has also worked… Before he was within the non-profit space, he worked as an entrepreneur for a number of years. Gautam has a lot of interesting experience to share when it comes to the role of funding systems change, for instance, Nilekani’s part of Co-Impact, which is an initiative with some really big philanthropies working on systems change. And they’re also doing a lot of interesting work on… To support social platforms, so really curious to hear more from you, Gautam. Over to you. And you have around 10 minutes. And in the meantime, in the audience, please have to think about are there any questions you’d like to pose to our presenters. And yeah, over to you.

0:32:52.9 Gautam John: Thank you, Sorin, and thank you so much for having me here. It’s just so great to listen to people who think similarly and fund in ways that we have so much to learn from. I will start just with the caveat that, in India, philanthropy and systems change is a very new and emerging discussion. It’s not as well developed as it is in other parts of the world. So our perspective is one of someone… Is one of a philanthropy who is beginning to engage with this and deeply curious about the model and learning. And I’ll talk a little bit about how we’ve been applying it in our own work and touch upon the work going back as well. Broadly, as a philanthropy, we are a private foundation based in the South of India. We are a private philanthropy that supports work primarily in India, not really outside of it.

0:33:48.7 Gautam John: And philanthropy has been active for about 20 years now, but it’s been more formal over the last five to 10 years. In particular, with the most active and visible front of the philanthropy, which is Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, we anchor our work in the idea of a good society. And for the longest time we have framed that as a society that is underpinned by constitutional values and framed in a democratic structure. Over the last few years, with a series of learnings and conversations, we’ve begun to understand how narrow and limiting that framework is. In particular, responding to the times that we live in, to kind of go a little bit deeper, and I think that’s where our journey around systems kind of started. To understand that democracy and constitutional values in a society are an emergent outcome out of a series of conditions that we create, that what we need to do is really work on issues around agency and belonging and power, and that creates the opportunity and the conditions for democracy to emerge.

0:35:00.1 Gautam John: And so we as a philanthropy have gone a little bit deeper over the last five to 10 years, to look not just at justice as a system, which we do, but the underlying conditions as well. So we have started to think about our philanthropy as almost as a bridge, that what we’re doing is creating the societal skills and the societal institutions and the platforms for the value systems in which the outcomes we seek will emerge. That was part of the inner journey that we made as a philanthropy, and it’s been, it has also then expressed itself differently in how we approach the work that we do. It’s kind of, A, given us a new lens into what systems and ecosystem work looks like, but it’s also clarified or helped us clarify our role in that. In particular, we anchor our philanthropy in three or four values, and one of them is the idea of learning.

0:36:01.0 Gautam John: So, over the last five or seven, five to seven years, as we’ve learnt alongside our grantee partners, we’ve begun to be able to appreciate the broken systems that manifest themselves as societal failures. And in making this journey along with them, it’s allowed us to see, A, what the opportunity to fix broken systems is. And I find myself using that line from Martin Luther King very often, that not just charity but to fix the underlying inequalities that lead to it. And also, the other bit that we’ve begun to start to understand a little bit more deeply is that we always posited the individual who is aggrieved and the system that caused that as binaries, and we realized that they are no longer binaries, they are polarities to balance. And so, where we as a funder have started to find our own feet is in articulating our role in creating a good society and understanding that a good society is made up of well functioning systems, and that our role is not necessarily to fix the systems, but to bring together unusual coalitions and collaborations of people who are able to see the system, but also articulate clearly their position and what their role in fixing the system is.

0:37:25.0 Gautam John: So over the last couple of years, we’ve articulated our role as a funder of systems change in five values. One is that we will be a philanthropy led by trust not log frames, so we don’t seek to hold people accountable to outputs. We seek to partner in long term change. We are curious, not certain, so we don’t hold them accountable to metric-based outputs. We hold them accountable to process-based learning outputs. We are deeply accepting of failure. System… Working at the level of the system is complex. It is also has a much higher rate of failure, and that’s okay. What we have done as a philanthropy is deeply embrace the idea of the commons, so we now articulate this as everything funded by philanthropy capital must be public goods, and therefore, even the failure of a mission is okay because the value that mission creates is available to others to build on.

