Our reflections: May 2019

Nicky Wilkinson
Aug 21, 2019 · 13 min read

This blog was originally published in May 2019 as part of ongoing reflections from Firetree Trust’s predecessor, Tondo Foundation.

As the learning and reflections are still relevant and inform much of Firetree’s approach to philanthropy, the blog has been updated and re-published here.

A few months ago, I wrote some of our key learning points from our philanthropy work over last year, as part of our annual reflections.

One of those reflections was that we need to get better at openly sharing what we’re learning and how that’s shaping our approach. These blogs aim to be a simple and informal way to do that.

The rationale for this is two-fold:

1. Something that we really value in the partners we work with is to reflect, learn, share and ultimately use these insights to inform how their organisation is working and looking to achieve long-term impact. We constantly want to hold ourselves accountable to the same standards that we look for in partners.

2. Both our own experience working for NGO’s and research (such as this piece from NPC) find that too few funders pay attention to learning themselves.

Far from claiming to have all the answers, this blog is meant to share our thoughts and reflections, for what they are worth, in order to (hopefully):

a) make it easier to follow our thinking and development, and more importantly

b) to facilitate dialogue and contribute to conversations about how we can, collectively, achieve the greatest impact.

We are profoundly aware that, as a trust, we have the actual flexibility and opportunity — and thus the absolute obligation — to continually explore how we can be the “best” funder that we can be to contribute to long-term, positive change.

What we have learned — or been reminded of — over the last few months:

For ease of reading, I have distilled my reflections over the last few months into the following five sections, you can either read the whole thing, or jump to the reflection that you’re interested in. All of these build off from my last blog.

1. Funders — and philanthropy itself — can be part of the problem. This has to change.

2. We always need to look at ourselves first.

3. Trust and learning are fundamental to achieving better outcomes, we believe.

4. Finding ‘good’ people to join teams, retaining them and avoiding burnout is a consistent challenge.

5. We can — and will — do more to ‘fill the gaps,’ whenever possible, to support collaboration and collective leadership.


1. Funders — and philanthropy itself — can be part of the problem. This has to change:

Ask any NGO worker and they will almost certainly be able to regale you with tales of bad funding experiences. This study recently published in the India Development Review found that, of the 100+ programmes reviewed that had hit “roadblocks,” the biggest obstacles were actually caused by funders themselves.

Delays in disbursement, policy inflexibility and change in funder strategy resulting in funders pulling out of agreements, were some of the most frequent. If you would like a more humorous, (but still depressing because it’s grounded in reality) take on the issue, I would suggest this. A big thank you to one of our partners for sharing it.

As most people in our team have run and worked for NGO’s (a requirement for all future hires), we have all had personal experience of these too and know how incredibly frustrating and detrimental it all can be!

This is why we feel such a visceral responsibility to do our best to make our approach as flexible and supportive as possible to maximise impact.

While we openly commit to avoid the practices that the IDR report details above, we also know we will likely make other mistakes, unconsciously — and this is where we rely on building open relationships with our partners and stakeholders to hold us to account (more on this below.)

As a trust, with all the privilege, flexibility, opportunity and responsibility that our status gives us, we must be fully committed to being as flexible and supportive with our funding as possible. We are always happy to fund salaries, core costs and provide unrestricted funding. If more evidence is needed on the importance of this, this recent report from Esmee Fairbairn Foundation is very useful. We prioritise open, shared learning, testing, adaptation and collaboration, not outputs, KPIs and attribution of impact.

We don’t want to get comfortable with that though. In many ways this is just the starting point. This recently published report from Collaborate CIC, called Exploring The New World is, in my opinion, an excellent resource. Certainly, it has been very useful and informative for us in terms of principles. Much of it really resonated with our own learning, feedback, aspirations and questions we’ve been exploring.

In summary, the report writes up, plainly and in-depth, the key findings of 12-months of study in the UK exploring how organisations, and specifically funders, can work and fund ‘better’ in complex situations.

The central findings are that organisations working most effectively in complex contexts tend to exhibit 3 core characteristics:

1. They work in a way that is human

“This means recognising the variety of human need and experience, building empathy between people so that they can form effective relationships, understanding the strengths that each person brings and deliberately working to create trust between people.”

2. They prioritise learning

“They describe how their work is not about delivering a standardised service, but rather it is a continuous process of learning which allows them to adapt to the changing needs of each person with whom they work.”

3. They take a broader, ‘systems,’ perspective

“Finally, people working in this way recognise that the outcomes they care about are produced by whole systems, rather than individual organisations or programmes. Consequently, to improve outcomes, they work to create ‘healthy’ systems in which people are able to co-ordinate and collaborate more effectively.”

All of the above, of course, has profound implications for donors and how they fund. The report sums it up more eloquently than I would, so I’ve quoted some of the key points:

1. Working in a way that is human: what this means for funders:

“For funders…’being human’ means building trust with and between organisations they fund. Trust is what enables funders to let go of the idea that they must be in control of the support that is provided using their resource.”

