Firetree Trust: Our partnership funding approach

Nicky Wilkinson
Aug 17, 2019 · 15 min read

Firetree Trust has three core areas of work:

  1. Partnership funding
  2. Developing direct initiatives, but only in contexts and geographies we know particularly well and where gaps exist that we can play a role in addressing
  3. Connecting with others, openly sharing our learning, and highlighting useful research

Our approach to partnership funding / philanthropy is summarised on our website. This blog aims to provide more detail to that.

When reading it though, it’s important to be aware of three things:

1. This builds on our reflection and learning to date, which can be read about here.

2. Our approach will continue to evolve and adapt as we continue to learn and strive to be the “best” funder we can in terms of contributing to our goal.

3. We work really hard to retain our values at the centre of what we do.

Our overarching goal:

Our overarching goal is to support work that brings about long-term positive change in communities.

As stated on the website, we define ‘long-term positive change’ as: addressing the root causes of problems, which are often deeply embedded in networks of cause and effect.

We see it as an intentional and collaborative process designed to alter the root causes of the current situation in a community, so that the community becomes more equal and inclusive for all members[1].

The focus for our partnership funding:

In thinking about our goal and our strong commitment to work as what this report terms a ‘complexity-friendly funder,’ we do not focus our partnership funding on specific thematic areas e.g. young people, health, education etc.

Rather, we take a ‘place-based’ and ‘problem-based’ approach.

What do we mean by that?

These are working titles and we really try to be as jargon-free as possible, so if anyone can think of better titles for this, I am very open to suggestions please!

By ‘place-based approach’ we basically mean that we have chosen to focus upon specific geographic areas and communities e.g. Tondo in particular and Metro Manila at large.

In terms of geography, we are — for the time being at least — focused upon the communities in which we currently work, with a very strong focus upon Tondo and Metro Manila in particular.

We see the role of our partnership funding as then working to fund and support partners that are designing collaborative programmes / interventions with community members that work with a range of stakeholders, build upon community assets and work together to address needs holistically.

Why have we decided to take this approach?

For us, there are multiple reasons for taking this approach. I have tried to summarise these as 4 main points below:

1. Our own experience running social change work in communities (and of course backed up by multiple studies) is that communities are highly, highly complex. Assets (by which I mean the ‘strengths’ of a community,) needs and stakeholders are deeply interlinked and constantly evolving.

Fundamentally what this means is that effective interventions are rarely, in our experience, linear and focused on one issue in isolation. Rather, they are multi-faceted because challenges are complex and collaborative because no one organisation can address them alone. The organisations and interventions that, in our experience, have the biggest long-term impact fundamentally embrace this complexity and continually monitor the shifting assets, needs and stakeholders in a community and adapt / evolve their work in response to this.

2. So, for us, taking the approach above allows us to:

a) Spend time in communities, in depth, working to understand — as much as we can — strengths, needs and challenges and

b) explore and map, as much as possible, the wide range of stakeholders working in that context and what is happening. Of course we fully acknowledge though that no one organisation (least of all us) can know ‘the whole truth.’

3. In so doing, we aim to be able to both identify gaps where we could play a role and be able to fund more holistically and collaboratively towards shared outcomes.

This means we can:

a) Support organisations / interventions that are working in multi-faceted ways. Rather than them and us having to try to ‘fit’ what they are doing into a particular theme e.g. education. If you look at our current partners many of them are working in this way across multiple ‘needs,’ based on what their expertise are and awareness of what role they can play in working to address these.

b) Support multiple organisations / interventions working across a range of issues, in a particular community. We feel this is particularly important to supporting long-term change in communities and that it is also a vital role that we should play as a private foundation that is able to be more flexible and take more risk.

4. In our experience, in-depth contextual knowledge is vital to any social change work. We are a small team and want to always be brutally honest about our capacity and experience. The traditional philanthropic model has huge issues of legitimacy (I have blogged about this here.) This is something that we are acutely aware of and work hard to address through strong accountability to our partners — and we are working to further strengthen this through new structures.

Focusing upon the geographic areas we currently fund work in builds upon our own experience and expertise as a team living and working in these areas. This does not make us ‘experts’ by any means. It is simply that we never want to be a funder that is making decisions about work in areas we have no experience in.

