Becoming an Authentic Partner for Change
How do you do your funding? Please describe your your organization’s approach and process, explaining how it is different from conventional philanthropy.
International Development Exchange (IDEX) (now Thousand Currents) sees its role as enabling long-term, local, grassroots social changes by helping people affect their own conditions. We understand that social and systemic injustice has deep roots in the fabric of local social and political history. We, in the West, are not in the best position to understand or address those problems. The people who can solve them best are the people whose lives are most affected by them. Local, grassroots solutions are ultimately more relevant, effective, empowering and long lasting than top-down “imported” solutions. Therefore, we seek out dedicated local partners who are working to understand and address their own problems. We help each group develop its own skills, function more effectively, understand its objectives, make high-quality decisions, put plans into action and evaluate its achievements. IDEX works to enable people to be agents of long-term, sustainable change in their own societies.
How did your organization come to practice philanthropy in this way? What made you realize this funding style would be important for what you were trying to achieve?
IDEX was started in 1985 with a community-to-community structure. The community of supporters in the U.S. backed and directly assisted projects in the communities that needed them around the world.
This was purposefully set up in direct contrast to the top-down model of Big Aid. The founders and early supporters of IDEX had seen that the traditional international development approach was not getting money to the people who actually needed it. The “smaller,” community-level projects that IDEX supported in those early days allowed for a rich variety of risk-taking, experimentation, and, consequently, learning. The work with grassroots activists in the Global South showed IDEX how real social change happens. IDEX learned that providing the support for capacity building and organizational self-determination was a better way to make lasting change.
The lessons learned from this early experimentation were eventually focused and shaped into the partnership model. The partnership model required a larger investment of time, energy, and resources in fewer organizations. In this way IDEX could provide more support to partners with a deeper commitment to them and IDEX itself would have a closer connection to the wisdom and experience of its grassroots partners on the ground.
The key insight was that the Big Aid model, based on top-down imposition of restricted funding for “interventions,” would never answer a community’s true needs. The partnership model was developed to enable the community to voice their needs directly to the funder and then direct resources to the areas they identified as most pressing.
Have you ever been met with resistance or criticism when using this type of funding?
Many philanthropists see their role as Special Forces of social justice, who sweep into a troubled area, distribute aid, introduce programs, deploy them quickly, get quick results and sweep out: Mission accomplished. In contrast, IDEX sees its role as enabling long-term, local, grassroots social changes by helping people affect their own conditions. Our approach has been criticized as being too slow and process-heavy. IDEX commissioned an independent Learning and Evaluation Report to examine its partnership model’s efficacy and it showed clear outcomes. 75 percent of our partners responded that IDEX’s unrestricted funding allowed them to reach all or more than half of their goals. Furthermore, IDEX’s non-financial support enabled 88 percent of these partners to develop strong alliances and linkages to larger social movements on the international level.
You likely encountered challenges as you started implementing your strategy. Describe the challenge you feel has the most lessons for other funders, and what those lessons were.
Staying true to our partnership model through thick and thin has been the greatest test of our commitment to it. One of our partners, through a very deliberate examination of the impact of their programs, decided to change their strategies for women’s empowerment from microcredit to leadership development. Many funders tied to their projects and restricted funding approach abandoned this partner. It was never a question whether IDEX would continue its support, but it did threaten the viability of the Partner. If you enter into a model of philanthropy that seeks to address underlying causes, you have to be prepared to endure the swings of popularity, fads and changing context in the field.
What can you achieve through this type of funding that might not be possible using conventional philanthropic funding models?
IDEX is one of very few organizations giving long-term, flexible support to international grassroots groups. This approach depends upon analyzing the context of the challenges that face our partners’ communities to understand how the partners’ work holistically addresses these challenges. Furthermore, the partnership model recognizes the power dynamic that exists between grantmakers and grantees. An independent evaluator affirmed that “effectiveness is greatly enhanced when a grant maker’s methods of working serve to…build relationships of openness, respect and trust.” Symptomatic funding can never deal with this power dynamic and has little chance to alter underlying circumstances.
What is the most important insight you gained specifically through funding in this way?
The most valuable thing we have learned is how appreciated the long-term and flexible support is to our partners. All of our partners have had negative experiences with “come-and-go” funders looking for short-term projects that don’t contribute to the long arc of social change. In developing our Theory of Change in collaboration with our partners, they encouraged IDEX to actively spread our partnership model, further reinforcing our belief in it.
This approach is a slow, deep-acting method. It can’t be rushed. It requires time, patience, receptivity and restraint. Flexibility and experimentation is – and should be – part of learning and development. Skinned knees are inevitable and there is not a one-size-fits all. These are conditions which should be accepted and embraced.
Why does Indie Philanthropy matter to you?
IDEX’s work stems from a vision for a global community in which all people are empowered to live free from poverty and discrimination. IDEX’s theory of social change puts local people at the forefront, working in an organized way towards democratic, equitable and environmentally sustainable solutions. Very often, IDEX supports critical areas of work that are either neglected or under the radar of governments and even development agencies. As political repression in our partners’ countries rises, economic opportunities diminish, climate change poses new threats and traditional development aid is bottlenecked, IDEX partners continue to inspire us with cost-effective, high impact, scalable solutions to poverty and injustice. The greatest gift that IDEX has received from doing this work has been the privilege of walking in solidarity with these visionary leaders and organizations.