0:38:32.2 Gautam John: The fourth one is an idea, is a sense of humility, where we don’t know, but not modesty. We do want to change systems. And I think it’s important to say that these are… It’s not modest to say that you want to improve a system, but the humility of recognizing that it is a massive undertaking is really really important to us. And the last one goes back to something both Erin and Cassie mentioned, of patience. We have moved from short grant cycles to an average of three to six year grant cycles now, just because it’s impossible to do this, otherwise. There’s no way to effect change. I mean, you can either have a quick thin change or deep meaningful change, and we want to do the deep meaningful change now. And I think, for us, we’ve then been able to distill the three models of systems change that speak to us and are relevant to our context.

0:39:28.0 Gautam John: So the first one is really what we refer to, very much inspired by the MacArthur module of the portfolio approach, where we create a space for organizations who are unified in intent, but take different and complementary approaches to exist side by side. But it will also create definite pathways to cooperation, collaboration, and hopefully, co-creation to addressing the systemic failures, and sometimes you’re creating common infrastructure for the field as well. The bit that is new to us over here is the fact that when you do this, you also need to be able to surround these portfolios with incredible amounts of support across a variety of spaces, whether it’s technology, whether it’s communications, but the one that’s been particularly important for us to be able to build, and we have been particularly weak at and are doubling down our efforts on that going forward, is around the normative and the narrative. Most of these systems changes are not technical shifts, right? They are deep…

0:40:31.1 Gautam John: They are deep muscles that we’re seeking to move and build. So, we’ve learnt… We’ve really learnt the necessity to create the normative shifts that then helps amplify all of the work. And also, sometimes the narrative that helps do that. So we’ve started to be more conscious about building that into our work. The portfolio approach is also new to us because, traditionally, we had funded areas of work, we’re now funding systemic shifts. So it’s, as a philanthropy as well, it’s meant that we’ve had to change how we curate these groups of organizations, what we look for in leaders. And I think that’s been the biggest shift for us, in terms of what we look for in the leaders of these organizations that we’re supporting.

0:41:23.2 Gautam John: And there’s this three levers of leadership that we believe are necessary for organizations to work, both cooperatively, but also systemically, that the leaders need to see themselves differently in terms of the leadership model they bring to the organizations, and that the organizations are able to work in the ecosystem, anchored in purpose and built through empathy, that change is inevitable, that there has to be a bias to action, and that collaboration is in their DNA. It doesn’t come easy to civil society organizations in India because that hasn’t been the tradition. We’ve had movements, but those have been slightly different. So, this necessity for system changing leadership at the level of self, at the level of others, and at the level of the system is something that we’re really really focused on highlighting as we look for leaders, that they need to be able to see the problem differently, see their role differently, and therefore, their approach is different as well.

0:42:26.9 Gautam John: The second approach that we’ve been experimenting with, primarily in the access to justice space, has been to create and spin out an independent organization that’s akin to venture philanthropy, in the sense that it is both a participant and a catalyst. And what it seeks to do is two roles of… One is filling gaps by actively engaging and creating pieces of work, but also by coordinating. And the third one is by capitalizing. So it’s a little bit new to us. We haven’t done this before, and I don’t think as a philanthropy, it was perhaps our role in space to do that ourselves. We believe it was best done by an ecosystem player rather than by us. So we’ve done this in a couple of spaces now to see what the role of a venture philanthropy, good venture philanthropy body, we don’t have a good name for it yet, but essentially, what they’ve been doing is capitalizing new organizations to fill existing gaps, commissioning work to fill gaps, and then a very vital role of coordinating all of this towards systemic change. Our first experiment has been very successful, but I think that has as much to do with the leadership as it does to do with the model. And very clearly the leadership that we look for was very similar to what we were looking for in our portfolio-based approach as well. And the last model is something that’s…

0:43:47.4 S1: Gautham, just one more minute.

