From oral traditions to streaming movies, storytelling is central to the human experience. But beyond simple entertainment, stories have the ability to impact people and advance social change.
Take, for instance, Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle,” which exposed conditions in the meatpacking industry and led to the passage of new food safety laws. The story of how Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus is often told to highlight the unjust conditions that Black Americans face and as a story of resistance during the civil rights movement.
It’s no surprise, then, that many organizers and institutions working for change are harnessing the power of narrative to strengthen the impact of their work. There’s also a set of philanthropies that have come to recognize the potency of storytelling as a funding strategy.
Earlier this year, the Ford Foundation partnered with other organizations to launch the Reclaiming the Border Narrative project to support authentic narratives from people who live along the U.S.-Mexico border, with the hope of reshaping the national conversation about the region.
Now, Ford is turning its attention to the Global South. In partnership with the Compton and Skoll foundations, Ford is launching the International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS), a $30 million donor collaborative that will seek to strengthen the impact of creative moving image content as it intersects with social issues.
IRIS is envisioned as a 10-year initiative and will launch with $10 million in seed money. Ford Foundation is providing $7.5 million in seed funding and anticipates another set of investments totaling up to $20 million. Compton Foundation, which is a spend-out foundation, is contributing $250,000. Skoll Foundation will contribute $450,000 for the initial year, but hopes the partnership will evolve and deepen over time.
IRIS will focus on regions in the Global South, including Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Ford has referred to the exclusion of certain communities from full participation in political, economic and cultural systems as “the defining challenge of our time,” growing worse along with inequality. According to Ford, cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance and inclusion are a primary driver of this inequality.
In response, IRIS will fund organizations, research and the creation of moving image content itself—including filmmaking, but also virtual reality, social media videos, and more—to create a collaborative network of storytellers and civic leaders.
This isn’t Ford’s first foray into funding storytelling. IRIS evolved from the Ford Foundation’s Moving Image Exploration project. Cara Mertes, who recently served as that project’s director, will also lead IRIS. Before working at Ford, Mertes was the director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program Fund.
Compton and Skoll have both worked with Mertes previously, and have also backed narrative work. Storytelling has long been a core part of Skoll’s approach to social change, and Compton’s two main funding strategies are supporting leaders and “courageous storytelling.” So for both foundations, IRIS seemed like a perfect fit.
During her time at Sundance, Mertes worked directly with emerging organizations in the Global South that were resources for nonfiction filmmakers. It was through this work that Mertes began to see a widespread need to elevate voices from communities outside the Global North. IRIS continues in that spirit, moving resources and knowledge to the Global South and then creating a conversation among organizations there and in the Global North.
“I think it’s critical that there are resources for creative storytelling that are working in concert with other strategies in social justice like advocacy, like policy work, like rights-based work,” said Mertes. “If you don’t have artists and creative storytellers working alongside and embracing these movements and embracing these sort of goals, then you leave a very, very powerful tactic off the table.”
The “lingua franca” of the the age
So why the focus on moving image storytelling? According to Mertes, Ford sees this medium as “a kind of lingua franca,” or common language of our time. It’s highly influential, and it’s the language of young people. By tapping into this, IRIS aims it can make the biggest impact while reaching the widest audience possible.
But moving image storytelling extends far beyond documentary films. Although nonfiction is important in social justice work and is what Mertes refers to as the “legacy approach to storytelling,” IRIS is broadening narrative storytelling parameters to include new media and fiction—formats that are not typically supported by philanthropy.
These include virtual reality and augmented reality, short-form media, hybrid, comedy, satire, animation, webisodes and social media content, among others. IRIS will look to distribute through a variety of platforms, including streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, TikTok, visual journalism, immersive storytelling and more.
“We want this to be a place where donors can feel comfortable learning and experiencing and understanding this question of meaning-making and culture and progressive change,” said Mertes.
At the intersection of storytelling and social change
Through a series of conversations with Mertes, Ellen Friedman, executive director of the Compton Foundation, “came to the understanding that this intersection of storytelling and organizing and social work was evolving into a pretty robust and important practice.”
One of the primary focuses of a recent global conference of grantmakers called Shimmering Solidarity was rising authoritarianism around the world. According to Friedman, one of the things that came up was the importance of lifting up narratives and stories about those who embrace a more inclusive and diverse future.
