Is an Ecosystem-based Approach the Future of Funding?

Cycle of Action in an Ecosystem
Cycle of Action in an Ecosystem

I have been engaged in the nonprofit arts and social justice sectors as a staff member, consultant, coach and board member for over 25 years. Over the course of those many years, I’ve been a part of some great conversations about how to connect art and justice in mission-driven work at institutions as well as in other aspects of organizational life. All of these conversations were passionate, but somehow, none seemed to influence what or how things actually got done in our organizations. There have always been factors that get in the way. Perhaps most notably, artificial boundaries often form silos around our work and obscure the role that art can play in creating culture change.

One solution to breaking down these boundaries involves acknowledging the entire “ecosystem” in which we are trying to achieve our shared goals.

Screen shot 2012-12-18 at 12.15.47 PMThinking about an “ecosystem”

It is important to recognize that one organization or community is not like the next, and what’s best in one place may be a miserable failure elsewhere. In the process of developing the direction of a new goal or intended impact, arts organizations (and funders) need to engage the whole ecosystem, or system of influence that impacts an entire community.

Bridging the arts and social justice through a new funding approach

The Oakland, California-based Akonadi Foundation is an example of an organization making explicit connections between the arts and social justice work in its thinking, planning and funding. I first became aware of Akonadi at the Tides Center’s Momentum Conference a few years ago, when they were in the process of developing a new strategic plan.

Recently, the foundation implemented a new “ecosystem”-based funding approach that serves as a framework for their core social justice mission to challenge structural racism. In order to support an ecosystem focused on dismantling racial injustice, they fund not only organizations that are doing direct community organizing or “base-building,” but also the arts and culture organizations allied with those groups. By strategically treating these networks of organizations as interconnected partners, or “ecosystems,” Akonadi believes that each individual organization will increase their own capacity – leading to a more effective and impactful justice movement overall.

I recently spoke with Melanie Cervantes, artist and program officer for the Race and Place Fund at Akonadi to learn more about their ecosystem perspective.

Elissa Perry:  What’s the story behind the Akonadi Foundation’s ecosystem funding approach?

Melanie Cervantes:  For a while, we’d ask during our assessments: is the organization advancing its goals? However, when we began drafting our strategic plan in 2006, we decided to integrate movement building into the main missions of grantees. The question then became: how do we move our unit of analysis from an organizational level to a movement level, and what does that look like from a funding perspective?

After identifying that grassroots base-building movements were the core group lacking funding in the Oakland area, we made organizations working in that process our highest priority—and from there, all of these concepts of an ecosystem began to radiate. If grassroots organizations are led by the people most impacted [by racial injustice], then which organizations help support that work?

In looking into organizations that allied with arts and cultural groups, we were able to see which other organizations were working in isolation on their own advocacy work (and as a result, had a smaller level of impact). From there, we realized that we were interested in a systemic, holistic perspective on justice work that was making a large-scale impact across organizations, rather than just supporting different components of that work by funding individual groups.

Factors in an "ecosystem"
Factors in an “ecosystem”

EP:  How does Akonadi define “ecosystem”?

MC:  In scientific terms, an ecosystem is a biological environment, comprised of a community of organisms together with their physical environment, which functions as a system of interacting and interdependent relationships. We use the metaphor of ecosystems to think and talk about movement building and our funding approach.

Diversity, interconnections, and relationships are the main concepts we focus on in ecosystem thinking because they are the most important in our funding approaches. Much like a healthy ecosystem in nature, successful movement building requires a range of intersecting approaches in relationship to each other and their environment.

EP:  Why is a holistic, ecosystem perspective more effective?

MC:  Foundations often create a culture of competition. Organizations that are in the same area or have some similar goals and values have no incentive to work together or across sectors since they are competing for the same funding. In this way, they create their own silos internally and in communities.

We are looking at what we can do in our assessment practices that will help us give money in a way that advances a better set of conditions for silo-busting. Part of our analysis is thinking about the role that philanthropy plays in sustaining those silos. In putting together this framework, we’ve even been thinking about how we can re-structure our own programs, too. The framework has helped us understand how relationships underlie all of the work that needs to get done.

"The Original League of Justice" by Janine Macbeth, the winner of the Akonadi Foundation's 2012 Racial Justice Poster Contest
“The Original League of Justice” by Janine Macbeth, the winner of the Akonadi Foundation’s 2012 Racial Justice Poster Contest

EP:  How do you see arts & culture as a part of the ecosystem?

MC:  We have understood art as both a tool in liberation movements and as glue that holds communities together and gives them meaning through memory, history and celebration.  For example, our Race and Place Fund includes support for cultural centers that are connected to the ecosystem of racial justice organizations in Oakland.

In the past, we have supported the development, production, post-production and distribution of films, as well as festivals, the Racial Justice Poster Project, and cultural and artistic responses to the murder of Oscar Grant.

EP:  Do you usually fund organizations from a particular sector or field? 

MC:  We fund through the emphasis of racial justice; we haven’t funded a particular sector up until now. Whether the work we’re supporting is through research, communications, or arts and cultural work, all are important to larger justice-focused efforts like the California Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers. Our idea of diversity involves looking at the holistic approaches across fields or sectors that organizations take for advancing big efforts like that campaign.

EP:  What’s been the biggest success?

MC:  We haven’t been doing this long enough to have an in-depth analysis of results—but we know that the organizations that understand the power of an arts and culture strategy are making a huge impact through implementing such strategies. Oakland in particular has a rich practice of integrating arts and culture into its social movements; the city serves as a beacon throughout the world for these practices.

A big surprise is has been how far and wide the stories of impact go. We launched a short-term project in 2009, the Oscar Grant Fund, to provide support to organizations that needed small amounts of money to integrate cultural strategies in their response to Oscar Grant’s murder. It received so much feedback for a rather small and short-lived fund. It provided a small amount of money, yet the impact was deep.

EP:  What’s been the biggest challenge?

MC:  I think there is a learning curve for some people in my field of philanthropy. The impacts that art and culture make are significant, but hard to measure. How do you take a ruler and measure a person’s consciousness changing?

But, like metrics for movement building, I think there is a group of people who are thinking about creating a common language about impact and the metrics that matter. I am encouraged by a group of colleagues who are working to break down the silos of social justice and arts funding—like the Bay Area Justice Funders Network–to better serve communities who are building a world without structured inequities and racism.

Moving forward: Identifying your own ecosystem

In the past, the focus of most nonprofit organizations has primarily been on our individual organizations being the “fittest.” With its ecosystem perspective, the Akonadi Foundation is breaking down silos between organization types, approaches to change, and categories of funding change, which leads to stronger community relationships and networks among grantees. As a result, each organization is able to concentrate on what it does best while contributing to a larger vision shared with other organizations and communities.

To halt the decline of an ecosystem, it is necessary to think like an ecosystem.

– Doug Wheeler

Whether we are leaders in or have explicit ties to movements for justice and equity, all arts organizations exist in a context and have a vision for how that context should be. What’s the ecosystem you are living in? What are the relationships, interconnections, and dimensions of diversity you should be considering to advance that vision and increase the capacity of all of the organizations sharing that vision?

Editor’s note: The included interview was condensed and edited.

Elissa Perry helps people and groups of people with a social mission get better at what they do. For over 15 years she has worked as a staff member, consultant and coach in the areas of leadership, education and the arts. Elissa also teaches in the MA in Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College in California and recently helped establish a social justice concentration. Elissa was a Salzburg Fellow in 2006 and the recipient of an Individual Artist Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission in 2010. She earned a BA in Humanities and holds an MFA in Creative Writing.