Connecting peers to push boundaries for social change – a new kind of meeting

Insights from the meeting of international foundations in January 2016: An interview with Louise Pulford, the Director of SIX.

What makes this node different? 

This group is about the people, and I felt lucky to be in the room with such a great group. It really felt like the best were learning from the best.

The discussions were frank – people spoke as only friends would. What I heard did not sound like conversations at a standard conference. The group was sharing tales from the front line, learning from each other, and working together to help each other tackle challenges. Ego didn’t dominate – despite their roles and the budgets they manage, conversations were humble, open and honest about why this work is hard. One of the participants said at the end, “I can’t even have this kind of conversation in my own organization.”

Despite coming from very different countries, with varying size budgets, and different thematic focus areas (including the ocean, arts and criminal justice), they met as peers. They were people who think in the same way – they are all trying to do something different, against the grain.

The participants created the content of the meeting, in order to make sure it really is useful to them. Before the meeting, the funders shared questions that were keeping them awake at night. All discussions focused around the questions the funders wanted to address.

What impact do you hope to see for the funders who come to the meeting?

We are hearing stories of impact already. One participant told me, “I was able to re-frame something that I have been thinking about for a while.” Through a lot of SIX meetings, we find that hearing things you already know, but from a different vantage point, gives a different kind of ‘ah ha’ moment.

Other participants are already connecting and meeting, sharing resources and tactics, and supporting each other. We have already seen a bilateral relationship develop between two large foundations; staff members from across the two organisations are spending time with each other learning how the other works, and gathering ideas to influence their own work and practice. 

Our role at SIX is to continue to support and facilitate these connections – with regular calls to collectively work through challenges and collaborative projects are already in place. 

What impact do you hope to see for the field?

Each funder can work with the best ideas from anywhere. I hope that funders can set a new standard to inform thinking and strategy on complex issues, like how to fund innovation. We want to work with funders to unpack the big issues that will drive and fund research, rather than using a traditional approach, where external experts are brought in to analyze a problem and do a report. Funders have the answers to their own questions – if they can work together and learn globally. 

Each funder can work as well as the best worldwide. I would also love to see the new thinking, ways of working, and cultures trickle down into different parts of these organisations.

Each funder can partner with the best for them and what they are trying to do. Finally, I’d like to see impact in terms of how funders collaborate with each in the future, anticipating problems, sharing future visions and working together, in places, on joint problems to increase their collective impact. 

So what next?

We are co-designing future gatherings with the funders to learn more. We will further unpack the questions funders submitted before the meeting, and any new questions that are arising. 

We are also developing several practical things to help the group, with the funders and not just for them. We have produced a scan of the resources that exist already on funding social innovation. We found that while there are a lot of quite general resources available on funding innovation, there is a distinct lack of resources on futures thinking, or evidence for examples.

We also found little analysis on the practical methods, resources ad tools being used at different stages of the innovation spiral to help people move along. We would like to bring some of these together to provide additional support for funders to help them scale their impact. We need to support learning and connecting between meetings.

We also need to think about how to connect funders into the wider ecosystem of support for social innovation. Whilst it is necessary for funders to meet on their own as peers, it is also important for us to connect with other actors in the ecosystem – this includes grantees, to better understand the perspective of the organisations and people we are trying to help; our critics, to help keep us reflecting on the value of what we do; and innovative practitioners who can help keep funders connect to potential future opportunities. We need to shift the power dynamics to have a more open and honest conversation about the best methods and approaches that will create long lasting and deep positive social impact, and bringing in new voices can help with this shift.