Firetree Philanthropy: Reflections on 2019 & Where We’re Headed for 2020

Nicky Wilkinson
Jan 4 · 13 min read

Firetree exists to support work that creates long-term, positive change in communities in Southeast Asia.

Contributing to this mission are 3 distinctive, but inter-linked areas of work:

  1. Partnership funding work (philanthropy)
  2. Initiatives: In Thailand and Tondo, Manila
  3. Connecting and Sharing Learning

As part of our on-going commitment to transparency and open sharing, this blog aims to reflect upon the last 18 months of our partnership funding work and share our learning. This is in recognition that a legitimate critique of philanthropy is that funding organizations often fail to share data and learning, contributing to a myriad of issues from duplication to reinforcing power dynamics.

The blog is split into 3 sections:

1. A summary of what we did in 2019

2. What we need to do better and what we learned

3. Some key commitments and priorities for 2020

A summary of what we did in 2019:

As a new trust (in its current form) this year was a period of continued learning, pivoting, connecting and development for us — against a backdrop of profound (and often deeply worrying) social and environmental change.

Despite this, our partners enjoyed many successes; from working with communities to increase access to health, education, employment and child protection services, to working to influence policy at the highest level and building coalitions across sectors.

Their successes are credit to their hard work, resilience and multi-level partnership approach. This blog isn’t meant to take credit for their amazing achievements, it’s only to summarize our activities.

What We’ve Done:

A: Funding and new partners

In simple terms, from September 2018 we have:

· Welcomed 8 new partners, while maintaining our existing long-standing partnerships (3 of which are over 10 years in length.) This takes our total number of partners to 12 across our core focus countries. You can read more about each partner here. We have a small number of partners because we are very relational in our approach. So we invest significant time and resources in trying to build strong relationships with our partners and getting to know, as far as possible, the context in which we’re funding. As detailed in the blog on our partnership approach, we take a ‘place-based approach’ and focus on specific geographies, rather than by theme.

· Committed US$8,583,450 in funding to non-profits outside the Firetree Group. Of that, US$6,716,450 was disbursed this year, the rest is in multi-year commitments. For some of our multi-year agreements with earlier stage organizations or where a context is changing very fast, we sign a multi-year partnership agreement and then mutually agree the budget at start of each year, when the organization is better-placed to know its costs and budget. We also gave one-year small grants to 4 non-profits to fund specific projects and/or costs (for a total of $321,500 or about 4.8% of our total giving). We want to be open and transparent about what we’re doing, and recognise that this is a bit of a clunky way of doing this. So if there is a platform like 360 Giving in the UK or some of the platforms in the US, for Southeast Asia, please let me know. I’ve yet to find one.

To answer some questions I commonly (and understandably) get asked:

· All of our partners are locally registered and/or locally run entities

· Our smallest (one-off) grant over this period was US$11,500 and our largest multi-year grant was US$1 million (to an established organisation,) to be drawn down flexibly as needed by the organisation over 3 years.

· All of this funding was flexible — and the large majority was unrestricted

· 9 out 12 of our partners (75%) are led by women

· 9 out of the 12 (75%) are led and managed by the (co)founders of the organization

· In line with our approach in Hong Kong to fund emerging interventions, (because we can and should take more calculated risk,) both our partners in Hong Kong (Resolve and Uplifters) are impressive and deeply collaborative earlier stage organizations. In other countries our partners are more established organizations.

· 3 of our new partners are based in the Philippines, which is our focus country for new partnerships and our internal initiatives.

· As part of our commitment to collaboration and strengthening ecosystems, we provided initial funding for the exploratory workshops and mapping for the Youth Years Coalition, currently being developed by Ashoka Philippines. This is still early-stage and we’re excited to see how it develops in 2020.

B: Wider support for our partners:

This year we doubled down on our commitment to building trusted and open relationships with partners. I have blogged about this previously , in terms of how we define partnership and how we try to build trust. Trust and shared values remain fundamental to our approach and all the work we do.

As part of this, we have formalized our commitment to unrestricted funding. Our funding has always been flexible / unrestricted, but, after moving to Asia, we wanted to make the commitment to unrestricted funding explicit. On the rare occasion that a grant will be restricted going forward (for example, for a smaller specific piece of research etc.,) we remain committed to that funding being flexible (funding can move easily between budget lines) and also supporting core costs.

Having worked for and managed non-profits ourselves, we know that unrestricted funding is vital. However, it’s still rare. A 2018 OECD survey of foundations found that only 35% have started to make some form of unrestricted funding available, (the full report can be accessed here .) As a private trust, with all the extraordinary privilege and flexibility that brings, unrestricted funding is vital to our approach. Building a trusted, open relationship goes both ways (actually many ways when working collaboratively.) For us, unrestricted funding forms a part of how we reciprocate trust with our partners and also, crucially, decentralise decision-making to people better placed than us to know where the funding is most useful.