“The power in this kind of work is in the combating of isolation and thinking that you’re in this alone, and IRIS is a beautiful example of saying, ‘No—there is a global network of people from North to South, East to West, that are actually working every day to lift up a different narrative of what the future can look like, and pushing back on authoritarian narratives,’” said Friedman. “And I think this is the moment—it’s a critical moment for a project like this to be launched.”
In addition to the rise of authoritarianism, some of the other challenges that IRIS hopes to address are climate change, polarization in societies, the erosion of civil rights, and involuntary migration due to both economic and climate-driven challenges.
For Ford, as in all of its funding, the core focus is inequality and addressing its key drivers, said Martín Abregú, vice president of international programs.
“We know that one of the key drivers of inequality is related to narratives that exclude some voices and that bring forth a message that is basically perpetrating inequality,” he added. “So in that context, we wanted to ensure that we were paying enough attention to the question of cultural shifts, of building the narratives that will basically help us build the kind of global systems that will address inequalities.”
According to Abregú, IRIS will create the infrastructure needed to provide opportunities so that those historically excluded stories and voices will be elevated and shared globally. Mertes explained that IRIS won’t be dictating how that will happen, or whether something has to go to a particular streaming platform, for example. “We believe that it’s important to first create robust stories, build a narrative analysis, and then let the stories find their own pathway, and then to promote those pathways,” she said.
Crucially, the majority of IRIS’ leadership will not be based in the U.S. Most of the core members of the team will be located internationally, as Ford has offices around the globe.
Connecting local voices to global audiences
Through its Moving Image Storytelling program, Ford has already been funding the kind of work it will support through IRIS. One example of this is its support of Jayro Bustamante’s feature film, “La Llorona,” a 2019 Guatemalan horror film that looks at the genocide of Indigenous Mayans in the 1980s. “La Llorona” was shortlisted for Best International Feature Film in the 2021 Academy Awards.
Another prominent example is None on Record, which is a digital media organization based in Nairobi that tells stories of LGBTQ Africans, countering false narratives with personal stories. Started in 2006, None on Record documents stories from across the continent and produces content including documentaries and podcasts, with Senegalese-American journalist, filmmaker, radio producer and writer Selly Thiam serving as its executive director.
Ford’s East Africa office supported None on Record with multi-year, general operating support to build its infrastructure. One of the biggest challenges facing the organization has been finding places to distribute the work. While it’s been able to use platforms like YouTube, in recent years, many countries have made it increasingly difficult to distribute content that discusses LGBT issues, even on seemingly open platforms.
“As more people have access to mobile phone data, more people are online in the continent, I think it has become an issue where people are seeing these distribution platforms as actual threats to society, however that’s defined,” Thiam said. “One of the larger challenges is finding distribution platforms that can keep the storyteller safe, can keep us as a team safe when we’re producing this content and distributing it.”
None on Record has been able to distribute its work through universities, podcasts, film screenings and festivals. Its Seeking Asylum series was distributed on PBS and the group partnered with the U.N. for its African Allies series.
Thiam noted the importance of having a record, an archive, of these stories. For a long time, there was a prevailing narrative that there were no queer Africans.
“It’s a really painful thing when you are described as so far out of your culture that there was no way that you could have existed before colonization,” Thiam added. “It’s something that kind of renders you invisible. And I wanted to make sure that we had something where the next generation can see themselves and know that there are more people like them and how they organize themselves and how they tell their stories.”
As part of IRIS’ approach, the Compton Foundation will be working alongside Ford to create a fellowship to learn more about how the intersection between storytelling and organizing can be a more powerful force for social change. The fellowship will embed creative storytellers with civil society leadership.
Friedman said, “The idea right now is to pull together practitioners and really learn from them about what is useful, what is needed, what have they learned from this integration between storytelling and organizing and what would be helpful in investing in a fellowship that will help to promulgate those learnings.”
Mertes sees this role as a kind of “chief storytelling officer,” and refers to this body of work as narrative analysis, which seeks to better understand the structures of “meaning-making.”
“You can think of it as kind of multi-level,” said Mertes. At the deeper level are discussions about narrative structures themselves, and then at a higher level are the stories that draw on those structures.
Elevating voices for change
While IRIS is launching with three funders, Mertes hopes that it can work with additional donors to really think about how creative moving image storytelling intersects with social movements around the world. According to Mertes, IRIS will be a space where donors with different agendas will be able to work together to create progress on issues related to inequality.
