The EDGE Funders Alliance Just Giving conference in Washington DC, 21-23 May, brought together some 250 donors, activists and allies on the theme of ‘What is to be done? And how do we do it?’ Participants enjoyed a casual yet focused environment to gain a deeper understanding of the current landscape of grassroots and transnational initiatives addressing structural injustice, and to explore grantmaking strategies for making an impact.
The conference organizers could not be accused of thinking too small. Mark Randozzo, director of the EDGE Funders Alliance, kicked off the conference by encouraging participants that despite all the injustices we see in the world, being able to imagine a new world is transformational to the change we want to see. He compared today’s world to the time of debating the slave trade in the 19th century. Are we okay just being incrementalists, or do we want to be abolitionists and seek deep systems change?
Attending the conference made it easy to be depressed about considering how and whether philanthropy could make any difference to such seemingly intractable, wicked social problems. Land and water grabs, climate change, fighting corruption, economic rights of sex workers were discussed. The worker-employer relationship is also being affected, as was clear from the debates on the future of work and increasing corporate power. Workers are getting poorer with less share of global wealth as a result of shifts in the global economy. There is more privatizing and saving of labour costs than ever. Can we build a ‘new economy’ where employers invest more in the welfare of their employees, and help keep government accountable?
The adage ‘the only constant is change’ rang true here. Gopal Dayaneni, part of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, spoke at the opening plenary about how donors can deal with the new normal of instability and respond to change without changing our core values and being. ‘Systems resilience’ is about developing root cause remedies and being organized around resilience. ‘What is politically realistic, combined with real solutions that we know will work, is often a short window of opportunity that must be taken advantage of,’ said Dayaneni. He called upon donors to engage and challenge assumptions about what is needed – and to think about not just what is needed but what is possible. We must balance investing in short-term measurable results with long-term transformational vision.
Responsibility was another theme throughout the conference. The workshop on land and water grabs and how to fight these featured Miriam Miranda, part of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras. Corporations have taken over beachfront properties that belong to native Hondurans, making it a fight between tourists and natives. Miriam spoke with authority in challenging the global North to take responsibility for everybody’s future generations, and asking ‘why the global South should have to bear the costs of the global North’s energy and food usage?’
Leaving the conference discouraged about what could be done was not an option. Funders were reminded of the privilege of attending a conference – having opportunities to connect and to learn was a luxury – and that we had a responsibility to take what we learned back out into the world to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate. Katie Redford of Earthrights International summed it up: ‘Please use your freedom to help others gain their freedom.’ Fuelled by optimism and encouragement from one another to continue making the most of philanthropic dollars, funders were encouraged to keep trying and keep raising voices in places where hope goes right up against the forces of injustice. Give where it is bleak, intransigent and seemingly impenetrable, and where there is limited capacity on the ground and funds are limited. Build capacity of the local leadership, because you never know when those leaders will be in the right place at the right time to use their skills to lead their country to a better place.
The conference provided many answers to the questions of what is to be done, and how to do it. The challenge ahead is selecting the answers fit for you, and doing something about it. What have you chosen to do to make a difference as a funder, and how are you doing it?
Andrew Ho is manager for global philanthropy at the Council on Foundations. Follow him on Twitter at @andyho