There are, of course, tensions in our model and we are constantly learning and adapting to try to be the most supportive funder and partner we can.

There is some growing learning internationally about ‘place-based’ approaches and growing number of examples e.g. in the UK and the US. These are, of course, very different contexts though and there are some very valid critiques of it too.

We are definitely not interested in following something that is ‘in vogue’ and genuinely believe there are (sadly), no silver bullets. As such, we will always approach this critically, continually reflect on what we’re learning and the feedback that we get from partners to assess if the assumptions and intentions I have listed above are actually bearing out.

What we look for:

Our approach is evolving as we learn, so this is by no means a ‘checklist’ of what we look for and of course it varies between organisations (e.g. early-stage organisations, later stage etc) and context.

Rather it’s meant to openly share overarching, working principles that guide us in what we look for in our partners and crucially that we seek to hold ourselves to account on too.

These are summarised in the interests of brevity:

1. Shared values, ‘mindset’ and organisational culture:

I have written about shared values and mindset previously here and so won’t repeat the same. Other than to restate that this is fundamental to our approach.

It’s really important to stress that this is not in any way meant to suggest that these values are ‘right’ by some objective measure, or the ‘most important’ ones — certainly not.

Rather, just that they are an authentic reflection of who we try to be as people, and the type of organisation we are trying to build in order, we believe, to make the most effective contribution we can to long-term, positive change. We have learned we develop the most meaningful and productive relationships with others that share these values. This then is our starting point for any relationship: an exploration of values, culture, motivations, relationships with communities and the multiple stakeholders within any context.

2. Being deeply ‘embedded’ in a community and placing people at the centre of all they do

We look for partners that are integral parts of the communities in which they work and have the contextual knowledge and legitimacy to work there.

A consistent feature of our current partners (and something that we try to work hard to model ourselves,) is that they work hard to build empathy, trust and strong relationships between people they see as having assets, strengths and needs, rather than ‘beneficiaries’ that only have needs or viewing people through the lens of only what they lack.

Likewise, our current partners recognise the diversity of people they work with and seek to offer interventions that are tailored rather than cookie-cutter. Finally, our current partners view themselves as genuinely accountable to the communities and stakeholders with which they work.

3. An in-depth awareness of needs, assets and root causes driving the current situation in a community — and how these interconnect

4. Deep knowledge of the multiple stakeholders in a community and gaps that may exist

5. A solid understanding of the ‘levers of change’ in a community or context by this we mean an understanding of the different opportunities for change in a community. There is always a need to address the immediate needs — these are people’s lives. We also try to work with (and identify ourselves) the opportunities for long-term, positive change. Our experience is that this is often about fundamentally shifting deeply entrenched attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and ‘rules’ (both policies and also social norms) that ‘govern’ how people behave. This blog from Donella Meadows elaborates on this much better than I can, although with a particular language.

6. Based on the above points, then having a clear sense of the role that their specific intervention / organisation plays in helping to shift outcomes in a community collaboratively

Essentially, this is about understanding the role that their organisation / intervention is best-placed to play in shifting outcomes in communities, but not viewing their work in isolation.

7. A genuine commitment to learning, openness, testing their own assumptions and to working collaboratively, that runs throughout the team and organisation’s approach

Crucially, non-of the above is linear or done just once every few years. The strongest interventions that we support and see are continually doing this — e.g. continually revisiting and testing their understanding of the needs, assets and root causes in a community, continually testing their assumptions, continually following shifts in stakeholders and trying to work collaboratively etc.

This doesn’t mean that it has to be done through a hugely detailed evaluation process. In our experience, it’s more about a culture of consistent, open monitoring and reflection, sharing, learning and, if necessary, pivoting.

It also doesn’t mean that we believe that any one organisation can ‘know everything’ e.g. can know or work with all the stakeholders in a community. It’s more about the genuine intent.

In many ways, what we look for, and how we try to work ourselves aligns, with this research terms working in a ‘human, learning, systems’ way and what this report identifies as 6 principles of long-term, positive change and are summarised in the diagram below:

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The language is different, but the central points are very similar. As always though, we try to approach thinking about this critically and based on learning from our partners and our own learning, not because a particular approach or language becomes ‘in vogue’.

