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.
“Relationships [are] an enabling condition for the narrative infrastructure that is vital to power building.”
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.
“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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“Funders entering the narrative power field need to take the time to understand the ecosystem,” said Juliana Vélez, global program officer at Foundation for a Just Society (where Van Deven designed the strategy and previously led the grantmaking to build narrative infrastructure). “Instead of replicating mistakes or recreating what exists, those of us who are novices can learn by moving resources to coordinated efforts led by experts. Doing that allows us to deepen our understanding and build relationships while also contributing to the cohesive and strategic expansion of funding in ways that truly center movements and activists,” Vélez said.
Experimentation: Charting a Course through Uncertainty
Narratives are inherently unstable because they are always contested. While often presented as binaries—individualism versus the collective good, scarcity versus abundance, competition versus collaboration—narratives operate on a spectrum and in dynamic relationship to each other. The goal is not to replace one narrative with another but to achieve a more balanced distribution. For example, few want to ditch individualism altogether because that could compromise autonomy and agency, but the weight of its current position in our social imaginary needs to be reduced to place more emphasis on interconnectivity and collective care.
Since a world where all are flourishing has never existed, the ability to experiment is a precondition for most transformational narrative interventions. Rather than engineer discrete outcomes that assume the answer is known from the beginning, the role of a narrative practitioner is to create the conditions for sweeping change to emerge organically. For this to happen at scale, a distributed and coordinated set of actors must have the license to engage in multiple experiments that test hypotheses over an extended time horizon. At present, the norms of philanthropy stand in stark contrast to this degree of operational ambiguity.
“We place such an emphasis on knowing—slick definitions, landscape exercises, and literature reviews—but I’m eager to see what it looks and feels like for funders to be in a place of doing,” said Rob Avruch, senior manager at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “We have to be open to more experimental approaches to grantmaking and capacity building that are informed by the needs of practitioners.”
Right now, narrative funding is largely restricted to content production and distribution, but what narrative practitioners need most are flexible resources for process and methodology. For funders, this looks like providing grants for narrative-centric gatherings like Confluence and the Narrative Power Summit, as well as more intimate spaces where practitioners can build solidarity and coordination through knowledge sharing, collective sensemaking, strategic alignment, and healing.
“We need funds for action and doing things, but we also need funds for silences and pauses,” said feminist tech scholar and activist Nishant Shah. Recounting the insights from a self-organized session on the connections between narrative and collective care, he shared, “Narrative work challenges dominant practices of power. Care enables narrative change by enabling the changemakers to position themselves not just as bearing testimony to the brokenness of the world but as people who can repair the brokenness. We need care to be a necessary component of narrative practice, not an afterthought.”
Through their work, narrative practitioners expose pain, but they also serve as a conduit for healing. They ask us to consider how we are and how we ought to be. While narrative work is often understood as being about amplifying voices and stories, the practitioners at Confluence emphasized actively listening to understand people’s desires, needs, and wildest dreams, and modeling behaviors that tell by doing—because, as the adage says, our actions speak louder than our words.
Endurance: Committing to Our Desired Future
“If we want to be effective, the work has to be sustainable,” said Mirte Postema, senior program officer at Seattle International Foundation. “I’m glad there is increasing attention on practitioners’ wellbeing because it is important to do what we can to remove stressors—like the anxiety about funding scarcity.”
Shifting the narrative equation calls for an infrastructure that is sophisticated, agile, and inherently multigenerational. In creating space for mutual knowledge sharing and community cultivation between generations, movement elders pass on their skills and knowledge so younger generations can build on what’s been done before and carry forward that wisdom. Conversely, young people bring a unique analysis, contemporary skills, and fresh strategies. Cultivating intergenerational solidarity is necessary for bringing about narrative change and holding it steady.
We have an imperative to redesign the current practices of philanthropy that are too rigid and short-sighted for what our movements need and to ensure that the right quality of resources will flow without interruption for decades. The compounded, cross-cutting threats we presently face have been fueled by a narrative environment that stokes competition through fear of difference and scarcity, emphasizes individualist responses as the antidote to systemic entanglements, and positions nostalgia as the source of our solutions. When we understand the depths of the narrative waters we all swim in, we can see how unreasonable it is to expect our progress to endure without changing the conditions in which it’s made.
Endgame: Where We Can Go Together
Confluence participants brought forth a collective call for a more nuanced approach to the present moment—one that balances urgency with the patience needed for durable change. We’ve often heard that frontline leaders are stuck in a reactive pattern of responding to crisis after crisis rather than anchoring proactive strategies that build toward a radically different future. When funding decisions are made with unrealistic time frames and inadequate resource allocation, the possibility of long-term strategy is shut down, and the status quo is maintained.
The conditions we seek to transform have an enduring history. While it is urgent to till the acrid soil and cultivate a world of love and liberation, we must do so with the understanding that acting impulsively and persistently rushing keeps toxic conditions in place.
Kwem Kimtai, community manager at the Global Narrative Hive, called the wisdom of Báyò Akómaláfé and Marta Benavides into the room during Confluence’s closing: “People very often take on the shape of that which they strenuously resist.…If we beat the system at its own game, we’ve lost.…The time is very urgent—we must slow down.”
Imagine if funders opted to boldly resource those working to dismantle the narratives that maintain harmful systems? When resource stewards move money to proactive measures, it opens the opportunity for activists and organizations to slow down, make decisions more deliberately, and prevent harm from occurring. In so doing, it also sets the stage for narrative practitioners and movements to propel liberatory visions forward.
Narratives are deeply held beliefs that shape how people interpret and construct the world. They are meaning-making systems of knowledge, emotions, observations, and experiences that legitimate what people believe to be true (in the past and present) and possible (in the future).
Narrative Power is the ability to determine which meaning-making systems people use to interpret and construct the world.
Narrative Infrastructure is a decentralized set of dynamic relationships that work together to create the conditions for building narrative power. It is the people, knowledge, skills, tools, systems, and practices that enable individuals, organizations, and networks to strategize, coordinate, and take action in a coherent way across issues, identities, sectors, and borders.