2. Prioritising learning: what this means for funders:

“[Funders] are not purchasing services with particular specifications, they are funding the capacity to learn and adapt to continuously improve outcomes in different contexts.”

3. Taking a broader perspective: what this means for funders:

“Funders…enable a collective…response by reframing their relationships [with the organisations they fund.]

Of course the context is different but, as principles, these are fundamental to our approach. We have been prioritising and working hard on 1 and 2 — although I certainly don’t claim that we’ve completely cracked it yet, it’s an ongoing process. There is more that we can do on 3, I believe.

Underneath the perhaps more obvious symptoms of where funders can, sadly, actually be part of the problem, there is a much more fundamental set of issues — not least the profound tension that foundations are often seeking to tackle inequality precisely through the accumulation of wealth.

As part of this, big issues can exist in philanthropy related to power, privilege and who makes decisions. This discussion is really only just beginning, but is long overdue. There are many excellent pieces exploring this; Julian Corner’s recent guest blog here, I found the third section particularly relevant to thinking about this, Rodney Foxworth Edgar Villanueva, Pia Infante and others have been exploring this extensively in the US. All of these are from outside of South-East Asia though, so people and organisations exploring this in the region, do please feel free to reach out to me.

For us, all of the above are playing a vital role on shaping how our thinking and strategy is evolving.

2. We always need to look at ourselves first

The starting point for our learning and reflection always has to be to take a self-critical look inwards, at ourselves as a team and the organisation we want to be. We are constantly trying to explore: are we going in the right direction and holding true to the values and accountability we hold dear.

In reflecting on this and on the points above, three things have become very obvious:

a) We must explore ways to alter our structure in order to ensure we can always behave as flexibly and openly as we aspire to: more on this soon.

b) We can do more on our accountability. We always say that we are most importantly accountable to the communities in which we work and the people we work with and for. So we plan to become more accountable to our closest partners (as those with the strongest relationships with the communities we support.)

This is about flipping the narrative and really matching our lofty words to action. Our partners are, just that, partners (see how we define partnership here.) So if we’re genuine about that, then we need to have two-way, or multi-way, accountability.

This level of openness is something that we have cultivated hard over the years with our longer standing partners. Huge credit is due to Francesco for always prioritising this from the outset of the philanthropy work with Dick. As a team, I know we feel profoundly accountable to our partners. With the changes happening through point a) we now have the chance to do this more intentionally and to engage new voices and partners too.

Fundamentally, it comes down to this question that Exploring The New World Report asks in terms of governance: “Who are ‘we’ to be making these decisions / reflections.”

While we’ve worked in NGO’s in the countries we fund (and in some cases lived there for years), in terms of the philanthropy team, we’re not from those communities and we are not there day in, day out, working with people to bring about change (with the exception of our initiatives).

We recognise that people are experts in their own lives and that our partners have far greater depth of experience than we do. So it’s vital that they are thought partners and decision makers, both on us and with us.

c) We ran the risk of potentially being too scattergun in our approach:We felt that our current approach was at risk of potentially being too scattered and ‘light-touch.’ If we are committed to working in a more holistic, supportive way and learning deeply, then we really need to spend as much time as we can with our partners and with the communities we’re working in. This is virtually impossible with a small team and a geographic remit of the whole of South and Southeast Asia.

Also, we needed to be honest about our own experience and capacity. As a result, we have decided to concentrate our efforts in the geographic contexts we are currently most actively working in — with a very strong focus upon working in and with the community in Tondo, Manila, and wider Metro Manila.

3. Finding ‘good’ people to join teams, retaining them and avoiding burnout is a consistent challenge

This is not new, it’s something that I see consistently though. This certainly not limited just to our partners or to NGO’s more broadly, it’s something I see across sectors and we have struggled with too. I see a key part of our role with partners facing team challenges is to reassure them that we’re a partner and understand that HR challenges are often significant, to connect and support where we can, but most often just to offer a friendly ear and listen.

In terms of our organisation, we have become even more explicit in looking for people who, aside from sharing the same values and mindset, have significant experience as founders or senior staff of social purpose organizations because we are convinced that the direct knowledge of the challenges (in terms of human and financial resources, socio-political contexts, etc) faced by our partners is an essential component in every member of our team.

4. Trust and learning is a fundamental part of achieving better outcomes, we believe.

I reflected on the importance of trust and learning in my last blog. Further conversations over the last few months with our partners, developing new partnerships, reading lots of research and attending forums such as the excellent forum in Cambodia, organised by GHR Foundation, World Childhood Foundation and our partner This Life Cambodia, have really served to re-affirm and strengthen this view.