When we find partners like this, our role is to contribute the funds, flexibility and support to help enable partners to continue to work in this way to contribute to improved outcomes in communities.

For us this is definitely not about a funder / partner split, this about us recognising that we have a collective responsibility to work together towards achieving better outcomes in the communities we’re working in and with. Our role is also to pay attention to (and if necessary fund) the collaboration and connections between stakeholders in communities.

What we try to develop: Trust, strong, open relationships and partnership

I have reflected on this in previous blogs. However, given how fundamental it is to our approach, it’s worth touching on again here. In all our partnership work we try to develop trust and openness as the fundamental basis for a strong partnership.

This is not (just) because we view this as a ‘good thing to have,’ but because it is, in our experience, a vital component to enabling us all, collectively, to achieve long-term positive change in communities.

As discussed on our website, ‘partnership’ is a widely overused term, to the point where it runs the risk of being meaningless. So, we think of partnership as an equal and mutually beneficial relationship. A true partnership is based on equality and reciprocity, not a one-directional transaction or an unequal power dynamic. In the context of our work, we believe organisations become true ‘partners’ when we have some or all of the following:

· Total trust and openness to sharing learning, ‘failures’ and developments;

· Each party acts a thought partner and trusted advisor to the other(s) ;

· Each party is a vital source of honest, valued feedback and critical thinking for the other .

Developing partnerships like this takes time — often years — of establishing trust, commitment and breaking down power dynamics. An obvious one being the initial funder / grantee dynamic, but I’ve been struck that there are many others too.

What we will not fund:

At this point it’s also good to be explicit about aspects that we will not fund. As we try to be flexible and adapt to needs in each specific context, these are limited. However, we will not fund the following:

  1. Organisations working for the promotion of animal rights or animal protection
  2. Organisations that advance a particular religion
  3. We will not fund any new partners that do not have all aspects of their management and governance structure in the country in which they operate. The only exception to this is if an organisation can clearly demonstrate that an overseas board is purely for compliance and fundraising purposes and that, crucially, the strategy / approach is totally designed, led and managed by the management team, not by the overseas board.

This is based on our own learning and experience and means that we will not fund large international organisations where a strategy is designed in one country / region for replication globally or regionally. This is not because those organisations don’t do vital and important work. Rather it’s because we recognise that the role we can most usefully play as a private trust is to support more grassroots, locally-rooted organisations / interventions that often struggle to access funding.

How we fund: some ‘nuts and bolts’ information

Exactly how we fund with each partner or consortium depends upon the context, funding needs etc. However, there are some ‘nuts and bolts’ and principles that it might be useful to make explicit. These are summarised below and then expanded upon in more detail:

1. We don’t ask for proposals, we do ask for time spent meeting and discussing though

2. We can fund NGO’s and social enterprises

3. We try to minimise all paperwork

4. We are comfortable with (calculated) risk and funding early-stage work but

5. We will also support established interventions

5. We expect there to be learning, iteration and emergence of new ideas / insights

6. We are very open to fund convening and collaboration work

7. We are keen to connect and collaborate with other like-minded funders

8. We don’t have ‘formal narrative reporting processes’

9. We do not have a pre-set number of years for our grants.

1. We don’t ask for proposals: We find that we can’t get a proper sense of any of the things that we look for in partners, and they can’t get a sense of us, through written documents. We know from personal experience how time consuming these can be, and then usually they are accompanied by lots of follow-up questions and meetings anyway. So, we don’t ask for time spent writing documents. We do though ask for time spent with teams and in communities. We will, of course, always do our very best to balance this and be respectful of staff time — and definitely time in communities.

2. We can fund NGO’s and social enterprises: We prioritise finding partners adopting the approach(es) above and are agnostic on legal status between NGO / social enterprise etc. While the majority of our funding is grants, we can also give interest free/low interest loans to income generating social ventures. Essentially, the ‘mindset,’ values and approach of partners is vitally important to us, we can then decide together what type of funding is most useful.

3. We minimise paperwork: Linked to the above, we genuinely believe that our partners have better things to do with their time than write papers for us! So for any board papers etc, we will write them (and of course share them with partners for comments and feedback and to make sure they are happy before they are submitted).

