Advancing system change in philanthropic organizations

By Yery M. Garcia and Eszter Filippinyi (TAI)
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At the TAI Funder call in November 2023 we explored journeys in changing grant-making and operational systems in philanthropic organizations to address root causes of inequality. Eszter Filippinyi (TAI) moderated the session. 

We heard insights and reflections from: 

Romy described the evolution of the Guerrilla Foundation (a European intermediary funder). They started as a traditional private funder in 2016 and gradually shifted towards participatory grantmaking and power-sharing. The Foundation transformed itself from a single donor model to a donor collaborative with a participatory decision-making model where European grassroots activists take the vast majority of funding decisions. The foundation is also working on transitioning to a sociocratic model of organizing – for instance, by building a safe environment and taking decisions by consent -- to foster collaboration across different groups within the organization.

Romy explained how the shift in thinking and acting of the Guerrilla Foundation led them to join the Leap Collective, a group of activists, social entrepreneurs and foundation staff who work towards systemic change in philanthropy. The collective experiments with new ideas and connects under-resourced projects with potential funders. The aim is to influence larger foundations to advance power-sharing and transparency within philanthropy in order to channel more resources in important system change work.

Eve then spoke about the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s journey towards addressing inequalities within their operations and grant-making. The Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in Europe, established an inequality program in 2020. Eve has been involved from the start and soon realized that the question was not only about what they fund but also about how they fund. While fighting inequalities is a long journey, one of the results of this learning journey is that now they give more flexible support grants and are consciously identifying and supporting underfunded groups most affected by inequalities.

Eve mentioned two ways in which the Foundation started its outreach to communities they weren’t previously in touch with: 

  1. They launched an open call for proposals on intersectional practice in 2020, which received over 500 applications from across the globe working on a wide range of issues. While they could only fund 11 of them, these organizations formed a learning cohort to understand the practical implications of applying intersectionality in their strategy. 

  2. They collaborated with Leap to identify gaps and opportunities to support climate justice work in Europe. This process led to the emergence of Collective Abundance

Samie, who is the lead organizer of Collective Abundance, described how this new climate justice initiative was born to address the limitations and challenges faced by climate justice activism in Europe. From scratch, this has been a very participatory process. They conducted extensive research and outreach to various grassroots activists, seeking input on funding processes, the climate movement, and their perspectives on climate justice.

Collective Abundance characterizes itself by having a broad understanding of climate justice that encompasses diverse fights for social justice and liberation. The initiative operates on three main strands:

  1. Shifting European climate philanthropy by working closely with funders and promoting alternative funding approaches

  2. Collectively building organized grassroot power and a counterweight to the mainstream European climate movement (which at present is very white and middle class)

  3. Regranting: The Abundance Fund supports local efforts in Southern and Eastern Europe (first country they started with is Spain, Poland is next) 

The funding process involves an open call for nominations and the hiring of local scouts embedded in the climate justice movement to identify and nominate groups that would benefit from the fund. A total of 10 groups per country are invited to participate in discussions about climate justice as a basis for deciding how to allocate funds. The emphasis is on strengthening relationships among these groups and fostering a collective consensus on their work and funding decisions. The process also includes an in-person meeting where the groups make final funding decisions.

Collective Abundance strives to connect and empower groups engaged in various aspects of climate justice work, such as communications, direct action, local community initiatives, coordinated actions, and connection with partners in the Global South. The initiative is unique in its strong ties to movement organizing and participatory grantmaking.

Before turning to the participants, Eszter asked the speakers to share the main challenges they encountered in building trust (with whom and for whom) and what inclusion meant to them.

Eve mentioned the tension between the aim for longer-term commitments and sustainable funding versus the annual grant cycles foundations work with

Romy emphasized the importance of building trust within her own team and between the team and external stakeholders. She suggested it was worth moving at the "speed of trust" and the significance of having a trustworthy scout or community member to establish connections.

She stressed the importance of transparency, clear communication, and language justice - to engage with local communities effectively was highlighted. For her, accountability means the need for continuous feedback and transparency regarding all activities of the organization.

Among the participants, Laura Budzyna (MEL expert working with TAI) reminded us that sometimes processes that seem slower and/or more expensive on the front end can save a lot of time and money down the road and build sustainable and more equal relationships.

Participants were curious to learn about the challenge of bridging the gap between executive leadership and the board in their organization, seeking insights and tips on creating change. 

Romy emphasized the importance of exposing decision-makers to different lived realities and stories from the ‘field’ of social change and political work. Discussing different approaches to social change and the nature of political activism collectively helped the Guerrilla Foundation team and funders in building a shared understanding and set of values. This generated funder support for more fundamental organizational changes further down the line. But storytelling isn’t only internally relevant. The Guerrilla Foundation invests in producing extensive grantee profiles also to support small grassroots organizations to be more visible to funders.

Another question was about existing investments in documenting the different outcomes this experience generates, in other words the learning journey and the definition of impact.

Eve felt that the fact that Collective Abundance was created in such participatory mode was in itself a way of addressing inequalities and a step towards shifting practices in philanthropy. She also called for each of us to consider our own position on the power map in the organization we work for and use this power to push for change.

Romy emphasized the importance of documenting and communicating the outcomes of experiences and learning journeys - something they still need to strengthen within Leap Collective.

Samie, on her turn advised to explore and strengthen participatory models in driving change in philanthropy. She also closed by inviting funders to engage with Collective Abundance, which aims to raise and distribute 5 million euros over the next five years in South and East Europe.

Feel free to reach out to us for more details and please read our previous interviews with Samie, Eve and Romy:

Samie Blasingame, lead organizer of Collective Abundance

Eve Nagel from the Bosch Stiftung Words into action: Advancing system change in philanthropic organizations (

Romy Krämer, managing director of the Guerrilla Foundation

Last but not least, if you have stories of transformation and resources, WINGS is collecting these as part of the Philanthropy Transformation Initiative. If you would like to share your stories, please reach out to us and we will be very happy to connect you with WINGS.

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