What does investing in local communities mean? Who is local to a community, and what assumptions do we as a team make when considering potential partners?
As a global, yet locally-rooted philanthropic investment firm, these are several of the questions we dug deeply into—then baked into our evolved strategy that is grounded in our commitment to Justice, Diversity, Equity and Justice (JEDI).
Then, when it came time to implement what “local” means, our team in Africa discovered that putting these principles into practice is harder than anticipated — and this tension unlocked learning opportunities for us on how to intentionally apply a JEDI lens to our work.
Africa team members Edith Karimi and Abdelrahman Hassan discussed the team’s learning process for defining and implementing “local” in a way that drives impact for the communities we serve.
Edith Karimi (EK): We are always learning and growing our understanding of JEDI. Could you talk a little bit about how our refreshed strategy has helped us deepen our work with communities in our work?
Abdelrahman Hassan (AH): From the beginning, we wanted to build a strategy that we co-create with the people we serve — young people and their communities. Many of our partners are deeply embedded in local communities and address root causes of challenges faced by young people. We’ve seen numerous examples of how they reach those furthest from justice, engaging and supporting them in different spheres of society - from the home to schools and communities to national spaces.
We quickly learned that proximity matters. It enables more trust and familiarity. It unlocks strategic partnerships with local stakeholders. It sustains long-term engagement and project legitimacy within the community. And because of their closeness to the people they serve, proximate organizations often evolve to work on different dimensions of issues, gradually shifting social norms. Because of this, we have increasingly focused on supporting organizations that are embedded and rooted in the local areas they serve.
EK: I think flexibility is key and that's part of our effort to be grounded in JEDI. Could you talk about the flexibility that we as a funder tried to exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic and how that affected innovation and action on the ground?
AH: We continue to learn how to cede control and reframe our support to give organizations the necessary flexibility to implement their programs according to the values, agendas and goals that are aligned with and respond to community needs. This meant that we did a lot of learning and unlearning around concepts like sustainability, funding models, impact measurement and defining success.
One important way to achieve more flexibility in our partnerships is unrestricted funding, which allows organizations to use our funding in the best way they see fit. Another way is during our diligence process when we ask organizations, what does success look like for you? We don't come in with a rigid set of success metrics and impact measurements that we think should be implemented, but rather align our impact measures with their definitions of success from the onset of the partnership.
One immediate lesson we learned is that there is no singular definition of what it means to be local. We all had different definitions of what local means.
EK: Our JEDI learning practice has created a process for identifying and refining areas that need more clarity. One of the questions we've explored is: What does local really mean? Can you talk a little bit about how this definition of “local” has evolved for us and with our partners?
AH: That is something that we grappled with a lot. One immediate lesson we learned is that there is no singular definition of what it means to be local. We all had different definitions of what local means. Is it the nationality of the organization’s CEO? The composition of the board? Their focus? The organization’s ability to engage with local communities? Their location? These questions presented an opportunity for us to interrogate our thinking and broaden our shared understanding ofwhat ‘local’ means.
To do this, we used one of our team’s learning dialogues to explore and unpack the different ‘ingredients’ of what makes an organization local. What we came up with is neither a rigid framework nor a final set of guiding principles but it’s a point-in-time snapshot of our understanding, which is evolving and expanding each day.
EK: We like to describe our learning practice as a forever journey. Like you said, there's so many definitions of “local” and one size doesn't fit all. Tell us how partners have helped inform this inquisitive process of what it means to us.
AH: The foundation of our conversation as a team was based on the insights that we've heard from our partners. We came up with the following five components that define local to us:
EK: I'm gonna put you on the spot and ask: If you were to talk about developing our learning practice as a team, what are some of the qualities that are needed on this learning journey? JEDI has been good grounding for us as a team, but what are some of the lessons you think we are learning as a team or values that you've adopted in the course of your work on this learning journey?
AH: I think the learning and unlearning process is very critical for us. Through our learning practices, we are more intentionally creating space to identify patterns together that are more complex than what we could have seen individually – and develop shared meaning from these learnings to inform our practice as an organization. There is always more to do, and we are willing to learn, unlearn, experiment and be wrong. We remain energized by the work ahead. Our goal is not to know all the answers, but to help us recognize patterns and facilitate more opportunities for the team and our partners to learn with and from each other. That is one value that we, as courageous learners, are trying to embody as part of our learning practices at the moment.
EK: I love that – courageous learners – and it's a continuous process. Can you share more about where we go from here?
AH: I believe sharing this conversation is definitely a first step. One of the things we want to do as a result of these learning dialogues that we're having as a team is sharing these insights about what we’re learning with the broader ecosystem, an example of which is our recently released research consortium report that speaks to our lessons learned from engaging with local researchers across the African continent.
And lastly, for partners and other system actors – we want to hear your insights and comments: how is this resonating? What are we missing? What other opportunities exist to learn and unlearn together? Send your feedback, reflections and/or ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our goal is not to know all the answers, but to help us recognize patterns and facilitate more opportunities for the team and our partners to learn with and from each other.