The only thing that is constant is change, said one ancient Greek. Peter Karoff often reminded me of this wise adage, and recent events around the globe certainly prove it to be true. Funders are responding on many levels to many concerns. As always, some funders continue to seek innovative solutions to age-old problems, and are looking to place “big bets” in ways that could achieve big returns for society. Others are finding ways to make a difference through small grants. And still others are supporting cutting-edge research, advocacy, social movements, or other strategies with potential for lasting impact. Regardless of the approach, the need for stakeholder engagement and collaboration is increasingly apparent – but funders can easily be daunted by the challenges involved in forging effective partnerships.
Philanthropists of all sizes can think big. And by that I mean the need to step back to see the big picture and our respective places in it. In his 1984 book entitled Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, Benjamin Barber predicts much of the unrest unfolding globally; he argues that real democracy is participatory at a broader, deeper level. It’s about connection, community, and support for things that may seem intangible if you look at them too closely. But when you take a step back to get perspective on the moving pieces and how they interact within a bigger frame, the change needed to address seemingly intractable issues and complex systems can become clearer. One way in which funders can better understand the bigger picture is by playing a convener role, bringing people to the table to identify gaps and opportunities that, in many cases, can best be addressed through strategic alignment of the efforts of multiple sectors.
Think about the challenges involved in revitalizing a neighborhood or community. The work can start as simply as networking with the leading players on an issue: local and state government officials, nonprofits tackling specific needs in the community, local business leaders, other funders. Through constructive conversations informed by research, mapping exercises, and other knowledge, funders can sometimes identify needs that may not always be glamorous, but may turn out to be the missing piece that can accelerate change.
In a rural part of Virginia, we are working with a health foundation looking to address significant workforce development needs in this low-income region. Through this work, the foundation is beginning to forge powerful partnerships among businesses with local hiring needs, nonprofit employment and training agencies, local schools, and other stakeholders. The foundation’s goal is to increase the percentage of people in the service area who are earning a livable wage. We have heard from many local stakeholders that the foundation has a unique and critical role to play as convener and strategic funder within this region.
Or consider the challenges facing RIZE Massachusetts, a foundation created to tackle the opioid epidemic in one of the hardest-hit states in the country. Their tagline says it all: Zero Stigma. Zero Deaths. RIZE serves as a central connection among funders, healthcare providers, research institutions, and community leaders to identify and support “innovative and comprehensive evidence-based treatments that can be scaled, expedited, and made accessible” to other communities across the state and in turn, the country. TPI partnered with RIZE to develop a strategic framework to guide its work over the next several years. To inform this work, TPI conducted a landscape scan to identify potential funding gaps, and also facilitated an Idea Lab with stakeholders and thought leaders to explore opportunities where RIZE could make a difference within the complex network of public and private efforts. You can read more about this work on the Health Affairs blog.
Complex challenges are the result of complex systems – and yes, require complex solutions. What I encourage funders to do in 2019 and beyond is consider this: What matters is not simply about the money you give, but the degree to which you creatively leverage opportunities waiting for someone to uncover them. In 2019, take a chance on what is possible, no matter who you are and what you have to offer. Engage in conversations that could yield important insights. Find new thought partners and explore new forms of collaborations. Bring a beginner’s mind to the table. Make change. Think big.