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, both Mertes and Abregú echo the sentiments many organizers and advocates have expressed: that communities closest to the pain hold the keys to solutions. Indigenous communities, for example, have long grappled with issues like environmental racism and degradation. For Mertes and Abregú, these communities can, and often already have, developed solutions to these issues.
IRIS seeks to “raise these solutions up, articulate them, circulate them, and really fight for their implementation,” said Mertes. “So this is one way of doing that in light of many other tools.”
IRIS will be a way of using the power and impact of stories as an additional tool to create a better future, not just for the Global South, but the world in general.
“It’s very hopeful, in my mind, to really identify the places and people that are actively and daily working to help all of us see a future that we want to live into,” said Friedman. “I don’t know if that’s too optimistic, but I think that’s what keeps all of us going, is that we’re laying down the pathway for that to happen, and IRIS, I think, is a critical step along that path.”
Comments Off on Recognizing the Power of Storytelling, a Funder Collaborative Backs Media in the Global South
Sarah Audelo is executive director of the Alliance for Youth Action, a progressive organization that supports local young people’s organizations to strengthen democracy, fix the economy and correct injustices.
Individuals and organizations invested millions of dollars to turn out the youth vote in the 2020 elections. Youth civic engagement groups saw their budgets double and even triple. The results of this investment in the energy, innovation and vision of young leaders were stunning: 50 percent of young people (ages 18-29) voted in the 2020 presidential election — an 11-point increase from 2016, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. The old stereotypes — young people don’t vote, don’t bother contacting them — were finally put to rest.
The record-shattering results of 2020 beg the question: What if local youth organizations had million-dollar budgets every year, not just in presidential election years? What if those funds were committed before the kickoff of the new year? While there has been a great deal of talk in the funding community about resourcing youth civic engagement year-round, 2021 fundraising is off to a very slow start for 501(c)(3) activities, and even slower for advocacy and political organizing in 501(c)(4) groups.
Funders often view young people solely as voters to be activated in election years, especially presidential election years. Without the need to get out the vote, they may not see a compelling reason to invest in young people’s civic organizations. This is a mistake. Voting is one tool, and a powerful one, but it exists alongside all the other tools that young people use to flex the muscle of democracy: from protesting in the streets to creating art that tells their stories to testifying in city council chambers and state houses, to name only a few.
Building political power is a continuous process that goes beyond voting and elections. In off-years, young organizers have been getting the police out of public schools in Milwaukee, defeating an anti-transgender bill in Montana, and passing legislation to protect student loan borrowers in Colorado. Every non-electoral victory that young organizers achieve keeps young people engaged in their local communities and is a proof point of why voting matters. With support, young organizers can build the skills and relationships they need to bring their peers to the polls, when the time comes.
As we end the second quarter of 2021, we are falling behind. For example, Wisconsin has a tight Senate race next year, but money is not flowing into Wisconsin like it needs to. Montana now has a second House seat, but the state isn’t yet on funders’ radar screens. Young people in New Hampshire defeated voter suppression legislation that would have hobbled the youth vote, just in time for what will be a close Senate race next year, but they did so without robust financial support.
In the southern states, young bad-ass organizers are doing the work, but not yet attracting the attention of funders. Although funding for civic engagement from national donors started to arrive in Texas a few years ago, it is a big state with big needs. Black youth in Mississippi are working hard to transform their communities, and so much is possible if funders would invest in the state with at least a 10-year vision, as was done in Georgia.
If youth civic engagement organizations were adequately resourced, executive directors would have room to innovate and carry out big ideas. As only one example, in 2018 through the Midwest Culture Lab, three groups in our network experimented with training local rappers, DJs and other artists as “cultural organizers” to provide political education to their fans and followers. Now this is common.
The power isn’t just in the field, knocking on doors. It is investing in communications to tell the story of what’s happening on the ground, collecting data from every interaction to track what is working and what is engaging young people, and creating infrastructure so that the organization is healthy and sustainable. Higher and dependable salaries would enable organizers and other staff to stay in their jobs long enough to apply what they’ve learned in one election cycle to the next and, ideally, continue to create safe and loving communities over a lifetime.