So many of the challenges we hear (and have experienced ourselves) — from hours and hours spent reporting on tick-box numbers, through to frustrations about not being able to iterate a model, to lack of collaboration — stem, it seems, from a lack of trust — and that can go both ways.

This is a call to action for us, both because we believe building trust and learning to be the best way for us to support better outcomes in communities, and also because we can -and should- take (even) more calculated risks.

We don’t see this as being about a funder/grantee split. This is 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.

When viewed from this perspective, learning, sharing and adaptation is not a ‘nice-to-have,’ it’s fundamental. If we can’t work to achieve it with our partners and actively support it, then we’ve, frankly, let down not (just) ourselves but, much more importantly, the communities we work with.

As such, we work hard to build open, trusted and collaborative relationships and try to create a ‘safe space’ with our partners where we can all share openly what’s working, what we’re learning, what isn’t working and give mutual feedback on ideas.

In terms of how we go about doing this, we certainly haven’t found a magic formula — and I would really welcome thoughts and reflections from others on this too. Rather, we’ve found some ‘ingredients’ that are crucial to genuinely establishing trust:

a) Time: Trust isn’t something that develops overnight, it’s gradually accumulated through multiple interactions and experiences. So to develop the level of trust we look for in relationships can take years. Obviously though, time is also often a luxury that many of our partners don’t have, and the last thing we want to do is to take lots of their time “getting to know them.” There has to be mutual ‘value’ in our discussions, whether that’s sharing ideas, connections or funding.

One reflection related to this is that our early stage grants are often, in some ways, ‘allowing time,’ both for the organisations in terms of researching, testing and developing their approach, usually through funding salaries of core staff. As a (very much) secondary point though, it is also giving the partner and us ‘time’ to get to know each other better.

b) Face-to-face conversations and listening: We invest as much time as possible in spending time with our partners in the communities we’re working with and having face-to-face conversations (rather than short calls.) I find that this is a best way to build rapport and to help understand context and nuance better. A key factor in this though is spending time with people across the team and listening. This is why, for us, being based in the region where we work is essential.

We try to be very aware of who’s in the room (and who isn’t) and how much we’re speaking vs. really listening. Certainly I always find the conversation is much richer and more insightful when done with time and in-person. Of course there is also a practical reality to this and it’s a balancing act as we always want to respect people’s time too!

c) Being open ourselves: Spending time together and listening is certainly a core part of the process of building trust. That said, it doesn’t work — I find — if we remain reserved and only ask questions without sharing what we’ve learned, mistakes we’ve made etc, we need to openly share too.

d) Confidentiality: If we’re asking people and organizations to be open with us about what’s working, what’s not, challenges they’re facing etc. Then it has to be that this is a ‘safe space’ for discussion and mutual confidence that whatever is shared within that will remain confidential. Such confidentiality should not apply to ourselves though as I believe that we should share our challenges and mistakes publicly. It needs to be clear that this does not mean that we’re ‘celebrating’ any of our failures, but rather stems from a fundamental belief that if we ask it of our partners, we should do it ourselves — and more so because we have the luxury of not worrying that we will lose funding. If others can learn from our mistakes, then great.

e) Following through and connecting: If we make a commitment with our partners or stakeholders (beyond just a funding commitment) then following through on it is vital for building trust and credibility. Likewise, connecting to other stakeholders, where we can and where a partner wants it, be they funders, other NGO’s etc

Of course none of the above is rocket science, nor is it meant to be a comprehensive ‘how-to guide. It’s just meant to share some reflections from the last few months that are continuing to really shape how we try to work. Do we get it right every time? We do our very best, but definitely not! It’s something I’ll continue to work hard on, both as an individual and as we continue developing Firetree Trust.

5. We can do more to ‘fill the gaps,’ where we can.

Through multiple conversations with some of our current partners, a number of different networks and organisations, discussions with other funders such as those mentioned above, Lankelly Chase Foundation and others, coupled with our own experience, it’s increasingly clear that we can — and should — do more to support collaboration

Research from NPC sums it up as:

“Too few funders see it as their responsibility to look beyond individual organisations to the field in which they operate, paying attention to the glue between organisations that allows them to perform, as well as to the organisations themselves. This might involve using convening power to help grantees create networks, funding collaborative work or supporting good quality research…by paying attention to the infrastructure and to the connections between organisations, as well as to the organisations themselves.”

This has also shaped our thinking and approach going forward and we plan to do more, where we can, to contribute to “the glue between organisations,” to fostering mutual collaboration, collective learning and leadership. This is a big reason for our decision to focus on the geographic contexts in which we are currently working and with which we are most familiar. Of course, we are just one player and we are learning as we go.

As a final and extremely important point, I would like to thank all the people and organisations who have generously shared their thoughts, learning and insights to help shape our thinking. It is greatly appreciated and I hope we, as individuals and as an organisation, will always be as open and generous in return.

Firetree Philanthropy

Reflections, approaches and updates from Firetree Philanthropy.

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