What if philanthropy could seed new economic possibilities?

This blog is part of the series. This series accompanies the Neighbourhood Doughnut portfolio of work in which CIVIC SQUARE, along with many neighbours, researchers, partners and visionaries have since 2019 been exploring large and small scale ways to reimagine economic possibilities.

The series brings together 15 commissioned works by visionaries who are reimagining economic possibility from a number of different angles. We are deeply passionate about and recognise the wealth of possibilities it unlocks, as well as its limitations. As Kate Raworth has said, quoting British statistician George E. P. Box, “all frameworks are wrong, but some are useful.” Therefore, we want to be able to stretch as far and wide as the invites us to, seeing it as a platform to organise, whilst also encompassing a plurality of bold visions.

In this piece, outlines some guiding principles for philanthropists, funders and grant-givers to consider when engaging in the transition to a fairer and more regenerative economic system. Without funding many of these proposals won’t be able to get their feet off the ground, so funders need to be brave and imaginative in order to become effective bridge builders. Cassie is a funding strategist currently working with Partners for a New Economy, , , Active Philanthropy and Impact on Urban Health to put transformative ideas into practise.

“One role that philanthropy has in the coming years is to ensure that some of its resources are invested in the capacity of communities to dream and imagine, and to turn that work into real, live, demonstrators on the ground.”

“A vision for philanthropy’ — This was the prompt that CIVIC SQUARE gave me when they asked me to contribute to this series. So, here are five things I hope might be useful for anyone working in philanthropy to consider. The ‘we’ in this, is those of us that work around funding, philanthropy and investment.

One

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”

This a quote from philosophers Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek. Mark Fisher then built on it when he said “there is the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”

It’s unsurprising that many people are stuck in a sense of this being the only way and that there is no possibility of change. One role that philanthropy has in the coming years is to ensure that some of its resources are used to show that this isn’t the case. This looks like investing in the capacity of communities to dream and imagine, and to turn that work into real, live, demonstrators on the ground. “Look over here!” — that’s what we need to be able to say to all those people that are worn down, numb, disbelieving, cynical … to show them there are other ways possible. Things do not have to be this way. Some of the things that philanthropy could do include:

  • Resource spaces for and practices in collective imagination — widening the aperture of what’s possible and helping people to feel connected to that. Showing that you believe it’s possible.
  • Some of these seeds might be right in front of you now, but maybe you aren’t looking at it in the right way for them to be seen. Can you recognise what seeds of new economic possibilities look like? How can you hone your own capacity to recognise them?
  • Don’t just fund speculative ideas — the policy proposals that get delivered in briefing papers and reports, or the speculative futures projects that sit in galleries. This work has a role, but what it doesn’t do is help work out what it means to actually build the alternatives that are needed. Systemic transitions require intentional activity at multiple levels. New economic possibilities require grappling with the ‘hidden wiring’ or the ‘dark matter’ — the rules and regulations that need rewriting — and what this looks like is hard to conceive without coming across them as you do the work. Without tackling this, many change efforts and resources become futile, yet philanthropy doesn’t recognise where the labour of this work is being done.

We live (and die) inside of systems that were imagined centuries ago by those ambitious and narrow minds of colonists and patriarchs. We live inside the lineage of relatively ignorant imaginations, which were obsessed with protection and domination. But we know so much more now. We know each other’s pain and complexity now; we know we are one interconnected ecosystem

— adrienne maree brown

Two

There are a lot of people I’ve come across in my work as a ‘funder’ who I can hear saying: “what is the new economy? What does ‘new economic possibilities’ mean?” This is the work for those working in philanthropy to do, to learn about what it means. CIVIC SQUARE spent a lot of time and effort reading the Doughnut Economics book and translating it together with the communities of which they are a part. They gathered people together, they poured over the content, they worked together to imagine how to apply it at a neighbourhood scale, and they made sense of the concepts and terminology together. They are not a group of economists, they are like you and I, and we can do this work too. Stop shying away from complexity or concepts that seem difficult. To be effective in moving resources out of the old system and into a new economic system will require something different from you as a ‘grant-maker’ or philanthropist — different kinds of skills and competencies, and greater courage.