Youth organizers are to thank for the 50 percent turnout rate among young people, although it is not nearly high enough. Millennials and Generation Z — who now make up the largest voting bloc and whose values of community and care are staying remarkably consistent as we age — are at the center of a vision for a new, multi-racial democracy. We are fighting for, and have the most to gain from, policies that will address systemic racism, curb climate change, extend health care to everyone, and help families become financially free to achieve their goals, including college without crushing debt.
For some funders, the driving motivation is simply turning out voters, but just imagine what could be accomplished if they thought beyond the ballot box. Grant makers who want to see real change should commit to long-term sustained investment in the youth sector. Young people — with their joy, optimism, and innovation — will take it from there.
Comments Off on Grant makers must fund the big dreams of the youth movement
Somehow, on your way to becoming a great organizer, you became an executive director.
Suddenly you are reviewing bylaws, trying to make sense of a balance sheet, and wondering how your ability to organize people prepared you for this? Let me be the first to say: it didn’t. And that’s okay. You’ll figure out the bylaws and the books, or find other people who can, all so you can get to what you do best: organizing.
Look, none of us grows up dreaming of being an executive director, but now that you’ve become one, the organization is a canvas on which you and others can create. That is the gift of this job. As long as the canvas is worth the struggle, you keep painting.
I’ll soon be passing the baton for the organization I’ve directed for 14 years. In this year of transitions, many new directors are taking the reins. It has me thinking about the beauty and burden of this job, and gathering lessons to share with your generation.
Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese began their Melted Away series in the garden of Jim Kempner Fine Art when they installed a scuture carved in ice of the word Democracy in March 2006 on the anniversary of the Iraq War.
During the process LigoranoReese filmed the transformation and editing the time lapse footage in its entirety.
The State of Things Remix is the artist updated version substituting Donald Trumps ellipsis speech during the certification of the Electoral College.
Back in May, the NoVo Foundation, the largest grantmaker supporting women’s rights groups in the United States—particularly women and girls of color—sent shockwaves through the field when it announced it was ending multi-year funding, reviewing every one of its current grants and laying off a full program team amid the pandemic.
Afterward, a small group of consultants and trustees convened over a shared concern about the announcement, its impact on grantees and staff, and trustees’ lack of transparency.
That initial group, all of whom are white, determined that the NoVo Foundation’s announcement wasn’t an isolated incident, but endemic of larger problems across philanthropy—namely, that foundation trustees tend to operate in a frustratingly opaque manner and are rarely held accountable for decisions affecting vulnerable populations. Moreover, they observed that foundation leadership and staff often don’t see eye-to-eye on critical issues, echoing a recent Inside Philanthropy survey that found only 50% of responding foundation staff felt their board members were “very much” or “completely” committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, compared to 90% of their colleagues on staff.
The group decided to act, and the result is Trustee Accountability: A Call to Action for Foundation Trustees. The initiative includes a list of specific action items trustees can pledge to uphold to bring greater accountability and equity in philanthropy. Individuals can sign the pledge online, post the Call to Action PDF on their organization’s website, and share stories documenting examples of “positive shifts in how trustees exercise power and make decisions.”
While a larger group has shaped the nascent initiative, the core team includes consultants Mike Allison, Susan Colson, Susan Mooney, and Paula Morris; Karie Brown, consultant and board chair of Hidden Leaf Foundation; and Paul Haible, executive director of the Peace Development Fund. The pledge currently has around 100 signatories, at least 20 of whom are trustees or donors.
“There has been a lot of focus on organized philanthropy in recent months and on how foundations are or are not responding to the demands of the moment,” the core organizing team shared with Inside Philanthropy, via email. “But those often speak of foundations generally—we wanted to add voice to that but also particularly to highlight that the power to make real change immediately and over time sits firmly in the hands of foundation board members. How decisions are made and by whom in foundation board rooms has profound consequences particularly for BIPOC communities.”
Alexandra Toma, a signatory and Compton Foundation board member agreed, telling Inside Philanthropy, “Without leadership and a commitment from those who have positional power, change is nearly impossible—or, because I’m an optimist, it’s very, very difficult.”
Transforming culture and practices
The idea of unaccountable foundation trustees, immune from the impact of their decision-making, is not a new one. Ideas for reform have run the gamut, but as things currently stand, “there are actually very few structural mechanisms to support accountability for the impact of decisions made by trustees,” the all-volunteer team behind Trustee Accountability told me.
