New Frontiers: some reflections

Last week, 57 pioneering speakers from around the world came together with over 500 people online and in person at the beautiful King’s Place in London to reflect on the new frontiers of philanthropy and investment.

It was an incredible couple of days – full of new connections, expanded possibilities, and invitations to challenge ourselves more honestly. While JRF invested in the conference, many of the participants and contributors are already leading the way in the work of re-imagining philanthropy and investment for a world where people and planet can both thrive. We are so grateful to everyone who attended, everyone who spoke, and everyone who has been generous enough to share their reflections and feedback since.

At the event we created this video of people sharing their reflections on the urgency of the task, and the depth of the work required if we are to build a future where people and planet can thrive.

Why we wanted to create this conference

We wanted to create a space for many people already pushing the boundaries of philanthropy and investment to come together and reflect on the scale of the challenges we face, and the work that’s needed. We really didn’t want to spend too much time talking about the many ways in which flows of capital currently support and reinforce an economic system based on extraction and wealth concentration: instead, we wanted our time together to be spent exploring the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘what might bes’.

It was really important to us to create an event that was honest about the moment we’re in, rather than pretending there’s a simple pathway to an equitable and sustainable future. Right now, we’re in the midst of a transition: we know things need to change in how money flows, in what we value and where wealth accumulates; but we’re not quite sure how that might look, or how best to get there. We’re dealing in imperfect knowledge, contradiction and dilemmas. And that means we need to step into unknown territory – to exercise courage, solidarity, and leadership.

But we also wanted to be clear that while we were inviting people to search out the contours of the new frontiers, we’re not starting from year zero. There are so many clues about what these possibilities might look like. All of our speakers and panellists – as well as many others who attended or who are featured in the online resources – are already leading that work. We wanted to platform as many emerging ideas and practices as possible, showing what’s already happening, and what might need more support and resourcing.

The messages from the conference

We’re delighted that you can now watch all the livestreamed panels in your own time – we’ve included a full list of links at the bottom of this blog post. And you can also browse through the supporting materials we created for the conference through this notion site. On here you’ll find links to all our speakers, explanations for why we framed the panels as we did, many connections to other related work, and a series of prompt questions to help you reflect on what our speakers shared and make sense of it all in the context of your own work.

Stepping back from the event, these are the themes that really stand out for us from all the conversations across the conference. While they felt like universal themes across all the panels, we’ve highlighted particular sessions that dig deeper into each of these themes, to help you navigate all the content we’re sharing here.

The scale of change required

The conference coincided with the week where the UK experienced higher temperatures than ever previously recorded. That heat was a visceral reminder of just how much needs to change if we are to give our children any kind of future. This knowledge hung over our time together, creating a sense of urgency as well as a call for deep change – a fundamental rewiring of our economic systems and the financial models that support and reinforce those systems.

The scale of money required for systemic transformation is nowhere near the scale of money that philanthropy is offering.
Immy Kaur, Civic Square

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The need to redesign our investment frameworks and financial models

The redesign task when it comes to our investment frameworks and financial models needs to be commensurate with the scale of change required to shift to an equitable, just and sustainable future. We are in the foothills of imagining what new financial ecologies might look like – ecologies which bring together different kinds of capital and wealth around a shared ambition of economic and social justice.

How do we finance things that people just don’t know how to finance? And how do we bring larger pools of capital into play?
Kieron Boyle, Guys and St. Thomas' Trust Foundation

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The importance of thinking about flows of power as well as capital

There are opportunities to extend and grow emerging models of democratising wealth and handing economic power back to communities and movements through new financial instruments. There is a need to do more to resource work that’s centred on building alternatives, as well as backing efforts to resist and challenge aspects of the status quo that aren’t serving us well.

It’s important to differentiate between philanthropy as a behaviour that benefits the rich, and Indigenous philanthropy which has a long history of ethically stewarding the resources of our territories in intergenerational relationship and accountability.
Kris Archie, The Circle

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In times of transition, we need to work across multiple levels

Plurality was a huge theme of the conference. There was a sense that change was needed across multiple levels – the grassroots actors in movements and communities, the people working in places to show in the micro what changes are needed in the macro, the often-obscured regimes of regulation and policy frameworks, and at a narrative level around the way we talk and think about what’s possible. That plurality challenges our conceptions of progress, impact and risk, and invites us to think again about how we gear ourselves towards experimentation and learning in a period of deep uncertainty.

We need to embrace the messiness and look beyond the singular.
Caroline Mason, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation

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Philanthropy as both part of the problem and a source of potential

We cannot think about the future of philanthropy without reflecting on its past, and its origins in colonial practices that have left a legacy of harm. This history needs acknowledgement and it needs to reshape mindsets – about whose wealth we’re investing – and practices – the types of work that are resourced, and how that resourcing happens.

If philanthropy is not actively working to dismantle the unjust conditions it operates in, then we are complicit in these conditions, and we are facilitating their continuance.
Amahra Spence, MAIA Group

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The questions we’re asking this week

One of the things we’re really pleased about is that many of those who attended have told us they not only found the content inspiring and energising, but also that they felt challenged and uncomfortable. This feels important: as Farzana Khan said on the day, ‘if you are comfortable today, if you are safe, if you are well in these times of crisis, it means that you are protected by privilege’. It’s not a time to turn away from what might feel unfamiliar or dismiss what we don’t understand.

We both felt this too, and in the spirit of working openly, we wanted to share the questions we’re left with. There are many more! – but these are a few of our big ones.

How can we be the work as well as do the work?

