Firetree Philanthropy: Brief reflection on 2020

Nicky Wilkinson
Firetree Philanthropy
9 min readFeb 26, 2021
With thanks to our partner M’Lop Tapang for this image

What an awful year 2020 was. No words I can think of can capture it.

This blog is to openly and briefly share what we, as Firetree, did in the awful madness that was 2020.

First, just a brief structural reminder that Firetree is a slightly unusual organisation in that we operate as a group structure under the Firetree Trust. Our ‘group’ encompasses:

Firetree Philanthropy, which funds people, grassroots organisations and networks that are building more inclusive, equitable and just futures in the communities in which we collectively work. You can read more about our partners here. We are a small team with one dedicated staff member on this, working part-time.

Tondo Community Initiative (TCI), a collaborative initiative in Tondo, Manila working with our long-time partners Stairway Foundation, with support by Starfish Education and a number of community organisations. TCI is a Filipino non-profit that is currently fully funded by Firetree Philanthropy. You can read how TCI fits with Firetree Philanthropy’s work here.

Starfish Education is an integral part of Firetree’s DNA, being the program most directly connected with the work of Dick Haugland. Starfish’s mission is to provide all children in Thailand with an equal opportunity to access quality education through innovative learning programs and technological solutions that seeks to fill public education gaps through public and private collaboration. Starfish is not directly funded by Firetree Philanthropy as it has a dedicated endowment within the Firetree Trust. You can read more about how Starfish and Firetree are related here.

This blog shares a brief reflection on Firetree Philanthropy’s work in 2020.

Firetree Philanthropy:

In 2020, Firetree Philanthropy disbursed around US$4,000,000 in funding to our NGO and social enterprise partners (including TCI). Please note that this is just the funding disbursed in 2020, not the full amount committed as part of multi-year agreements. This funding was a mix of unrestricted grant funding and interest-free loans for our social enterprise partners. It some included additional/emergency funding for our current partners, where needed.

Firetree Philanthropy is a strong proponent of the principles outlined in the trust-based philanthropy project, which have always been core to our model. In 2020, we found these principles and the deep investments in trust that we work hard to build really came to the fore.

At the start of the pandemic, we reached out to all our partners and were able to remind them that the funding was unrestricted and that we trusted them to use it as they saw fit to respond to rapidly changing contexts and situations — and to reassure them that we were right here and would weather this with them.

Additional support:

A huge part of 2020 for us was spent trying to be as supportive of our partners as we could. Our job is never as hard as our partners; no funders is, I believe. However, we wanted to make sure that, as our partners were stepping up, so were we. This additional support took a range of forms, some of which are listed below:

Advocacy/championing with other funders: Firetree Philanthropy signed the Council of Foundations Philanthropy Pledge in early March 2020. A significant part of 2020 was spent advocating with other funders to try to encourage them to follow the same principles outlined in the pledge.

In addition, several of our current partners came to us to ask if, as a funder that had always given general operating support funding to their organisation, I would be happy to speak to their other restricted funders who were contemplating unrestricting their funding. This is a role we are always happy to play.

Capacity building support to partners: In addition to funding, capacity building support for partners varied, depending upon what they asked us for. For some, it was support with operational points like cashflow forecasting or offering access to the code of Starfish EdTech. Through working with the wonderful Kate Griffin, who knows many of our partners already, we were able to offer hands-on support for additional fundraising.

For others it was sharing insights/lessons learned, for example sharing insights from our own learning at TCI or other partners about how to offer case management and emergency support when you can’t meet in person. As another example, my brilliant colleague Dr. Prae Seributra shared learning from Starfish Labz, the Thai online learning platform developed for both teachers and parents which played a key role in Starfish Education being able to continue to achieve its mission, despite the impact of school closures.

Listening: I realize this probably sounds a bit wishy washy, but one of the main parts of my role last year was just to do my best to be there, when asked, for our partners. Instant messages would come in asking for a chat; sometimes this was to share an exciting breakthrough, sometimes to bounce ideas. Other times it was to rant/cry/have a safe space for whatever was needed. Leading an organisation can be incredible, it can also be damn lonely sometimes — I have always found — and never more so than in a pandemic.

Throughout 2020 I have been consistently awed by the strength, vision and resilience of so many of our partners. So if Firetree could provide a trusted, confidential and safe space, I was (am and shall always be) delighted to do that. Honestly, what an honour it is for myself and Firetree to be able to play such role.

Was everything we did perfect? Absolutely not! There is much that we have learned — and there is much more we can and will do in 2021.

