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Learning, Plumbing and Imagination

February 15, 2021
Hilary Pearson

What do learning, plumbing and imagination have to do with each other? They’re all connected to philanthropy’s response to the pandemic and after. As we wait through this seemingly interminable time to the end of the pandemic, we can reflect on what we have learned (and are still learning). What are foundations and funders of various kinds learning about their own approaches and practices? What have they changed? What might change over the next couple of years? Where are the structural (plumbing) gaps that make it hard to make change collectively? And how do we break our imaginations free to think about new possibilities?

We are hearing that communities need to take the lead from funders, and funders need to be more responsive to community. Easier said than done, not least because among our uncertainties, people are feeling uncertain about how and what works best. Some thoughtful minds in philanthropy have been spending time on this. One of them is Ben Cairns from IVAR, the Institute for Voluntary Action Research. Cairns works with operating charities and with funders in the UK; just before the end of 2020 he shared his thoughts about how funders can adapt practices to an uncertain environment in Four Principles To Shape Your Grantmaking Today.  Cairns’ advice focuses on the internal work that funders can do to rethink their processes from the point of view of community partners. This can be as straightforward as simplifying the language used for applications, relaxing word limits on online forms and reducing requests for supporting information.  It can mean being much clearer about priorities and exclusions, to not waste the time of applicants. It can mean going further and not negotiating or placing restrictions on the uses of the funds. In a nice phrase, Cairns talks about making unrestricted funding decisions based on the “spine of an organization”: its mission, values, goals and track record (I would add its leadership). He stresses the importance of being in learning mode as a funder, trying out new ways to work and taking some risks to do so. Don’t wait until it’s perfect, or until you are sure you have the right answers.

This advice comes out of an IVAR series, Learning from Lockdown, sharing stories from different funders about their pandemic experiences. It’s practical stuff, rooted in various funder contexts. Of course, variety suggests that not all learnings apply universally. The key point is to adopt a learning mindset. With this mindset, a situation that none of us have experienced before also becomes an opportunity for figuring out how to do better. Funder networks can help to promote the value of learning. The Canadian funder networks of Philanthropic Foundations Canada, Community Foundations of Canada, Environment Funders Network and The Circle have done much through their webinars and toolkits to promote learning from experience. And this learning is being liberally shared by PFC and others.

But why should funders also think about the plumbing? In a thoughtful recent blog, Geoff Mulgan, the former director of policy for Prime Minister Tony Blair and now a professor (of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation…an interesting set of specialties) at University College, London, suggests that the pandemic has taught us about the importance of collaboration. This is a time to make some forward leaps in collaborative work. But not just any kind of collaboration. Mulgan claims, rightly in my view, that one of the reasons for lagging impact in attempts to collaborate is lack of attention to the “unglamourous plumbing” that supports the best collective work. He proposes five areas where the plumbing (or the back office) needs more philanthropic investment:

  • Shared scanning on what lies ahead
  • Shared intelligence on what is happening in the present
  • Shared evidence on what works (and doesn’t)
  • Curation of open commons of data, intelligence and evidence
  • Shared imagination of what is possible

The first three of these have to do with the internal work that is so often duplicated by foundations. Many funders do their own landscape scanning, their own intelligence collecting, their own evidence building. Why not do it together? We should reflect on how these practices could be done better together than separately. As his fourth suggestion, Mulgan talks about an aspect of the needed plumbing which is external: an open commons of data, intelligence and evidence. Mulgan’s work, which he has written about in his 2017 book Big Mind, has convinced him that philanthropy leaves impact on the table without collective intelligence. It is hard to find many examples of a curated open commons in philanthropy anywhere, although there are shared data platforms such as 360Giving or Candid. Canadian philanthropy didn’t have one before the pandemic, to our cost.  PhilanthropyResponds.ca, a collaborative effort among funder networks, met the immediate need for data on the funder response to the crisis. But as pointed out by Grantbook, “the pandemic has increasingly exposed an underlying need for better data sharing between funders in Canada that can be mobilized, not only in response to global crises, but in response to the many issues philanthropy aims to tackle.” And this will require more funder investment in the plumbing for collective work, as Mulgan suggests.

The fifth point that Mulgan makes is one I love. How do we create a “shared positive imagination” in philanthropy? This could be a focus for some truly exciting collaboration. As he says, “we need shared investment in reawakening our imagination, drawing on the best of art and design, on social sciences, the insights of citizens, innovators and activists, to start filling in more detailed pictures of what our options might be in the decades ahead: – what kinds of welfare, democracy, health or tax we might want. If we don’t have such pictures of where we want to go it’s not surprising that we revert to fatalism about the future.” How do we do this? Mulgan doesn’t say. But maybe it’s a great challenge for our Canadian funder networks to help us pick up going forward.

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