Bess Rothenberg in Chronicle of Philanthropy: How grant makers can see the future more clearly
In this Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed, Bess Rothenberg, Senior director of strategy and learning, argues that our (confirmation) biases in social justice work may be keeping us from unlocking the outcomes we want. She writes that our convictions about what should happen are often so strong that they prevent us from planning for what actually does happen. Using recent examples including current events in Sudan, the piece offers several lessons for how grant makers can challenge their assumptions and get better outcomes for their work.
Published in THE CHRONICLE OF PHILANTHROPY | July 9, 2019
How Grant Makers Can Better See What's Coming
By bess rothenberg, senior director of strategy and learning at the ford foundation
On April 22, 2016, one day before the end of the legislative session, the Mexican Congress presented an anticorruption measure that allowed for voluntary declarations of conflicts of interest by public officials.
For civil-society organizations that had long been pushing for mandatory declarations, it was a serious setback. The timing of the bill’s passage — over Easter break — seemed intended to catch activists off-guard. As the news hit, a colleague shook her head and said, "We didn’t see this coming."
A year and a half earlier, Uganda’s parliament used the same tactic to pass a bill that, among other things, made same-sex relationships subject to the death penalty. The measure had languished for years, in part due to significant international pressure, but in December 2014 its supporters took advantage of the fact that opponents had already left Kampala for the Christmas break and rushed to pass it.
The most direct lesson to draw from this is that when it comes to preventing the passage of harmful laws, holidays are a time for social-justice advocates to be extra vigilant. But more broadly, it’s that those working in social justice need to take into account how change actually happens — not just how we think it ought to happen — when devising strategies.
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The Ford Foundation is an independent organization working to address inequality and build a future grounded in justice. For more than 85 years, it has supported visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Today, with an endowment of $16 billion, the foundation has headquarters in New York and 10 regional offices across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.