From funders to partners: elevating community expertise to help communities thrive

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Marshall Stowell, Vice President of Partnerships, Advocacy and Communications, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation & Maryam Mohiuddin Ahmed, International Youth Foundation Fellow and Founder, Social Innovation Lab


  • Corporations, foundations and NGOs are rewriting the rules of philanthropy.
  • Funders need to see the communities they work with as partners rather than ‘problems to solve’.
  • We must elevate communities’ expertise and ensure they hold the power and drive decision-making.

Corporations, foundations and NGOs worldwide are prioritizing equity and social impact – and in many cases, rewriting the rules by emphasizing partnerships as a lever for change.

What we need now is to elevate community expertise as a source of knowledge, know-how, authenticity and inspirational design. A community must own its power to make lasting change.

Marshall Stowell, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s vice president of partnerships, advocacy and communications, talks with International Youth Foundation Fellow Maryam Mohiuddin Ahmed, founder of the Social Innovation Lab, about what it means to rewrite the rules and narratives undergirding philanthropy and change work. https://embed.acast.com/e4d8255c-8215-5040-a3fe-ecfa8fd8fe53/6149df03dfb7120013764677

MarshallStowell:A greater sharing of power is finally occurring between granting organizations and communities at the center of a funder’s focus. What do you see as the opportunities for substantive progress with this kind of shift?

MaryamMohiuddinAhmed: The shift in the balance of power is both utterly necessary and long overdue. And it is also not enough.

An actual systems shift will see the communities that usually receive funds, particularly BIPOC and historically marginalized ones, be in a position of influence that enables them to be the decision-makers when it comes to allocating the said funds.

We can make substantive progress if funders stop seeing communities and their needs as “problems to solve” and instead recognize them as equal partners and the receptacles of profound wisdom and knowledge. This shift in perspectives transforms the narrative from a savior lens to a service lens — a page we can borrow from social work.

MMA: What does that shift in power look like from a funder’s perspective? How can philanthropy maintain accountability?

MS: I agree fully that community holds the influence and are key decision makers. Funders bring money, data and the ability to convene others, but money alone is hardly enough.

It is impossible to truly share power without first recognizing it, so accounting for the existing power structures and privilege are the first steps toward community members having equal share of voice and decision-making agency.

Second, every dollar must count. Foundations can increase capacity building support, evaluate existing and overly burdensome reporting requirements and pursue longer-term funding models, including unlocking private capital.

Finally, when we talk about accountability, that applies to all aspects of the partnership. Incentive structures, costs and outcomes must be made available and in plain view. By rigorously evaluating partnership models, the community can hold funding partners accountable through their own data collection and evaluation.

Funders and communities must be equal partners in meeting the SDGs.

MS:What are the best ways funders can support work besides the grant itself?

MMA: Funders can recognize that they are a part of the systems that perpetuate inequality, injustice and deep disparity. They need to identify the roles to play to go from being part of the problem to the solution. They can move from grantmaking’s conventional monitoring and evaluation practices to a learning partnership model using a participatory action research framing. Lastly, they can use their platforms to amplify the voices and work of the community itself and its partners, like social entrepreneurs (without perpetuating the “heropreneur”/savior archetype).

While my organization, the Social Innovation Lab, was part of the Youth Economic Participation Initiative, we had regular support from our academic and practitioner learning partners at the University of Minnesota. They helped us see our strengths newly and supported us in building atop this foundation of work, which eventually led to outcomes reported as “disruptive pedagogies via teaching entrepreneurship.”

Likewise, the funding criteria for grants with the Canadian government require indigenous and BIPOC community members to be the lead partners in certain grant calls and funding sources. This restorative approach is solutions focused. https://www.youtube.com/embed/5PPACzs9GsE?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent

MMA:Progress certainly can be made between people like me and my organization and you and other funders, but realistically, systems change happens with a lot of players. Who should be at the table and in what roles?

MS: We believe multi-sectoral partnerships work best when philanthropy plays the role of facilitator, the private sector acts as the accelerator, the government as the builder and the community is at the center as the expert. Communities should direct us toward the solutions that will work best for them.

MS:The philanthropic complex often leans on deficit frames to grab attention and create momentum. Narrative and language like “funder” and “beneficiary” set up a hierarchical relationship. It feels very different to identify as a partner than it does a beneficiary. How can we be better co-conspirators?

MMA: One thing that struck me when we first talked to indigenous communities about poverty and being “marginalized” in Hunza, Pakistan, years ago, was they didn’t believe they were either. The more time I spent with them, the more I realized how skewed our lenses and colonized our approaches were. My team and I started to see the poverty of morality and imagination of our more privileged worlds. This was not to say there isn’t actual resource scarcity. But what’s different is how they view their world, circumstances and sense of agency. Scarcity was part of their material reality, but abundance defines their mindset. The culture is built on sharing, communal resource ownership and having each other’s backs.

Seeing this truly shifted our organization’s worldview from looking at the community as people we need to support to those who are keepers of deep knowledge and wisdom worthy of absolute protection. When we changed our perspective from the beneficiary to the co-conspirator model, the quality and impact of our work shifted drastically.

The same shift in lenses and world views for funders sitting on multimillion- or multibillion-dollar endowments hold tremendous potential for systems change. Understanding communities in their true historical context (people who have had resources, including land, stolen) and recognizing their capacity to solve their problems (once their access to resources is restored) is a much-needed paradigmatic shift for both funders and those seeking those funds.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Social innovators address the world’s most serious challenges ranging from inequality to girls’ education and disaster relief that affect all of us, but in particular vulnerable and excluded groups. To achieve maximum impact and start to address root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favourable policy decisions, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs and access to decision makers.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 400 late-stage social innovators. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation’s goal is to highlight and expand proven and impactful models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and grow the field by showcasing best-in-class examples, models for replication and cutting-edge research on social innovation.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship’s 2021 Annual Report evaluated the work of its 2019 and 2020 Awardees. It shows that despite challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation’s community has found new ways to join forces, respond and develop the movement of social innovators.

Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and World Economic Forum constituents and business members are invited to nominate outstanding social innovators. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum. Share License and Republishing Written by

Marshall Stowell, Vice President of Partnerships, Advocacy and Communications, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

Maryam Mohiuddin Ahmed, International Youth Foundation Fellow and Founder, Social Innovation Lab

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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