Path lined with trees

Beyond competition

How foundations can move from competitive selection to learning 

By Tris Lumley 25 May 2023 5 minute read

This is an edited version of a speech given by Tris Lumley at the Good Tech Fest conference in Washington DC on 3rd May 2023. 

I’ve grown up with technology. My childhood was imbued with sci-fi, the promise of technology and optimism about the future. I grew up to be passionate about the role of tech in social and environmental action. 

And yet I’ve come to believe that unless we change the very structure of philanthropy, none of our efforts with technology can succeed. 

Let’s start with the money. Do you have to fundraise for your work? I certainly do. Anyone who wants to make any of their ideas happen has to. And anyone who fundraises knows the dance. The politeness. The whole game of seeming perfectly confident, capable, certain, yet adequately humble, deferential, self-deprecating. We’re certainly not allowed to be angry. 

Well I am. I’m furious. Worse, it’s philanthropy I’m furious with. 

Not enough money

You only have to step back for a moment to realise how broken philanthropy is. No individual foundation or philanthropist can succeed in their strategy. They don’t have enough money, not compared to the scale of the challenge they seek to tackle. 

So their response? Rationing – via competition. 

Some foundations will call for proposals. Everyone sends in their best sales pitch in, and a few lucky winners get picked for funding. But it’s only enough to fund part of the work, for at best a few years. Proactive foundations don’t call for proposals, but they’re still competitive. They do research, talk to advisers, make decisions, then inform the lucky charities. The competition has already happened by that point, it’s just that no-one outside the foundation sees it. 

My point is that for each foundation, only a few get funded. And that selection process happens in a black box. We see what comes out, but the internal workings remain a mystery. 

Think about that for a minute. It’s like handing out small food parcels in a refugee camp, but instead of feeding everyone, picking a few lucky winners by choosing the strongest, or interviewing them about their life goals! 

I feel really uneasy with this analogy. I don’t want to belittle that situation. But it feels appropriate! Non-profits are doing vital work yet they’re having to compete for scraps to get by. The most unsettling thing is it shows that funders are failing to take responsibility for owning what it would take to make a real difference. To meet all the need. To address all the opportunities. Now that would be a strategy! 

Let’s look at this from the perspective of a foundation. You say you want to reduce inequality, or improve health in certain communities, or increase employment for marginalised young people. Yet you ask the charities who can work towards that goal to compete with each other for a pot of cash which is too small to succeed with. That’s not a strategy! It’s nuts! I know there’s not enough money, but it just doesn’t make sense! 

But who’s challenging it? All non-profits are fundraisers. We know not to bite the hand that feeds us. There are a few radicals in philanthropy like the Equality Fund in Canada, but the reality is that finding alternatives to competition is hard – yet it’s what we need to do. 

Capturing knowledge

So, I’m angry. I’m also confused. I’ve been working for nearly two decades on knowledge in the non-profit sector. How we measure and analyse our outcomes. How we learn, adapt, and focus. These are vital questions. Non-profits need to be accountable to those they serve. We need to make sure everyone does the best they can. 

A funding proposal is a knowledge process. You answer a bunch of questions like: What’s the problem you’re trying to tackle? Why does it matter? What do you do to address it? How do you know it works? What do you need to do your work?  

And what then happens to all these answers after the foundation decides who to fund? Most of the time: nothing. The answers get scored. The winners get the prize. The knowledge gets thrown away. 

Imagine for a moment the countless non-profit leaders around the world, the millions of hours they spend pouring their experience, passion, insight, and commitment into these forms. And what comes out of it is money, or no money. 

How dare we ignore all the value in those answers? All the insight and possibilities in these processes? And if we don’t have enough money to go around, why don’t we think about what could be possible if we harness that knowledge, rather than burying it? 

Let’s reimagine. Let’s ask the questions as though they matter. What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? What’s your approach? What will it achieve? These questions matter for learning not just selection. What happens if we bring the whole field together and ask everyone? All the different perspectives, get them out there, then work with them towards shared priorities. 

It’ll be messy, not everyone will agree, but we’ll gain a sense of the areas of strong agreement, big differences, gaps, and hotspots. In doing so we could build communities of practice around these questions, in which we build and learn together. Funding applications would become primarily about collective intelligence, not competitive selection. 

Reversing our approach

I believe the selection process funders can become the scaffolding for our collective knowledge infrastructure – one that drives and informs philanthropy, not the other way around. 

