Philanthropy: Our Journey So Far

“There’s something within the human mind that is attracted to straight lines and not curves, to whole numbers and not fractions, to uniformity and not diversity, and to certainties and not mystery…”

- Donella Meadows[1]

This is a quote that I have pinned above my desk and I find useful to refer back to when I’m struggling with complexity. Since joining Tondo Foundation at the end of July 2018, I have been humbled to learn new insights, ‘un-learn’ some things and ‘re-learn’ others — all learning that has been, to paraphrase, curved, uncertain and fractional.

Much of this has come from our extraordinary partners who are deeply embedded in and working with marginalised communities in a range of contexts, from our team and our frank, open discussions, from research and from a big wider network of people and organisations who have willingly, openly and graciously shared their insights, learning, aspirations and challenges with us. I would like to express my sincere thanks to all of them.

One of my aims for 2019 is to get better at sharing what we’ve learned publicly. This blog is my first attempt at doing this and aims to sum up what we’ve learned over the past few months. It’s designed to start a conversation and, as a small team, it’s important to stress that much of my personal learning has come from things that I can do better — I want to always be open about that.

1. Values alignment is a vital component to our most meaningful partnerships:

Our values are deeply embedded in how we work. We intentionally spend time and energy, every day, working to try to embed our values in everything we do and to ensure they form a central guide for how we approach and build relationships both internally and externally. This is, of course, a dynamic process and one that we don’t get right every time. It’s an area that we try to constantly interrogate, to hold each other to account on and openly get feedback from others on — something I will be working hard on in 2019.

Our most meaningful organisational relationships, in terms of both impact and developing genuine partnerships (see more on this below), commonly start from sharing values. This isn’t through a bland discussion around how our values align (although we do always discuss our values). Rather, it plays out through the behaviour of the people we meet in an organisation and, crucially, how they work in and with communities. It’s the culmination of multiple interactions and conversations that build trust, openness and confidence and it of course goes both ways — we actively encourage our partners to assess this in us as much as the other way round.

Values are frequently described in different words (often different languages) from how we talk about the values we hold dear, and manifested in a range of different ways. None of that matters. What matters, we’re learning, is that they are present and ‘lived’ throughout an organisation we partner with.

It’s 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, rather than a strategic pitch.

2. ‘Mindset’ is a fundamental component to contributing to long-term, positive change:

I’m aware that ‘long-term, positive change’ can sound pretty fluffy! I’m also conscious of trying to avoid using jargon as much as possible. So, in the interests of being clear, we define long-term, positive change as:

“Addressing the root causes of social problems, which are often deeply-rooted and embedded in networks of cause and effect. It is an intentional and collaborative process designed to fundamentally alter the components that drive the current situation in a community (or context) to shift the community (or context) to become more equitable and inclusive of all members.[2]

As a team, we spend a lot of time exploring, researching and discussing the most effective approaches to contributing to long-term, positive change and how we can best support those approaches. There are so many out there.

Learning from the impact that our partners are achieving in a wide range of contexts using a diverse range of approaches, from our own experience designing and running interventions, from my own failures, from multiple papers (such as this research from NPC), as well as many articles exploring and critiquing different approaches, I’ve been reminded of how profoundly important personal and organisational ‘mindset’ is rather than the specifics of which approach is used.

“What is most important is possessing a curious mindset that is constantly searching for ways to do better in pursuit of social change.”[3]

Our partners have told us the same in many different ways. Reflecting on this more deeply, the following ‘mindsets’ seem to appear consistently among our partners, people and other organisations that I most admire for the impact they are (collectively) achieving:

Embracing complexity: exploring relationships, how they interconnect and being comfortable with emergence

Openness: in a range of ways, including openness to new ideas, connections, networks, etc.

Humility: being humble enough to really listen, learn and adapt

Diversity: such as diversity of thought, diversity of people and investing time building diverse relationships across contexts or communities to work in partnership

Curiosity: constantly questioning the status quo and delving beyond just the obvious to explore relationships, beliefs, patterns of behaviour and assumptions

Grit: The capacity to keep working, learning, asking and adapting — and to not walk away when things get tough

Learning: being intentional about constantly learning and adapting, surfacing assumptions, and keeping the communities they work with and for and their assets, strengths and challenges at the centre of all their work.