4. We are comfortable with risk and funding early-stage work: One of the aspects that we look for in all our partners is an understanding of the role they can play in a context. Holding ourselves to the same principles, we believe very deeply that as a private foundation, one role we can play is that we can and should take more (calculated) risk than others funders can. This can be ‘risk’ in a range of ways such as funding early-stage organisations / interventions. For example, we are delighted to have been one of the first funders of Resolve and the first institutional funder of Uplifters.

5. We will also support established organisations / interventions: While we have an ambition to work more with early-stage work (because we feel this is a role we can meaningfully play,) this is not to the exclusion of established work. This mighty seem contradictory, but the reasons for this are multiple such as:

a) we know from our own experience and from feedback from partners that some are experiencing the ‘missing middle’ whereby they are ‘too established / proven’ to access early-stage funding, but ‘not established / proven enough’ to access really large-scale funding.

b) More established organisations sometimes struggles to access flexible funding to facilitate the continued learning and adaptation of their work.

c) This allows us to support the development of interventions after our early-stage funding

6. We expect there to be learning, iteration and emergence of new ideas / insights: Communities are highly complex and constantly evolving — assets, needs and stakeholders shift. We want to support our partners to have the capacity to learn, test, explore and adapt what they are doing, as needed, to continually improve outcomes. This, not specific outputs or KPI’s, is what we are funding.

7. So our funding is unrestricted / flexible and its length is not predetermined: We believe that, on a practical level, we can’t support learning, iteration and emergence of new ideas / insights without funding core costs and / or providing unrestricted / flexible funding. It is also fundamental to an approach based on trust and shared values.

8. We are very open to funding convening and collaboration work: This largely comes back to the point of looking at the funding ecosystem and the role(s) that, we feel, we can most usefully play. Feedback from partners and our own experience indicates that collaboration is essential (though not always easy.)

However, feedback from other funders we collaborate with is that, while vital, this is sometimes harder for them to fund as its impact is often diffuse and less obvious. Hence, as an independent foundation, this is a role we feel we can and should play. As examples of this, we are excited to be supporting exploratory work and coalition-building with Ashoka and a range of other organisations in the Philippines.

9. We are happy to connect and collaborate with other like-minded funders: One of the pieces of feedback that we consistently hear from partners is that lack of donor collaboration, or worse ‘competition’ between donors is a significant challenge. We work closely with some other funders and we are very open to co-fund and collaborate with like-minded funders. This is both in terms of funding individual organisations, co-funding collaborations and funding different components of work across a community. We know we can do more on this though and are working hard to strengthen our relationships with other funders in South-East Asia.

10. We don’t have ‘formal narrative reporting processes.’ As we see a key part of our role being to fund the capacity for organisations to continually learn, adapt and evolve their work to improve outcomes in communities, we don’t have set reporting requirements. We value continued, open conversations and shared learning with our partners instead as we find this to be more insightful and a more efficient use of everyone’s time. We are happy with taking any ‘data / insights’ that partners produce as part of their own monitoring. To be clear, this is not because we don’t care about impact, we care deeply about impact, but not about attribution (either to a specific programme or funder). Rather, it’s because:

a) we recognise that social change is rarely linear and if we committed to funding learning and adaptation, we need to find alternative, more flexible ways of ‘reporting.’ Research from Design and Social Innovation Asia Pacific (DESIAP) really chimes with the approach that we are trying to take and is summarised in the infographic below:

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b ) we don’t want our partners to have to spend lots of time away from working with and in communities reporting to us

I don’t claim we get all the above right every time, we rely heavily on the open feedback of our partners to continue to learn and improve our approach.

It’s also important to stress that none of the above is a critique of funders who take a different approach. Once again, it’s about recognising the role that we, as a private foundation, with all the flexibility and privilege that affords, can and should play.

[1] With thanks to our our partners and this work from Lankelly Chase Foundation in supporting the development of this definition.

This blog was originally published earlier in 2019 and detailed the approach taken by Firetree Trust’s predecessor, Tondo Foundation. As the philanthropic approach of Firetree Trust remains very similar, this blog is simply an updated version.

Firetree Philanthropy

Reflections, approaches and updates from Firetree Philanthropy.

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