New power, new conversations: the IFC report

The International Fundraising Congress is – I declare my interest as a volunteer – the world’s best fundraising conference. Each year in October around 1,000 people from over 60 countries gather in a conference centre just back from the beaches of the North Sea, west of Amsterdam. It’s a buzzing, active gathering of leaders, new thinkers, experts and innovators…and runs the best end-of-conference dance party I’ve ever attended.

This year’s theme was ‘A New Conversation’. It was about linking fundraisers with the social and environmental causes they promote, about activism and about participation.

Participation, and the ‘new power’ were the themes of Jeremy Heimans’ opening plenary. Jeremy, one of the founders of Avaaz, compared ‘new power’ with ‘old power’ using the tools he describes in a joint paper with Henry Timms, founder of Giving Tuesday. In his view, organisations must adapt to a world in which people want to move from consumers to shapers and designers of ideas, to crowdfunders and eventually to co-creators and co-owners of ideas and product. People want to participate. That participation may be short term – he described the short life of the Occupy movement – and it is certainly not loyal: people switch in and out of their membership of social media groups.

Old power is characterised by hoarding and controlling power, influence and ideas. We buy a car, a frozen pizza or a magazine, but have very little say, often no say at all, in what they contain or how they are produced; we are merely the consumers, buying the product, or not. When we don’t, the old power business rethinks the product and offers us a new one, until they produce the car/pizza/magazine that people are willing to purchase.

New power is, in Jeremy’s words, a ‘current’, like electricity or a fast-flowing stream. We can’t hoard it, but maybe we can channel it. It’s the fast-flowing current of knowledge that is filling the encyclopaedic sea of Wikipedia. It’s the brains behind Linux and open-source software. It’s the million people on the streets of Barcelona to protest police brutality, or the signatories on a campaign website.

Great, Jeremy, but how can we use this in major donor fundraising?

The clue came in another session at the conference. Led by Dr Max Martin, Global Head of Philanthropy at Lombard Odier bank in Geneva (and one of the most brilliant people working in philanthropy in Europe), the session was about innovations in finance for Social Purpose Organisations (SPOs). During the session we heard from the CEO of the Womanity Foundation about a cleverly designed funding model involving UBS Optimus and CIFF in which Optimus provide initial funding for an educational project, with CIFF paying the foundation back for each measureable outcome from the project. And from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) about the first Humanitarian Bond, a CHF26m bond issued by ICRC in conjunction with Lombard Odier and including, amongst others, Fundació LaCaixa, the formerly Catalan banking foundation.

Developing the bond was a long and arduous process for ICRC. But it started with a clever move; before they had gone any further than having the idea of a bond, ICRC involved the bank. That meant persuading board members of ICRC, a very venerable organisation, to sit down with bankers and work out what they wanted to do, and how they would do it. The donor – in this case the leading financier – was involved right from the start of the project.

And that’s the connection with Jeremy Heimans. Because although ICRC and Lombard Odier are both, most definitely, ‘old power’ organisations, this CHF26m project worked in part because ICRC gave up their power, opened up to a donor and shared the process of development with them. Together they came to a bigger, better solution than each player could have managed on their own.

So although crowdsourcing and ‘new power’ sound like the antithesis of the kinds of understated high-level philanthropy that result from our relationships with strategic donors, the same underlying force occurs in both; involve your donors, your investors and your stakeholders RIGHT FROM THE START. Share your power of project- and programme-creation with them, and you could win, big-time.

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