What our partners said:

As part of our continued commitment to feedback and learning, we have recently conducted a partner feedback survey (there was no way we were going to ask our partners to do that last December, at the end of such an awful year!)

We encourage direct feedback from our partners too in any other form they might prefer, and see this survey as just one tool in our efforts to promote the two-way accountability we seek to develop.

The survey was a short, anonymous feedback tool that we sent to our newer partners (those we have started funding from mid-2018 onward.) It’s definitely an ‘opt-in’ survey and in no way compulsory.

There were a couple of partners that we wanted to send it to, but in January their communities went back into lockdown so we didn’t — they have much more important things to do with their time right now! We will get their input when their situation improves. We received 7 responses and we know (because they told us) that some partners submitted more than 1 response from different members within the team.

Of course this hardly a big sample size, but we don’t have a large number of partners and, for us, this is vital feedback. Below is a simple summary of what came back. We have shared all feedback and our planned responses to it with our partners already.

The first two questions of our feedback survey explored two essential components for us: the extent to which partners trust Firetree and the extent to which they feel our values show up in their interactions with us.

As a funder that places huge emphasis on building trust and works very hard to embody our values, we are of course very happy with this feedback.

I want to be clear: we do not take this for granted and will continue to work hard to build on, strengthen and improve the above, as trust is hard earned and can be quickly dissipated.

We then asked our partners what we can do to strengthen how our values show up in our everyday interactions and relationships with them.

This is really valuable feedback and we will work hard to strengthen collaboration and communication (see later section in the blog.)

We also explored what, aside from our funding, our partners valued about working with Firetree, if anything.

Two things came back:

Trust and empathy:

“I really feel supported in my work and it helps a lot going through difficult times. — I value highly the mutual trust. I feel I can share openly about our struggles.”


“I truly value the ability to be completely open with Firetree as a partner and being able to bounce ideas and ask for advice from the Firetree team.”

Most importantly, from the point of view of our on-going improvement, we asked our partners what we need to get better at.

Two key themes emerged:

1. Increased collaboration with other Firetree partners: This came back strongly that partners would really value greater connections to each other;

2. More public sharing and learning about our work: This centred upon more public sharing of what we are learning from our funding approach and work with partners.

We then asked our partners what, aside from the funding we have committed, would be the most useful things we could do to support their organisations in 2021.

Responses fell into 3 broad thematic areas:

1. Networks/connections: focused upon relevant/curated introductions to other organisations they can learn from and other funders;

2. Being a sounding board: focused upon a space to openly and ‘safely’ share and bounce ideas with the Firetree team (when and if partners think we can be helpful);

3. Fundraising support: focused upon both support with sharing opportunities, championing partners and also offering support for building organisational in fundraising.

We then asked our partners what we could most usefully do to support the wider philanthropy sector.

Two clear areas of feedback came back on this:

1. More engagement with other funders: focused upon sharing more about our approach and doing what we can to contribute to ongoing sector learning;

2. More convening and connecting: focused upon more links between NGO’s and funders, funding more collaborative and intersectional work.

What we will do to respond to this:

We never want to waste our partners’ time and we are going to take these recommendations to heart.

We really heard the point about greater collaboration between partners. Measures that we will take to respond to this include: making more curated introductions between partners, exploring running webinar sessions for partners if common themes emerge and spotlighting updates from some of our partners.

With regards to strengthening our communication with partners, we have already outlined to them simple measures we can immediately implement, such as making sure we capture key agreed points in email follow-up to calls, offering quarterly updates on what we are doing/learning, and also making it clear that it is our job to ask if we are not clear on things — not our partners job to second-guess what we might need.

I look forward to our partners holding us to account on these commitments.

We expect our funding of both collaborative and intersectional work in the communities in which we work to grow and therefore it is for us fundamental to ensure our partners can meet, build relationships (through but also beyond Firetree) and cooperate as they see fit.

To facilitate this process, at the beginning of 2020 we had begun making plans for an in-person retreat with all our partners in September. That obviously could not happen — but we are aiming to hold one as soon as it will be possible.

We will double-down on providing access to funder networks/opportunities where we can and will continue to offer fundraising capacity building support to some of our partners.

Based on the feedback received, the funder engagement piece has now become a strategic priority for Firetree in 2021 and beyond.

We don’t think for a moment that we have everything figured out, certainly not. We hear our partners though, and want to respond. I will share more on some work around this in a subsequent blog.

Finally, we are always happy to be a sounding board (where we can be useful as we are not experts!) and shall always continue to be so.

I would like to thank again the partners who responded, their time is very precious and we really appreciate it.