0:43:49.4 Gautam John: Yep. I’m done.

0:43:50.7 S1: Great.

0:43:51.3 Gautam John: And the last model that Sorin had alluded to is really something that is something new and which is where we partner with Co-Impact on the idea of societal thinking or change at scale. We very clearly understood and realised the limitations of the traditional idea of scale, and so we’ve been trying to articulate from our learnings, how we can create a new way of creating infrastructure that can amplify the work of all existing actors in a system to create context specific solutions using lightweight digital platforms to solve complex problems, and to do so at scale with urgency and sustainably, so… So yeah, so that’s us. We’ve come to systems change through the work of our grantees and the learnings that we’ve had from that. We have three emergent pathways to how we’re approaching systems change, and we anchor it in the set of non-negotiable values as a philanthropy. Thanks.

0:44:47.0 S1: Thank you so much, super interesting and inspirational. And I know we don’t have a lot of time left, but I’m keen to get to a few questions, and we already have a few posts in the chat. I know for… There are a few questions targeted specifically to Cassie for instance and Erin, so feel free to just kind of respond to those bilaterally, but there’s one question that sort of is for all of you, and after that one I’ll pass over to Julio, who might also have a few reflections on questions. But the question is, what has triggered major shifts internally in how your organization had approached the work that you’ve traditionally done? How have your organization kept themselves agile? And yeah, what are your thoughts on that? Cassie, Erin, Gautam. And I guess, the follow-up question is sort of what hindered or supported the organization making this kind of shift to a more sort of ecosystem approach?

0:45:55.6 S3: Go on, Erin. Were you gonna go?

0:45:58.5 S2: Oh, sure, I could say a little bit. I think one thing that triggered the big shift at MacArthur was a real sort of dissatisfaction at the board level about our place in philanthropy and were we making enough impact. And of course, they supported all of those 25 programs over many years, I mean some of those programs were almost 40 years old, but they also felt this pressure to act with more urgency and to be able to respond to new challenges that were arising in the world. And so that’s one of the things that drove this big shift. And then, I think one thing that allowed us to, in our program at least, to make the decisions we made was also the board. They gave us almost total freedom in designing this program, which does not look like most anti-corruption programs. They asked us a lot of hard questions. They didn’t always agree with what we were doing, but they let us try things, they let us make changes. We’ve made many changes to the strategy, and sometimes they were right and sometimes we were right, but just having that flexibility and the trust they put into our work has been extremely helpful.

0:47:26.0 S3: I’ll just quickly wizz through the question there. So I think that the most difficult thing in the table, which, yeah, is in the slides, actually just the most difficult thing overall has been trying to take people on maybe what I would call an imaginative leap into like… You know, this idea that we’re trying to invest in a kind of vision or a sense of new possibility. And I think most people in the organization in which I work are used to funding around problems at a service level or like with really clear kind of outcomes. And this is Adrian Murray Brown talks a lot about having the yes rather than the no. And in a way, this is about trying to fund the yes. And I think that’s really hard actually to get people to sort of make that imaginative leap.

0:48:28.0 S3: And then in terms of… I mean I think I feel I should just acknowledge, in terms of being able to try this approach, I… We’re able to, I guess, ’cause we are just such a big funder. We have, even in my portfolio, I have eight different funding programs, so we’re not doing ecosystem systemic transition type funding across the board. So I guess, well, I’m just fortunate that some of my remit it is to try something new and different, which obviously just helps. But also… And I guess that COVID and the pandemic has created more legitimacy for doing, you know, it’s so clear how so many things no longer work and how much so many things are broken that I even had a line in my paper to the committee that kind of said that, “Surely, on no level do you really think that things are working well. So therefore, what are we gonna do differently?” And that’s kind of been my way in to a lot of this.

