The Dance of Deception

“Each side is playing a role – the ultra-lean NGO that somehow is changing the world on pennies, and the benevolent philanthropist who always bets on the right horse.”

~Laurie Michaels (individual philanthropist, board chair Aspen Institute)

Horse Race. Photo by Sheree Zielke, 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Horse Race. Photo by Sheree Zielke, 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /

At the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network annual conference this past spring, I facilitated a session with Devika Shah of the Pembina Institute which was provocatively titled Interrupting the Dance of Deception. The panel was made up of two funders and two ‘fundees’, and their reflections kicked off an animated discussion, which has stayed with me many weeks later.
The term dance of deception was coined by former McConnell Foundation CEO Tim Brodhead, referring to a dynamic that occurs when groups pretend they can solve a huge problem, and funders pretend to believe them. As Tim has explained, this deception is not intentional or malicious in any way. Rather, it refers to a tendency among organizations and funders to jointly develop funding agreements and relationships without fully acknowledging that the best laid plans are often derailed by power and politics. Recognizing that as funders we do sometimes ‘bet on the wrong horses’, and that grantees often operate in a complex and unpredictable landscape, a reflection on the session seemed an apt way to begin this blog.
So how can we ‘interrupt the dance of deception’? It’s key to recognize the complexities, uncertainties and ever-changing nature of efforts to change systems. Funders can work with and fund organizations to develop plans that are strategic and flexible, as Ed Whittingham of the Pembina Institute explained, citing Pembina’s experience with a process called Impact and Strategic Clarity[1]. Funders can help facilitate joint strategies and then get distinct, coordinated proposals based on total funds available. Rather than everyone taking credit for one ‘big hairy audacious goal’, organizations can take on a part which will contribute to the common goal.
In what is perhaps the fullest expression of this idea, funders, organizations and other actors work together in ‘collective impact’ initiatives, such as the Vibrant Community poverty reduction work, the Calgary homeless project, or RE-AMP, establishing a common objective with progress measured by common success indicators while allowing each participant to contribute differently.
It’s also important to recognize the value of steps on the way to a win. In an example given by Mary Pickering of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund about transit planning, a vital step was funding the relationship-building that lead to a coalition and mobilization. But it is also essential to be in it for the long term to create real change: ‘if you’re in for a dime, you’re in for a dollar’. For funders, this can mean providing multi-year grants, creating long-term funding programs, or recognizing the need for different kinds of funding at different stages of a change process (capacity building, research, advocacy, on-the-ground action…).
Being strategic doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set ambitious goals or take risks. On the contrary, says Nicole Rycroft of Canopy, ‘ask for what you want – you might just get it’. The idea of taking risks and funding a range of strategies, knowing that many will fail (or at least, go sideways from the original intent), is common in the investment world, but more rare in philanthropy. Open Road Alliance founder Laurie Michaels observed, in a Forbes interview, that ‘funders need to ask and acknowledge what might go wrong up front. This helps shift the power dynamic and establishes the relationship as an alliance, which is what it should be’.
In our session last spring, the discussion spun into talk about divestment, spending down endowments in light of the urgency of realities such as climate change, and the need to ‘grow the tent’ of actors if we want to make real change. It was a reminder of the starting point of the discussion: the systems we are trying to influence are huge, complex and unpredictable.
The final word goes to Devika Shah: ‘We need to create the space to allow for more honest conversations between funders and fundees. Most non-profits are afraid that if they are honest about failures, they will not get renewal funding. Not only do NGOs have to initiate more honest and mature conversations with funders, but funders need to encourage and reward honesty.’
Thanks to my co-conspirator for the CEGN session, Devika Shah of the Pembina Institute, to the panelists (Ed Whittingham, Mary Pickering, Nicole Rycroft and Stephen Huddart), the session participants, and to Pegi Dover, director of the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network.
[1] An Innoweave module which the McConnell Foundation supported Pembina to participate in.