“The best hope right now for transformation is for trustees to hold themselves and each other accountable,” the team stated. “We hope that this initiative can contribute to pushing them to do that and to sharing positive examples when it happens.”
The initiative aims to “catalyze trustees to transform the culture and practices in their foundations, including inviting those most impacted to inform strategy and funding decisions.” The team also hopes “trustees will advocate for legal and other structural changes that increase and diversify investments in BIPOC communities and solutions in both immediate and long-term ways rather than amassing and protecting resources for decades.”
“This is a volunteer effort, and it is gaining traction,” the team wrote. “We are inspired by the many phenomenal BIPOC leaders who are speaking out, despite substantial barriers in moving systemic and culture change.” The team cited the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s latest newsletter about organizations stepping up to fill NoVo’s void and a piece by Ray Holgado’s experience of anti-Blackness at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
The team mentioned other initiatives and organizations that are working toward greater accountability, including the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, ABFE, Justice Funders, the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, CHANGE Philanthropy, Neighborhood Funders Group and Exponent Philanthropy.
While these organizations are doing important work, it is clear, the team wrote, “that any effort to transform philanthropy is doomed to failure if the trustees that hold the power and the purse strings are not actively engaged in transforming themselves and their institutions.”
Laying out an equity roadmap
When implemented, organizers say the Trustee Accountability’s Call to Action and its to-do list “will help shore up a philanthropic sector that prioritizes racial equity and the liberation of all people.”
Some of these recommendations will sound familiar, like “getting unrestricted funds distributed swiftly in the short term,” considering participatory grantmaking, bringing BIPOC leaders on board, and ramping up funding for BIPOC women and girls’ organizations, “given NoVo trustees’ apparent divestment in Black leadership at a critical historical moment.” The document also encourages trustees to support the Movement for Black Lives’ demands for COVID-19 and their “new vision of public safety.”
“Giving differently is a good start, but it is not enough,” reads the call to action statement. “This moment calls for adaptive leadership and practices for true accountability, rather than quick fixes.”
The call to action asks trustees to “take responsibility for how we are upholding white supremacy, regardless of the purity of our intentions.” This involves recognizing “the privilege, power and responsibility we hold, deepen[ing] our own practice of anti-racist leadership so that white supremacy culture is not perpetuated” and taking responsibility for “our own continued learning, rather than be educated by BIPOC staff.”
Initiative organizers also call for structural reforms across the sector. For example, it asks trustees to “advocate to increase payout levels for foundations and donor-advised funds and challenge the warehousing of wealth for future generations when those funds are needed now.”
“White folks need to stand up”
The San Francisco-based Compton Foundation is a relatively small, progressive funder that has traditionally focused on issues like climate change, progressive foreign policy, and reproductive rights and justice.
In November of 2019, the board announced that it will be spending out the foundation’s assets and closing the doors by the end of 2027. Board member Alexandra Toma told me Compton’s decision to spend out was a recognition of “the need to move resources out of the control of unelected trustees, even though the foundation has long had family and non-family members of the board.”
The foundation’s Board President Vanessa Davenport and Treasurer Emilie Cortes are also Trustee Accountability signatories. Toma told me that their collective participation “is a continuation of a longstanding commitment by Compton and me personally to do everything in our power to dismantle racism in the philanthropic sector (and, yes, overall!). So this was a natural next step.”
As to why philanthropy needed the Trustee Accountability project at this specific moment in time, Toma said, “As the events of 2020 continue to unfold, the importance of supporting the leadership of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) organizers—and particularly BIPOC women and LGBTQ people—becomes clearer and clearer. And yet, the progressive philanthropic dollars needed to sustain BIPOC organizing are still overwhelmingly controlled by white people and institutions.”
Trustees, Toma said, “are rarely held accountable for their actions, how they make decisions, and what the impacts are on the communities they purport to serve. White folks need to stand up and do the work!”
Additional signatories include Nathan Cummings Foundation Board Chair Jaimie Mayer, plus trustees at the Hill-Snowdon Foundation and Kolibri Foundation.
As for the foundation that catalyzed the initiative in the first place, Trustee Accountability organizers reached out to the NoVo Foundation for clarity around what grantees can expect in the future. They remain in communication with the foundation, since, to date, “many organizations are reporting to us that they do not know the NoVo trustees’ plans moving forward.”
Comments Off on A New Initiative Calls for Greater Trustee Accountability, Commitment to Racial Justice