0:49:33.6 S2: I’ll very quickly answer that. The philanthropy, the philanthropy’s largest area and oldest area of work was water and Conservation. And it was a very easy pathway from there to understanding the systemic nature of the challenges. With water, we began around clean drinking water, and then very soon realize that everything is connected with community. Ground water management is the way out, with all of the complexities and actors and incentives. Similarly with conservation. We went from conservation to biodiversity to climate change, and then there’s no way but to confront the systemic nature of some of these challenges. And once we were able to see it there, and it helped that the principles of the organ of the foundation are very involved in those areas, then we were able to apply it more widely. It opened our eyes and then the instinctive curiosity was, but what is the systemic failure in the other areas as well? So that’s how it happened for us.

0:50:30.9 S1: Thank you, all three of you. And I can see Erin as well, you responded to a question in the chat on Nigerian society. Thanks for that. And I’m keen to let Julio jump in maybe with a few reflections, or questions that you might have for our panelists.

0:50:52.0 S4: Well, first reaction is just wow, thank you. This has been like a crash course in many different ways for us. I think there’s two of three different things that seemed to me, even if you come at it from very different angles, to come across your experiences. One is obviously the question about time horizons. The other one is questioning the traditional metrics, right? What do we measure, and how we’re kept accountable? There’s a couple of other things that to me are really quite a foundation, and I was just wanting to know whether it’s just my impression, whether I’m reading into it, right?

0:51:37.7 S4: So, one of the things that it seems to me you’re all saying is, and thinking about Erin, your comment, “We don’t evaluate an individual activity per se, but we look at the strategy over all,” right? And, but also, the things that you were saying just in terms of the ecology and some of the examples that you make out of them. So this whole idea that we get fixated with a particular intervention and we lose sight of all the connection that this one has and how would we think about it. And if we really take a portfolio logic, we evaluate the whole portfolio, we are not necessarily one individual activity in isolation, To me, that seems to be quite a fairly fundamental shift in the way one look at things.

0:52:21.7 S4: And the second thing is all of you in different ways to me are talking about a profoundly, generative logic. So providing a system that you’re intervening with options, infrastructure, connections, new framing, etcetera, to be able to develop new solutions by itself over time. So your exit eventually, you know that you have left these systems with new capabilities to change themselves and to take better decisions. So to me these are quite profound changes in many different ways, both in mindset, etcetera. I’m just wondering whether is it just me projecting into what you’re doing, whether this resonates? And most importantly, then, you know, again, this is the question for us as you can imagine, as we are at the beginning of our journey, this will be quite fairly profound changes in the way we think about what we’re doing. And I was just curious whether you have any advice for us on how would we want to think about these issues?

0:53:27.8 S1: Any takers? I know that was a super easy question to answer.

0:53:36.4 Gautam John: I’m hoping to learn from Cassie and Erin on this really.

0:53:46.8 S3: Do you want me to try? I mean, I think… I mean how you reflected it back is I’m like nodding away being, “Yes, that’s it.” Whether it is actually what we’re doing, [chuckle] it sounds great. I feel like I don’t know… I really think there is something about the health, thinking about the health of the ecology, or the vitality of the ecology, like some of those things is being measured. Or that you talk about capabilities and that the attraction. And I don’t know how on earth you measure energy, but I feel like there is just something about the whole quality of how the ecology is working together and deepening and growing, that is definitely some of the kind of indicators that we’re thinking about. In terms of… That’s the harder question. Any advice to you? I guess this is really lame, but keep having things like this where we can all learn together and share what we’re doing and… The thing I have worked really hard to get where we are is actually really specifically around the language, that the constant translation of trying to help people make sense of what it no longer is and giving them at least something to understand what it might be instead, and that’s probably been the key thing.

0:55:18.4 S2: I appreciate the overview comments. And I also agree with what Cassie said about the health of the system, the ecosystem. I can tell you from our experience, we’re six years into not evaluating individual projects, and I don’t feel that we’ve lost anything. Not everything works, not everything we do works, not everything grantee partners do work, and that is totally fine. And being able to tell them, “If you wanna evaluate your work, that is fine. We’ll pay for it, but what we’re more interested in is enabling you to collect some data, so that you understand how your work is going and that you can tell your story to us, to others.” That has been… It has freed all of us, I think, and enabled us to focus on the bigger picture, the media sector at large, the quality of investigative reports, the quality of how certain laws are being implemented. And it’s so much more important than the individual tactics that people are using.

