3 ways to dismantle the fear-based economy

Thousand Currents’ impact investment fund is far from business as usual.

By Joanna Levitt Cea, Director of Thousand Currents’ Buen Vivir Fund

This is the third post for “Liberate Philanthropy,” a new blog series curated by Justice Funders to re-imagine and practice philanthropy free of its current constraints — the accumulation and privatization of wealth, and the centralization of power and control — to one that redistributes wealth, democratizes power and shifts economic control to communities. Over the next few months, we will be sharing stories from some of our most forward thinking, transformational leaders in philanthropy about how they are facilitating a Just Transition for philanthropy.

Money. It’s great when you have it, hell when you don’t — even more so when you borrow.

When, why, and how did you learn that money must equal anxiety? Does it have to be this way?

“How do we escape the trap that comes with money?” Don Jorge Santiago, former staff and current adviser to long-term Thousand Currents partner, Desarrollo Económico Social de los Mexicanos Indígenas (Social Economic Development of Indigenous Mexicans, DESMI), says often. “And that [trap] is: control, power.”

These are just a few of the questions we wanted to understand when, with our partners in the Global South and our philanthropic partners in the U.S., we set out to build an impact investment fund — from scratch — in 2016. Thousand Currents knew that our grassroots partners had deep experience and wisdom about how to build economic well-being for whole communities on collective interests and solidarity, rather than on competition and individual wealth accumulation.

Over the next year, this grassroots brilliance and our shared values formed the base, from the “risk” assessments to the investment decisions, and the Buen Vivir Fund was born. The Fund is launching with $1 million USD in investment capital and $200,000 in grant capital, with the first tranche of funding being shared in March and April 2018, to eight visionary projects across five countries. (Learn more about the projects here, and to learn more about our co-design process that led us to this re-imagined impact fund, read the blog, 2,934 hours.)

Throughout this process, a powerful area of learning has been in how to reimagine wealth and to put well-being at the center in your investment and philanthropic practice, rather than fear. Here are three ways to start:

  1. Imbue your values in every step of the process…no, every step.

Buen vivir, or “good life,” is an Indigenous philosophy and worldview/cosmovisión at the root of many movements in Latin America and a concept that resonates with our partners the world over.

“Everyone can conjure up what ‘buen vivir’ means to them. An equilibrium between humanity and environment is something everyone can work towards,” explains María Estela Barco Huerta, General Coordinator of Buen Vivir Fund member DESMI in Chiapas, Mexico.

Most impact investment initiatives are about Global North investors lending money and “expertise.” But the Buen Vivir Fund is about “helping” people in the U.S. floundering within our broken, fear-ridden financial system to dramatically expand the kinds of lending terms, meeting practices, due diligence tools, and more, that can be brought to the task of making investment capital truly flow in serve of well-being — as much as it is about providing aligned capital to grassroots groups who have never had access to investment capital before.

In the Buen Vivir Fund, the 18 equal founding members of the Fund (10 grassroots groups from the Global South and 8 U.S.-based investors), share the responsibility of placing buen vivir at the center of the fund’s guiding principles, our application process, our meetings, our indicators, and every step. It is our compass.

2. Learn from the “joyous” examples in the Global South.

While it’s easy to get caught up in a fighting-the-system mindset in the current U.S. political climate, in Global South contexts, grassroots groups have already been in a creating-our-own-financial-alternatives stance for decades, because often it was their only option.

Our partners share that creating/preserving economic alternatives has to be intertwined with boosting other forms of vital resources for a community such as relationships and mutual support networks. Joy, spirit, cheer, and the belief that what you dream to do is possible has to be part of solid, high-impact investment.

For example, as Elvira Sanchez Toscano of Buen Vivir Fund member, Instituto para la Superación de la Miseria Urbana de Guatemala (Institute for Overcoming Urban Poverty in Guatemala, ISMUGUA), shares, “One of the bases of the Buen Vivir Fund is [a] combination of spirituality and resources. They must go together.” In the community lending funds that ISMUGUA has developed over the years, at the start of any important meetings with potential investees, they begin with a moment of what she calls “ecumenical prayer” — to bring everyone fully present and to call their best thinking and spirit to the table. As she explains in a poetic blog post, they have learned over the years that this small practice makes a huge difference in signaling that their fund is different and that everyone involved gives their very best to the success of the projects and to upholding their agreements.

3. Pay close and careful attention to breaking down barriers.

We learned quickly that co-designing a radically different kind of investment fund would also require care and attention towards healing. As our Thousand Currents board member and Next Economy Fellow at the Movement Strategy Center, Nwamaka Agbo, explains,

“The deep work of unlearning the habits and patterns of colonization, of a harmful, extractive economy, is really difficult work. And it’s difficult work because it’s embedded in our soul, it’s in our being.”

This is why building trust and forming genuine (kind, not “nice”) and trusting working relationships among the Members Assembly as equal peers, is held in the Buen Vivir Fund as equally important as the financial transactions. For those bringing financial resources to the table, giving up “control” may not come naturally and it presents challenges to the usual way of thinking about “risks” and “mistakes” for everyone.

Our co-design process was not easy. What we planned for six months ended up taking more than a year, as huge(!) questions about the very basic premises of our economy like the meaning of “investment” and “risk” were explored by our members. We made mis-steps. Some of our virtual meetings were clunky and tedious. But when we tried to be honest about what we were struggling with and then reached out to our members for help and feedback, we often found that the solutions that emerged made the next step in our process flow beautifully.

This is how Thousand Currents is liberating philanthropy. Instead of approaching the work with fear and grasping for control, what emerges is the opposite of fear — gratitude for, and faith in, what is possible when we all care for one another’s buen vivir.

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This month the Buen Vivir Fund becomes fully operational and shares its first round of investment with eight extraordinary projects around the world.

Learn more here: thousandcurrents.org/buen-vivir-fund/

Joanna Levitt Cea is the director of the Buen Vivir Fund at Thousand Currents, a public foundation investing in grassroots-led solutions around the world. Joanna is also a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Global Projects Center, where she is advancing research on emerging best practices for co-design of social change.