We reaffirmed our commitment to try to minimize unnecessary paperwork. As examples; all board papers for new partners were written by Firetree, rather than the organization spending time on these. We don’t have a set narrative reporting requirement, rather we take whatever data and insights organizations collect anyway for themselves, as part of their own learning

Beyond our own funding, we see it as a fundamental part of our role to facilitate connections and support the wider ecosystems in the contexts we’re focused on, where we can. As a crude example of this, this year we’ve leveraged over US$1.2 million for our partners from other funders. For this, we have only counted funding where we’ve played a significant, hands-on role in helping to secure it through writing documents for their boards, having due diligence calls etc. We obviously don’t count an introduction to another funder that might then be successful independent of any input from us!

We’ve also written 5 detailed references for partners for awards or funding and made multiple introductions between partners and also between partners and other social impact organisations (that we don’t fund.) It’s been exciting to watch how some of these have sparked and developed. The extent to which we are both connecting with other organisations and also facilitating connections is an important area for us and one we’re currently exploring how to track this better and use that to inform our learning and approach going forward.

I want to acknowledge the huge trust and generosity of all our partners too, who have given us feedback, shared their challenges and bounced ideas with us. Particular thanks to Ashoka Philippines and Teach for the Philippines for their continual openness with us as thought partners and willingness to share ideas and connections. Also thanks to our friends at xchange for being so welcoming and collaborative in the Manila ecosystem. There are many others though too, thanks to all of you for your openness and generosity.

C: Feedback from our partners:

So what do our partners actually say? We’ve had lots of feedback in real-time from our partners, through open conversations and many WhatsApp chats. All of this is greatly valued and we’ve done our best to act on any changes and ideas suggested (more on this in the 2020 priorities section.)

We wanted to give partners an opportunity for anonymous feedback on how we’re doing though too and see this as vitally important part of our commitment to being accountable to our partners. We don’t set KPI’s for our partners, we do look for their feedback on our performance though.

So we set up a simple and short feedback survey that explored:

· What partners value most about our relationship (funding aside)

· The level of overall happiness with the partnership

· The level of trust in the partnership

· What we need to get better at (answers and reflections on this are covered in the section on what we need to do better.)

We wanted to keep this short and be respectful of partners time, and also make it clear that this wasn’t a compulsory requirement. The following is what we got back:

· 100% rated Firetree as a very trusted partner

· 100% said they were happy to very happy with the Firetree relationship

The answers to the question on what is valued were free text answers. The aspects that came back as most valued were (in order of frequency they were stated)

· Trust in the relationship between Firetree and the partner

· A thought partner to bounce ideas and share challenges (big or small,) without concerns that this will affect funding

· A sense of partnership and not feeling alone

· Willingness to engage, connect and get to know team members and stakeholders

We’re delighted with this feedback and glad that the relational approach we’ve pursued is valued. The point of this blog is not to congratulate ourselves and sit back though, it’s to reflect on what we can do better, look ahead and work harder.

While there are a lot of positive aspects to it, there is much that is broken about the philanthropic funding system and discussions around this are only recently starting to emerge (more thoughts and links to some brilliant articles on this by others can be found here.) Much of this deeply impacts upon NGO’s and our collective ability to bring about the systemic changes we so badly need.

While we don’t claim to have answers — and we’ve definitely made mistakes ourselves — we’re committed to continually being held to account by our partners, seeking diverse perspectives, learning, asking and being asked tough questions, to try to tackle the issues that lie at the heart of this.

D: Structural Changes:

I appreciate that these may not sound like the most exciting changes! They are fundamental to our learning and approach this year though. Briefly:

· We wound up our pilot into impact investing. In line with our commitment to openness, a detailed blog about our learning on this can be found here . To be clear, this does not mean that we won’t work with social enterprises going forward, we certainly will and we remain agnostic about legal structure. What we determined is that we don’t need a dedicated fund and team to do this. We’ll start from the same approach that we take with all non-profits (detailed in our philanthropy approach) and then work out together what the most useful form of funding would be, whether a grant, interest-free loan etc.

· Established philanthropic entities in Asia and closed our presence in the US: Doing this made sense from a values perspective as all our work, funding and team are based in Asia. Much more than that though, it allowed us to bring together the distinct but inter-connected strands of the work we do across philanthropy, Starfish Education in Thailand and Tondo Community Initiative in Tondo, Manila to facilitate better sharing and learning. From a philanthropy perspective, the move also enabled us to make some structural changes in order to be a more flexible partner.

· Developed our own governance: As part of the planned move to Asia, we have developed and strengthened our governance. Directors bring a wide-range of relevant experience, including extensive lived experience from the countries and communities within which we work and fund. We plan to develop this further over 2020 and I will share more details on this going forward.

What We Need To Get Better At:


Reflecting on this, a key aspect that we need to improve is communication.

There are two parts to this:

A) We need to get better at communicating change to our stakeholders: We’ve had a lot of change this year, between winding up pilot programs and also changing the name of our philanthropy when we moved to Asia, (from Tondo Foundation to Firetree Trust, you can read more about this here.) It’s clear that this has caused some confusion and we didn’t do a good enough job on communicating this and making sure that it was clear to stakeholders, particularly in the Philippines. As a profoundly relationship-based organization, we need to do better on this and we’ll work very hard on improving this in 2020.