0:56:31.0 S1: Thank you, Erin. And thanks, Cassie. And Gautam, when you were speaking, you had some really interesting reflections on sort of moving away from the log frames, having more focus on the kind of the process through which you’re learning, and that’s what we kinda help hold ourselves and hold others to account, to like… Do you have any reflections of like how has that, that type of dynamic approach been received among your grantees and sort of other partners you work with?

0:57:05.4 Gautam John: So what… You know I honestly started to work in areas that are more complex and interconnected. What we realized was that they needed to be a more formal way for everyone to learn alongside the work. So instead of holding it at the foundation, what we did was commission, not a monitoring and evaluation partner, but a learning partner. And what they do is work with each grantee in the portfolio to synthesis the learnings and then disseminate it and bring back to synthesis. So they’re constantly surfacing new stuff to the coalition, but we get visibility of that as well. And we’re very, very clear that we don’t use this for monitoring, we don’t use this for evaluation, we use this for learning.

0:57:47.6 Gautam John: And in the portfolio approach, it works really, really well because we’ve created a space of trust. We’ve gone… I don’t know if it works so well in any other areas of work where we just have grantees, but in the areas where we consciously decided to take a portfolio approach, it works really well because there’s somebody who’s only role it is to surface opportunities for collaboration, missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, which is actually really hard to do. I think one of the biggest problems we have faced in the sort of work is an efficient workflow that allows everyone visibility on what everyone else is doing, it’s really hard. So we said instead of trying to solve it through a technology platform, we’ll solve it through a partner whose only job it is to surface learnings and opportunities for the jigsaw puzzle to put together.

0:58:45.0 S1: Thank you, Gautam. And I can see a lot of them nodding from all the panelists on that. We only have a few minutes left unfortunately. Julio, I don’t know if you have any sort of like reflections or thoughts, and then we can also sort of… I just can quickly wrap up. Just wanna give you the opportunity to…

0:59:06.8 S4: Yeah. Now, just to… Well, first of all, obviously, thank you. Now, obviously, for us this is a journey, and we are scouting out who is on similar journeys, so we’ve had a similar session with the donors, meaning governments for us, in the traditional way of doing things, just a month ago. And we want to continue this journey, so taking up your offer, Cassie, right? So we will very much want to continue engaging with people who are in the space, who are typically much further ahead than we are, but also starting thinking about where are, again, opportunities to… In the same way, is just to strike out and to signal. We’re all working on similar things, we have some similar questions, etcetera.

0:59:52.0 S4: So for us, in a sense, it’s the beginning of a journey in many different ways. And as I mentioned before, for me, some of the things that all of your presentation talk about ultimately are rethinking of the organizational identity and what is the role of that. And what relation you have with the people that you fund, and seeing yourself in a different way in relation to them. And I think in a sense it’s the same journey that we are on, except we are probably slower and this is taking us quite a lot longer time, but seeing the example of people who have been on the same journey, who are asking the same type of question for us is super inspiring. So I would like to thank you very much once again also for being open about what you’re learning, what failed, what didn’t work, that’s been super, super inspiring. Thank you.

1:00:51.3 S1: Yes, I wanted to echo that. Thank you so much Erin, Cassie, Gautam. This is absolutely interesting, super inspiring. And thank you to everyone that that listened in and posed questions. I hope this was interesting and useful to you as well, and as always, if you have any feedback on this event, if there is anything you would like us to explore, do reach out. Otherwise, stay tuned for future sessions like this and keep safe everyone.

1:01:22.5 S3: Thanks.

1:01:23.2 S2: Thank you very much.

1:01:25.6 S1: Thank you.

1:01:30.4 Gautam John: Thank you.


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