Strategic Reflections

What happens to a dream deferred? — Langston Hughes, Harlem

On a recent flight, I watched a documentary on Langston Hughes’ poem, Harlem, and reflected on what it means to understand challenges and problems. Langston wrote the above words with informed contextual understanding — he knew Harlem. He also knew that the deferral and obstruction of dreams often occurs deliberately and he encouraged us to ask why. In doing so, he challenged us to imagine the ultimate outcome of that deferral — not just of a single dream, but of a community’s collective dream — and he inherently challenged us to reflect on our role as allies or perpetrators of dreams.

Langston also challenged us implicitly to ask whether the individual, the neighborhood, or the system is the unit of change when it comes to achieving or deferring dreams, as did David Brooks in his recent article in the New York Times. These challenges resonate because our partners spend their days thinking about community based change with a focus on designing for the needs, hopes, ideas and dreams of individuals.

Our primary context isn’t Harlem – it’s Southeast Asia: a region with excess wealth juxtaposed against extreme poverty in often sickening proximity and widening inequality. A region where, in many countries, strong men and regimes remain focused on power while marginalized communities without resources are often invisible. A region where development has historically been driven by war and aid interventions, and that is now shifting to be driven by political influence exercised through investment (primarily by China) designed to capture value through indebtedness and the perpetuation of cycles and systems that keep those with resources in control, and those without in despair. The region is complex, difficult and as dynamic as any in the world – and the context is rapidly changing.

In order to understand the context, countries, regions and the intractable problems that present themselves as a result of a multitude of root causes and factors, we spend a lot of time asking questions. By emphasizing critical thought, we seek to build a culture of learning and improvement.

Key Questions

Over the past year, to inform our strategic planning and determine how we can better support our partners and communities, some of our questions have been basic and others have been challenging:

  • How can we be the most effective and supportive partner for organizations and communities to ultimately support lasting, positive change?
  • How can we think more about, fund and support long-term systemic change?
  • What are the gaps and challenges with current funding models? Conversely, what are the examples that we want to adapt and learn from?
  • What should our role be as an ally to marginalized communities and how can their thoughts, concerns, ideas and needs be better incorporated into our approach and the approach of our partners?
  • How can we develop a learning culture within our Foundation?
  • Why do some nonprofits and some funders desire to exist in perpetuity?
  • How can we take risk while still mitigating it based on learnings, past experience, and insights?
  • What is the role of funders in perpetuating competition between nonprofits? How can we avoid that?
  • Why do some social purpose organizations and intermediaries design for the interests of donors and investors rather than for the needs of communities? What can the role of funders be to avoid this?
  • How can we increasingly incorporate people and partners who understand the needs of communities into our team, governance and accountability?
  • How can we work strategically in difficult places to take calculated risks?
  • How can we and our partners plan for long term interventions while remaining nimble?

None of these questions are easy – and none of them have definite answers, but we seek to continue asking them and many others openly with our team, our board, our partners and our network in order to refine and improve our approach going forwards.

Key Learnings

Our key learnings (and my personal learnings) over the past year have stemmed primarily from failures – not to say that we haven’t had successes, but that’s a different kind of annual letter.

These learnings include:

  • The most effective organizations continually focus on needs while learning, adapting, and connecting with other stakeholders to solve problems;
  • The perspectives, knowledge and insights of our partners is invaluable: we need and want them to call us out when needed – whether it’s designing our strategic framework, our website or our approach – their opinions count more than ours since they are the ones doing the difficult work that we are designing to support, with the knowledge of what actually works in practice, not in theory;
  • Our focus is on communities – not case studies, conferences, other donors or investors – yes, all of these can be valuable, but only when tapped in moderation and strategically;
  • We can’t do it alone – we need a bigger team to spend time with partners, trusted advisors to help us look at new opportunities, thought partners to provide services, and strategic alliances to tackle problems;
  • Values alignment is key – our team and our partners need to have the humility and empathy to remain focused on contextual needs, discuss and learn from mistakes, adapt, and keep going;
  • We are willing and able to develop initiatives to tackle big problems when there is a clear need and a services gap in a context where we have longstanding connections and trusted partners;
  • Investing our endowment to align with our mission isn’t easy – we’ve spent a year transitioning our endowment to investments that better align with our mission and learned a lot along the way (learn more here);
  • Connectivity is key: whether it’s our team or our prospective partners, the more contextual knowledge and understanding of problems, the better;
  • Don’t overthink it – rather than focus on specific frameworks or methodologies, we plan to continue working with people with values alignment and fostering a learning culture so our team and partners can understand when and where strategic design tools can add value, not force fit them.

Key Decisions

Based on the above questions, learnings, and our collective experience, we’ve also come to several conclusions and key decisions over the past year:

  • Our actions and the interventions we support are all bricks that contribute toward building the legacy of our benefactor, Richard P. Haugland — our responsibility is to use the assets he left us in the most effective way to support communities and we do not need, desire or plan to exist in perpetuity;
  • Whether it’s maintaining up to date accounting, strategic planning, stakeholder mapping, system thinking or problem deep dives — if we ask it of our partners, we should also ask it of ourselves;
  • Our endowment provides an opportunity to allocate capital in different ways — our options include philanthropy to NGOs (this will always be our core focus), loans to social enterprises and investments in fund managers that share our values;
  • Our presence will increasingly be in Southeast Asia — we plan to continue building our team and working with partners there, not abroad;
  • Our governance is best kept lean and knowledgeable of our context, our legacy, our values, and our approach — we can and will incorporate advisors and thought partners to augment our strategy and decision making as we see fit;
  • Our first initiative will be in the temporary housing area of Tondo, Manila — we plan to double down on our commitment to this community with two of our longstanding partners: Stairway Foundation and Starfish Education Foundation, young leaders from the community itself and many other relevant stakeholders.

Summary

It’s been a year of building: building plans, building systems and processes, and building a team. It’s also been a year of reflection and new direction – we’ve incorporated learnings and frustrations from previous experience to inform our grants going forwards and design our investing strategy. We’ve sought out the the opinions of those we trust, especially the opinions of longstanding, trusted partners like M’lop Tapang and Stairway Foundation to inform our strategy. Going forwards, we’re excited to incorporate new ideas and perspectives from recent partner additions including Resolve, Baan Dek, and This Life Cambodia.

Despite the challenges, ongoing learnings and never ending obstacles – we remain pragmatically hopeful and optimistic. Personally, I’m encouraged by regional initiatives that seek to unite dialogues and ideas; I’m encouraged by individuals that advocate for positive change with decreasing self-interest; I’m encouraged by our team that continues to grow with capable, multidisciplinary people; I’m encouraged by our partners and their grand ambitions to address seemingly intractable problems; and, most of all, I’m encouraged by children, mothers, fathers and communities, who keep playing, working, and remaining resilient despite facing atrocious poverty in living conditions and political environments that are increasingly harsh. As we continue our work over the coming year, we seek to keep their needs at the heart of what we do.

Despite the fact that our goals relate to solutions that can achieve contextual or systemic change for communities, we will never forget that there are human beings, not data points, at the center of what we do. We seek to recognize and incorporate their goals, needs and ideas into the solutions we support. As we aim to do so, I can’t help but wondering, “What happens to a dream encouraged?”