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How to Fund Narrative Ecosystems

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Image credit: Jason Weingardt on Unsplas

Image credit: Jason Weingardt on Unsplash


How can philanthropy effectively support narratives of liberation? As people who traverse the interconnected areas of narrative and philanthropy, this question has been at the center of our work for decades—and we have seen many missteps and promising practices along the way. Recently, both of us attended an international gathering that sought to provide answers.


Over four days in October, a convening organized by International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS), Puentes, and the Global Narrative Hive brought together more than 120 people in Bogotá, Colombia, to share observations and experiences of doing narrative work that builds the power of global justice movements. The gathering—called Confluence: Building Narrative Power—brought together narrative practitioners, which included activists, journalists, academics, storytellers, campaigners, and funders. The assembly was a reflection of the field’s sophistication and the persistent impact it makes (often in intentionally imperceptible ways), as well as proof of its potential to flourish when we cultivate the right conditions.


Narrative change is a fundamentally collective endeavor.

From our unique vantage point at the intersection of philanthropy and narrative practice, we offer a fragment of the knowledge participants generously offered that is uncommonly heard within philanthropy. Below, we share some of the implications that these insights hold for the practice of grantmaking and capacity building.


Ecosystem: Fortifying the Infrastructure for Narrative Power

Changing beliefs and behaviors at scale cannot be achieved by a single movement, organization, or campaign. Narrative change is a fundamentally collective endeavor, and the transformation we seek to achieve requires a broad set of actors to work together over time to advance a shared vision.


The ecosystem of narrative practitioners that operate within and alongside global justice movements is diffuse across sectors, issues, and locations. People in this community work from many different theories of change, employ discrete yet complementary strategies, and often view their heterogeneity as a source of strength. Yet, these defining features can make the narrative ecosystem illegible to the uninitiated.


For many, Confluence provided a way to see things about the ecosystem—and the narrative infrastructure it contains—that they had missed previously. Narrative infrastructure is often taken for granted because, like a constellation in the star-filled sky, it takes the astronomical guidance of a trained eye for the picture to appear. Confluence disproved the often asserted and self-defeating claim that the ecosystem has little to no narrative infrastructure to speak of. Moreover, it built on that groundwork by providing the container for myriad actors to converge, counter isolation, grow trust, and expand their collective wisdom.


Philanthropy plays a critical role in the narrative ecosystem. Funders need to make sustained contributions to narrative power building across generations—because that is the time horizon on which narrative change takes place. In addition to making long-term, unrestricted grants—a practice that grantmakers can adopt immediately—funders need to provide resources in a way that centers the ecosystem rather than individual organizations.


“Relationships [are] an enabling condition for the narrative infrastructure that is vital to power building.”

“Many in philanthropy approach narrative as a technical field, rather than seeing it as a strategy that gives the best results when it is grounded in relational organizing,” said James Savage, program director at Fund for Global Human Rights. “Gathering spaces like Confluence acknowledge and value our relationships as an enabling condition for the narrative infrastructure that is vital to power building.”


By funding groups that prioritize working through durable partnerships, networks, and collaboration—rather than principally focusing on supporting a group to expand its own programming—philanthropy can counter practices that reinforce a culture of scarcity and individualism; among these: concentrating power among “donor darlings,” fostering competition within the field, and dividing groups that should be working in solidarity.


Funding with an ecosystem orientation results in a better understanding of how the narrative field operates and improves funder credibility among practitioners. This funding orientation also strengthens narrative infrastructure by ensuring knowledge, skills, and expertise are diffusely shared, and the work is more evenly distributed.


Expertise: Operating in Right Relationship


The Confluence co-hosts fostered deliberate diversity in the meeting’s composition by curating a group of narrative practitioners working across issues and disciplines. In part due to the geographic priorities of its funders, Confluence predominantly featured participants from and working in Latin America, with smaller contingents from other regions. Even in representing a mere fraction of the larger narrative ecosystem, the gathering offered a profound illustration of the power of bringing experts together in a space where narrative was centered.


For many, Confluence served as a rare opportunity for practitioners from the global majority to directly dialogue with one another rather than have their interactions mediated through a funder or colleague in Europe or the United States. One participant encapsulated this by remarking, “I am Kenyan, and this is the first time I have spoken with someone from Latin America directly.”


As narrative change in this decade has become the conversation du jour, US and European practitioners and funders assumed roles as intermediaries and interpreters of the global ecosystem. Unwittingly replicating colonial inheritances, these funders and practitioners contributed to asymmetries in the ecosystem by popularizing their own perspectives and practices as the aspirational standard, claiming undue influence as gatekeepers and knowledge bearers in the process. (We are mindful that our writing this account lends itself to this trend.)


At Confluence, we saw and heard why it is important to diligently intervene in the familiar yet pernicious inclination to take up a singular, technocratic framework and apply it across the field. Such a framework requires intervention when it grants those with systemic power and the greatest visibility with unwarranted definitional authority and fails to account for inherent complexities in shifting narratives transnationally. History has given us ample guidance on what we ought not to do, and we would be well-served by trying to avoid past mistakes. Foundations must apply a decolonial logic to funding strategies that support the field to emerge in more just, honest, and self-directed ways.


Applying a field-led funding methodology that is rigorous in its reflection of the perspectives and practices of the global majority not only values the breadth of expertise that lives across the narrative ecosystem but also uplifts its ability to increase the potential for impact. When funders are clear-eyed about their roles as resource stewards rather than agenda setters, they act in right relationship—that is, with attentiveness and responsiveness to the needs of others—with narrative practitioners.


While often presented as binaries…narratives operate on a spectrum and in dynamic relationship to each other.

It is ideal for philanthropic institutions seeking to resource narrative change to hire narrative practitioners to design and lead the grantmaking because they already have the expertise and trusting relationships within the ecosystem that enable its success. Foundations lacking internal expertise can proactively cultivate relationships with narrative practitioners or move resources through funding collaboratives with those connections and capacities. (We encourage funders to reach out to us or Confluence co-hosts if you need recommendations on where to begin.)







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