“We need people who can traverse the whole finance ecology — who can both see when it’s useful to make a distinction between different kinds of capital and when it’s better to blur the lines.”

Three

If you don’t have these skills, what can you learn in order to be an effective bridge or translator for this work? For work in the new economy to be realised, we need people who can traverse the whole finance ecology — who can both see when it’s useful to make a distinction between different kinds of capital and when it’s better to blur the lines. We need to be able to think both creatively and technically about how to design new and experimental economic frameworks and ownership models that share risk, distribute power and benefits and build regenerative models. I look at some of the roles being hired for in this space and what they are asking for: “create new and evolve existing formal economic models. Rigorously define how a sophisticated alternative to capitalism would equitably distribute resources, incentivize labor in alignment with human flourishing, and protect and regenerate the biosphere” or “be responsible for providing technical assistance, pre-investment advising and capital access support to Just Transition projects and enterprises (e.g., community land trusts, worker-owned cooperatives, community-owned food & agriculture development projects) that are experimenting with true alternatives to capitalism by building local, regenerative economies that provide for everyone’s needs.” I think these job descriptions speak volumes about the kinds of expertise we need to be building in philanthropic practice at this time.

Four

Would all of this feel more possible if we liberated ourselves from the (very loaded) identity of being a ‘grant-maker’ or a ‘funder’? The kind of work that would serve this agenda of seeding new economic possibilities, of really shifting resources away from the status quo and investing, with new logics, in reparative and regenerative futures — that’s about being a change-maker. ‘Grant-maker’ is such a reductive term and not representative of what is really required of us or in tune with the times we are in. This work requires us to have skin in the game, to be creative and entrepreneurial, and with an ability to think big — to work with a level of ambition and commitment that is commensurate with the challenges faced. And to carry the weightiness of the work in the same way those that are doing the building have to, day in, day out.

“The continually shifting ground of transitions offers opportunities to shape and bring intent, to work in multiple timeframes and with multiple approaches.”

Five

Those new possibilities are all around — Alongside CIVIC SQUARE and , are the , , , , the , , — to name just a few. And for these initiatives to thrive they require us to:

  • Resource long timeframes of 10 years minimum. This will give these initiatives an adequate chance of building the capacities and agency within their communities to determine their own transitions.
  • Recognise the complexity of their work — how they are working at multiple levels and temporalities, solving hard, knotty ‘hidden wiring’ issues as they go
  • Recognise that they are the community and that they are doing all of this work in relationship with others — as an ecology, that is growing and deepening over time
  • Recognise that all this work needs infrastructures and commons building, which also need resourcing too
  • Bring a transition mindset to our practices — the continually shifting ground of transitions offers opportunities to shape and bring intent, to work in multiple timeframes and with multiple approaches. We cannot afford to keep getting stuck in the binaries — relational versus evidence-based, power-shifting versus strategic — there are so many more of these binaries that we spend hours debating in philanthropy and yet what we need most of all is plurality.

Above all, let’s never forget -

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin

also builds upon CIVIC SQUARE’s Department of Dreams portfolio of work, a site to imagine bold new futures that weave together the dreams of many.

Whilst understanding, investing, and unpacking the dark matter of large scale system change, we have learned quite deeply through the practice, inspirational movements, and from imagineers and pioneers that came before us that we must also invest in the dream matter — the artists, writers, designers, dreamers and creative visionaries — those who dare to dream up bold new futures for humanity, and have the capacity to stretch our imaginations further than we ever thought possible.

Thinkers, doers and makers dreaming beyond our existing systems have played, are playing and will continue to play a central role in crafting collective visions that transcend our current reality, and radically illuminate the responsibilities we hold to future generations. This is particularly driven by practices of imagination and identity, and, when woven together with dark matter findings and interventions, has the power to create a supernovae of transformation; the thinking, relating and behaving differently required to usher in a new reality that becomes irresistible, that we can all build and craft together.

Find out more by exploring the following materials from Department of Dreams 2020–2021:

— May 2020
— June 2020
— November 2021
— December 2021

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Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.

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Cassie Robinson.

Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.