One of the things we loved about the conference was how so many of our speakers shared stories of their own histories and families and how those shape the work they do. We heard about Amahra’s granddad, and Eli’s aunties, and the way in which those influences shaped their conceptions of liberation and collective thriving. So much philanthropic practice is designed to distance funders from the people doing the work: power dynamics abound about whose knowledge matters, and whose judgement counts. What would need to change for funders and investors to feel a more embodied connection to the purpose of their work, and a more visceral sense of urgency about the change that’s needed? How can funders and investors address the inherent power and privilege of their positions, without freezing and getting stuck in that work?

The problems you’re getting drawn to solve are often the same ones that you need to address internally. You need to do the internal work as well as supporting others.
Farah Elahi, Greater London Authority

The dilemma of language: nuance and precision versus accessibility

Across the event, the question of language came up frequently. We think there are a few things to untangle here. First, to notice how uncomfortable we can find it to feel that we don’t understand something, or to be confronted by something that doesn’t make sense. But that discomfort is part of the work of unlearning and relearning. We really notice the role language plays in either keeping people within familiar mental models, or asking them to step beyond them. Sometimes it’s important to use new or precise language to help with this task, and to introduce nuance and discernment. For example, ‘reform’ and ‘modernism’ have different roots and quite distinct significance to transformation and liberation. That said, language can also be a tool of exclusion, and a means of hiding a lack of rigour behind unnecessary complexity. We think this is a dilemma to navigate. We want it to be an explicit part of the conversation as we move forward.

Unlearning everything you’ve been taught to do in order to succeed is challenging, emotionally and intellectually. It requires a network to sustain you while you’re going through it, otherwise you’ll abandon the journey.
Laurence Mayer, Digital Freedom Fund

How can we connect this emerging agenda to wider investment practices?

We would have loved to have more people from the wider worlds of asset management and investment advice in the room last week. Most of the discussion around investment was centred on the investment and spending of philanthropic endowments; that is a drop in the ocean compared to the investment activities of pension funds and other major asset holders. Our ambition is to build more connections between these worlds, and to think about how philanthropic practice might be a vanguard for that wider activity. What might all the things we discussed at the conference mean for financial regulations and duties that shape wider investment decisions? How could our work around ways of redirecting capital and power flows influence those?

We need to have a very strong bias of responsibility to transcend status quo logics. How do we hold ourselves accountable to, first and foremost, higher order accountabilities such as future generations?
Jayne Engle, Participatory Canada, and author of Sacred Civics

How can we continue to hold a space that values plurality and tries to make sense of it?

We wanted to lay out a wide range of different practices, approaches, communities and networks at the conference: we hoped that each individual panel would offer a compelling story, and that we could show how each element was part of something bigger. We need all of us. We need to fund the movements work and the infrastructure work. We need to fund the healing work and the innovation work. We need to fund the hard and hidden wiring and the more intangible work of narratives and culture-making. We need to fund policy and regulation work and the new alternatives. We also need to fund the ‘systems readiness’ - the conditions for change. Pockets of these practices have been happening for years but we hoped that by combining them at the conference, we began to bring a sense of new potential. How can we hold on to that need for plurality and avoid the temptation of searching for a silver bullet?

Single projects don’t change systems.
Ivana Gazibara, Transcap Initiative

How can we stay accountable to ambitious, deep, transformative change, as much as we are to equity and justice?

As we acknowledged in our context-setting blog, the work on reparations, equity and justice will last a life-time, and as we continue our commitments to this work and deepen our understanding of it in practice, how can we also make as great a commitment to doing work that is transformative – moving larger sums of money, over longer periods of time, to work that might contain a lot of ‘unknowns’, be pushing at the edges, or have much more explicit funds for experimentation and exploration. It felt refreshing to be immersed in conversations over those two days that looked up and out and were not mired in funder practice ratings, surveys and so forth. How do we continue to do more of this together – to be courageous and ambitious in our strategic intent, and then root it in practical action?

The abyss we’re looking into is the success of capitalism, not its failure. Either lean in to the abyss, or get out of the way.
Anasuya Sengupya, Whose Knowledge?

What can we do to reframe our understanding of risk and impact?

We know that a number of Trustees from UK foundations attended the conference last week and we are delighted about that. One of the biggest challenges for the new frontiers we explored is the way in which Boards still consider risk and impact in their work. But – with the climate crisis upon us, with rising inequality and rapidly concentrating wealth – the greatest risk of all is doing too little, or not trying anything new at all. How can we help those with positional power today to understand risk as a series of bets and probabilities, rather than something that needs to be mitigated? How can we re-weight what counts as ‘risk’ so that inaction is seen as more risky than action?

It is necessary to distinguish between risk and uncertainty. Risk frameworks create a false sense of certainty in a world that is fundamentally uncertain.
Giulio Quaggiotto

How do we advance this agenda collectively, and with the right level of ambition?

Part of our intention with this conference was to bring together fellow travellers, building a greater sense of solidarity and commitment among people doing the hard work of building the new in the context of how things are now. That work can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting and lonely. The joy in the room at the conference felt like evidence of the importance of making new connections. We are thinking hard about how to deepen that sense of collective endeavour in the way we take this work forward. What might things look like if we framed the next few years as a collective challenge to reshape philanthropic and investment practices? What kind of leadership skills are needed to make this possible? What capacities and competencies do we need to grow? How might we embed some of the emerging practices explored at the conference more deeply in philanthropic organisations?

What could be possible if we all worked together – using all of our energy, resources and love?
Louisa Mann, Thirty Percy

Over the coming months, we’ll be sharing more insight and ideas from the pioneers who were part of this conference on this blog. We’re thinking about how else we can continue working openly. Let us know if you’re interested in being part of this journey, and if so, how, by filling in this form.