This is neither meant to be an exhaustive list nor a blueprint, just some reflections. Much of this is reflected in much more robust studies than my thoughts, such as this research from NPC or examples such as this from the Finance Innovation Lab. These are, of course, very different contexts. The point I’m trying to make is that what is suggested in some of this research reflects some of my experience in relation to our work with partners and in the communities we work with in Southeast Asia.

If these mindsets can be one significant factor in developing relationships and interventions that facilitate long-term, positive change* (as defined above), then one of the questions for us has become how do we model them ourselves, learn from others and support the continued development of them in the people and organisations we collaborate with?

In terms of modelling them ourselves, like our values, these mindsets form a framework that we will continue to work hard to embody and live by. Doubtless we’ll make many mistakes along the way — these are easy words to write but much harder in practice. These are our aspirations and we’ll try to make sure we are continually reflecting internally, learning from others and proactively seeking feedback on how we’re doing in relation to these.

In terms of learning from and supporting others, we are exploring and testing multiple ways that we can do this — and have many more questions than answers at this stage. One thing that our networks and partners have consistently fed back that we should continue to work on is to help create the ‘space’ for people and organisations to have time to be able to critically reflect on / test/ learn / adapt what they are doing.

We can do this by continuing to offer flexible funding, by being comfortable with change and emergence, by promoting (and funding) exploration and learning, by avoiding tedious reporting formats, by valuing on-going, open conversations rather than lengthy proposals / reports, by trying to share learnings and by connecting organisations as much as we can.

I definitely haven’t got this right every time and there are tensions and assumptions that underpin that approach. We will certainly continue this commitment to flexibility, openness, testing, and learning though and I’m really grateful to Francesco, Dick and to our board for developing this approach and for their continued commitment to these principles. I’m proud that all of our partners are locally registered, deeply embedded in the communities they work with and that our funding is either flexible around co-created milestones or completely unrestricted.

However, we don’t want to get comfortable there and know that there’s more that we can do. This is informing much of our thinking for 2019.

3. Genuine partnership is, we believe, essential, but takes time:

We value and strive to build long-term partnerships with organisations we fund and collaborate with. This is not only because we feel it’s a ‘good thing to do,’ but also because, we believe, no one organisation has all the answers or can catalyse long-term, positive change alone.

Our primary motivation for valuing and intentionally developing partnerships, therefore, is because we believe that this is the most effective way we can support this type of change. This is through both learning from and contributing, where we can, to the organisations and communities we work with.

Reflecting on this, other big personal reminders this year are:

· A true partnership is based on equality and reciprocity, not a one-directional transaction or an unequal power dynamic.

· Developing partnerships takes time (often years) of establishing trust and commitment and breaking down power dynamics. An obvious power dynamic is the funder / grantee dynamic, but I’ve been struck that there are many others too.

· ‘Partnership’ is a widely overused term, to the point where it runs the risk of being meaningless (a really big thank you to my colleague Francesco for raising this and reminding me of the importance of thinking carefully about the language we use).

So, we think of partnership as an equal and mutually beneficial relationship. 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 as a thought partner and trusted advisor to the other;

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

Over this year, we will continue to work to build these types of relationships — and to intentionally and proactively seek open, honest feedback from organisations we’re working with on how we’re doing.

Looking Ahead to 2019:

As we look forward to 2019 and all that it may hold, I am so grateful to be working with a brilliant, humble and supportive team and network of outstanding partners. We have been thinking a lot about our approach and know that there is more that we can do as we continually strive towards supporting collaborative, community-centred interventions that contribute to lasting positive change within communities (as per the definition above).

I will be sharing more on this shortly. At this stage, it’s clear that our own approach needs to constantly reflect and adapt to what we learn and to continually humbly and critically assess how we can best contribute to long-term, positive change. If there are other organisations, people, funders or networks in Southeast Asia grappling with how best they can support long-term, positive change please do feel free to reach out to me.

I look forward to continued learning, to deepening current relationships and to developing new ones. Most of all, I am energised by the impact we can achieve. We will work our hardest to maximise the extraordinary opportunity and responsibility we have and to hold true to the values, mindsets and the core commitment we hold dear.

*This is obviously an assumption that we are making — and one that we need to continually interrogate.

[1] 16 Meadows, D. (undated) ‘Dancing with systems’: http://

[2] A big thank you to Lankellychase Foundation for their definition, which, along with speaking to lots of organisations and reflecting ourselves, helped to shape ours.

[3] ‘Thinking Big: How to use theory of change for systems change’. NPC, March 2018.