B) We need to get better at capturing communications when working flexibly: More generally, we’ve learned that working in a flexible and iterative way with our partners is more effective and useful in supporting our shared mission. However, with the pace of change and developments, it’s helpful to make sure that we’re capturing key discussions, developments and learning so everyone has this to refer back to. This doesn’t need to be formal, an email is fine, but just taking the time to capture thoughts helps us all track our collective learning and discussions better. In line with our approach, doing this is our responsibility to then share with our partners for comments, thoughts etc, not the other way around — they are busy enough.

What We’ve Learned:

In many ways, this year we’ve been reminded of some of the same challenges I’ve highlighted previously, so I won’t repeat those (you can read them here.)

One of our biggest learnings this year was around organizational governance and the challenges of overseas governance and/or governance teams that don’t have deep knowledge and experience of a context. While a common model that can work well, at its worst this can result in unhelpful power dynamics and interventions that don’t meet the local context.

Having witnessed this, we have now formalized our commitment to only fund organizations that have all aspects of their work, including governance in their country of operation and where we are confident that the operational team develop and lead the strategy.

The only exception to this is if we have evidence and total confidence that an overseas board exists purely to support legal compliance and fundraising, but the strategy is developed and led by the team in the context where the organization operates.

We have always funded grassroots work, so this was implicit in our approach. However we have now chosen to formalize this. This doesn’t mean that we don’t think large-scale INGO’s deliver hugely valuable work at scale — of course they do. It’s that we believe that other, larger-scale funders are better placed to support them more effectively than we can. Of course this learning is also important to reflect in our own governance too. This is, in part, why we’ve dedicated time to deepening our own governance this year. More on this in future blogs.

What We’re Focusing on in 2020:

More detail on all this will follow in future blogs. So in summary, key focus areas on the philanthropy side of Firetree in 2020 will be:

· Continuing to adopt a ‘place-based’ approach to our philanthropy, whereby we focus upon specific geographical areas and communities. We will continue focusing on the existing communities we focus upon, with a very strong emphasis upon deepening our work in Metro Manila. We expect this to be the focus for any new funding partnerships we develop over 2020. You can read more about our philanthropic approach here.

· Continuing our commitment to transparency, flexibility and supporting learning and adaptation: maintaining our commitment to unrestricted funding forms part of this. It’s part of both building trust with partners and decentralizing (some of) the power dynamics between funders and partners. One interesting point that I’ve seen in discussions about this with other funders is the perception, to paraphrase Nicola Crosta, that ‘unrestricted means unaccountable.’ We have not experienced accountability issues in relation to this. We’ve found the opposite, our experience is that it deepens trust and promotes greater dialogue and discussion.

If more evidence about the value and effectiveness of core and unrestricted funding is needed, these detailed research pieces might be useful. Although this research is from the UK, there is much there that reflects our experience in Southeast Asia too:

· This research from Esmee Fairbairn Foundation

· This research from The Fore which compares The Fore’s unrestricted and partner-led funding approach to a control group of charities and then tracks growth and development of those charities.

· This excellent research from Collaborate CIC and Northumbria University that explores the findings of a 12-month study exploring how organizations, and specifically funders, can work and fund ‘better’ in complex situations.

“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.”

Exploring the New World: practical insights for funding, commissioning and managing in complexity (2019)

If there are other funders that are thinking about offering unrestricted funding, I’m more than happy to share our experience of this, if that would be helpful. We’re definitely learning as we go and would welcome to chance to connect with others on this.

· Building the connecting and learning strand of our work: We will continue to openly blog and share our learning. A major part of this strand of work, will be the development of a collaborative (physical) space in Makati, Manila. In partnership with Stairway Foundation, the space will offer a space and training center for the Break the Silence child protection network. In addition, one floor of the building will serve as a collaborative space where youth-focused NGO’s from across the Philippines can come together to connect, share and learn. The project is currently very early-stage and the building should be complete by the end of 2020. You can read more about it here.

· Further developing our own governance and accountability: We’ll work to put in place structures to strengthen our accountability to our partners and stakeholders.

· Bringing our partners together more: We’ve worked hard to build relationships with our partners this year. There’s much more we can do in terms of building relationships and connections between our partners though.

· Working with other funders: We’re keen to strengthen our work with like-minded funders in Southeast Asia. We would welcome opportunities to connect, both in terms of collaborative funding of interventions, but also in terms of wider discussions around how we can explore areas such as transparency, collaboration and unrestricted funding.

Most importantly though, the fundamental focus of 2020 remains to hold true to our shared values and strive to be the most trusted partner we can, to contribute to our shared mission and goals.

From everyone at Firetree, I would like to say a huge thank you to our partners for their tenacity, grit and deep commitment to the communities they work with.

Thank you — principally what you achieve collectively and also for holding us to account.

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

Firetree Trust

Reflections, approaches and updates from Firetree Trust. We support work that creates long-term positive change in communities ​in Southeast Asia.

Nicky Wilkinson

Written by

Firetree Trust

Reflections, approaches and updates from Firetree Trust. We support work that creates long-term positive change in communities ​in Southeast Asia.

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