Instead of hosting a competition to pick winners, in isolation, as a way of dealing with not having enough money, bring the field together, with the structures to gather and honour different perspectives, collect, and synthesise experience and learning. Help everyone adopt the models that work best, learn from the approaches that help most. 

And then with the money you do have, make big bets. Not on individual organisations or interventions, but on whole approaches, or demographics, or places. 

Towards more open philanthropy

At NPC in the UK, we’ve made our own first steps on this. We’ve run an Open Philanthropy fund, focused on financial hardship, in which lived experience, practitioner experience, and funding experience were brought together on an equal footing, shaping the fund, and driving the decision-making. 

Our idea here was to ask: What would a foundation do if it was inside out? If the work and decisions took place in the field, not behind closed doors? We didn’t go as far as I’d like to next time, to start working in the open from the very beginning, but it ended up funding in ways I never would have done if I’d designed everything myself. It went way beyond the networks and knowledge I had access to. And that’s just the start. 

Next time, with the youth climate fund we’re working towards launching, I want us to work entirely in the open to shape it. To do that properly, we’re going to need technology. How do we get young people globally feeding in on their priorities? 

And we want to help others build open funds – working in the open, doing the knowledge work collectively, driving the philanthropy rather than the other way round. 

How technology can transform philanthropy

Let’s come back to technology. Technology and data can do tremendously important work for social and environmental impact. But no matter how exciting your data and digital work is, I think it is doomed to fail if you stay mired in the competition that philanthropy encourages. 

The promise of technology and data is that we can share, replicate, copy, revise, connect and collaborate globally. If we stay in the competitive funding space, then we destroy our ability to do any of those things. 

Technology can help us to bring together diverse perspectives, capture knowledge, create insight, facilitate collective decision-making. Already the technology community has pioneered ways of working together through open source. And the great thing is that foundations who come from a tech background know this . They know that there are alternatives to competition. 

This is why I am excited for technology to get stuck into philanthropy. Let’s build the platforms, the processes, the structure that can help reshape philanthropy! 

Some of them are out there already. Decidim – helping citizens collectively drive policy making. Kumu – helping us to map systems. Open Collective – helping small collectives get funded and fiscally hosted.  

We need foundations that want to nurture open, collective, commons approaches – and to build the technological infrastructure to support them. 

If that sounds like a heavy lift, or beyond where you are now, is there anything more immediate that good tech folk can easily do now? Well the fantastic thing is that digital and data is the easiest starting point from which to open up the non-profit sector. Because digital and data can be shared and replicated, built upon and connected.  

The resources being built right now can start to build the connective tissue of a new open sector.  

What would it take to make a commitment to open sourcing your next project? I bet your boards and leadership would be pretty nervous – they’d see it as giving up your competitive advantage. So you may need to sound out some of your funders and see if they’ll support you with the costs and risks of open sourcing your prize assets. 

But my bet is that some of those funders will see the potential impact. And as others take their first steps into open source, more will see the value. And maybe a coalition of funders of open source will grow – maybe some of us can help seed and encourage it. 

In other words, let’s get stuck in! Let’s start building whatever we think can help us to work openly, collectively, to show what we can achieve through alternatives to competition. 

People in philanthropy talk about shifting the power. So far, I’ve seen more talk than action. But if we build the structures that power can be shifted to and then show that we’re ready to take it… 

To the non-profit leaders out there, it’s only a zero-sum game if we play that game! The real prize here is for us – the non-profits, the doers, the makers, the troublemakers. It’s not us against each other, it’s us together against all odds. To really win, we need to organise, with purpose and solidarity. If the sector comes together to set the agenda – acknowledging difference and diversity of perspective… If we can put our similarities before our differences, our shared goals before our disagreements, then we can take the lead. 

So this is my call to action. And my call for help. Philanthropy won’t change on its own. Certainly not fast enough for the very urgent threats and realities we face. As non-profit leaders, we need to organise, come together, and set a collective agenda. As funders, we need to support and make space for that. 

Of course, I believe technology has a huge role to play in helping the non-profit sector deliver great products and services, create important insight, drive accountability, and much more. But I worry intensely that if we stay within the existing paradigm of competition for too scarce resources, and knowledge as a competitive weapon but not a collective asset, we’re doomed to do nothing more than put a brick in a wall that can never be completed.  

Let’s fix philanthropy. The best of the tech sector can inspire us about how to do that and provide many of the tools. And the tech for good sector itself can become open, blazing the trail for others to follow. 

What are we waiting for? 


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