On trust-building, and navigating internal and external power dynamics in philanthropy so that we can more radically be in the service of LBTQI grassroots movements around the world
We are thrilled to announce that Kerry-Jo Ford Lyn has been promoted to the newly created role of Astraea Deputy Executive Director. Many of you know Kerry-Jo from her previous role stewarding Astraea’s Global LGBTI Human Rights Initiative with USAID, Sida and Global Affairs Canada. In this interview we spoke with Kerry-Jo to explore the power dynamics inherent in philanthropy and how we as a feminist funder must work to break those down in order to uplift and center the voices, work, and priorities of our LBTQI grantee partners. We also take an internal look at how trust building and anti-oppression work is being threaded through the entire fabric of Astraea as an organization. A leader on staff since she joined in 2015, Kerry-Jo is a strategic systems thinker with impeccable skills in organizational management. She will play an essential role leading Astraea through this time of reinvention and reimagining. Join us in warmly welcoming her to this new role and please read some of her reflections in the interview below.
Question: As a person working in philanthropy, you have said that money is a necessary evil. What do you mean by this?
Kerry-Jo: It’s a great question, and so layered. Systemically, philanthropy is premised on and emerges from a capitalist system, which means that money is intentionally disproportionately distributed and consolidated in the largely white owning class, the State and indeed Foundations, especially private philanthropy so there are always communities that will get less of it. And that’s true with LGBTI communities and with communities of color, and worse at the intersections of those communities.
Where Astraea fits is that it’s our mission to create alternative flows of capital from where it’s been intentionally placed, to where it needs to shift. We create pathways of raising and redistributing that money, which means we’re also doing the work of redistributing that power. Fortunately, one of Astraea’s superpowers has been the authenticity of the relationship that we’ve built over time with LGBTQI grassroots grantee partners, and in ensuring consistently that we grant that money without any conditions. And so, by giving money consistently as core support, we’re not passing down any of the conditionality that we typically get from larger institutions and philanthropic mechanisms – essentially we alchemize the red-tape and open up the flows of money to where they need to be. We’ve consistently had to make the case for ‘better quality money’, money that is unconditional and used according to the needs identified by groups on the frontlines fighting for collective liberation.
Question: Can you say a bit more about “better quality money”?
Kerry-Jo: Better quality money is money that is as flexible as possible. Money without conditions and that also includes reporting conditions. So, at Astraea we have had to take on as much reporting as is necessary without passing that on to our grantees. We really see it as our responsibility as a conduit, to take on as much of the burden of problematic money and problematic power dynamics as possible so that our grantee partners don’t have to.
In my portfolio for instance, I’ve been responsible for negotiating and navigating the nuance of government funding, and I think government funding has historically been extremely problematic, because it necessarily comes with the conditions and standard provisos that are imperial, colonized, and designed to monitor and control social justice movements. It typically has been horrible.
Question: What have you been able to do to make government funding less problematic and more flexible?
Kerry-Jo: We’ve been able to reformulate government money so that it aligns with the kind of feminist principles of funding that we have consistently applied, which is multi-annual, core support, and flexible funding. The government funding that we have as it relates to USAID, is for core organizational support, which is extremely important and was actually a non-negotiable in establishing our partnership. And we have, over time, reduced the reporting burden on our grantee partners. We’ve also done things like reduce the visibility and exposure to risk to our partners by ensuring that we never disclose their names, which is especially important when you consider many of our partners live and work in countries hostile to LGBTI communities. So even if they get direct funding from our government partners, we ensure that their names are never disclosed in public documents or reporting documents to the funder, specifically the US government. And that’s been a reflection of true partnership.
Question: Why is it important to ensure that the names of grantees are not disclosed?
Kerry-Jo: The important thing is to ensure that our funders are able to achieve their objectives while we achieve ours through supporting our partners, that there is mutuality and partnership. So, if we provide our funders with the information and the stories of impact needed to fulfil their mission and objectives, then the name of the grantee partner becomes less important. This actually reduces very real risk to our LGBTI partners. One of the phenomenal ways that we’ve been able to negotiate also is to have a ‘branding and marking’ waiver. We recognize that for most of the countries that we grant in, there is a complicated history related to US politics, and so being associated with government funding is a sensitive issue that might actually result in increased harms for our LGBTI partners on the ground. Providing funding in this way, without conditions or requirements around branding and public acknowledgment then truly represents a more authentic model of support that more appropriately (re)focuses the attention on the issues facing LGBTI communities, their priorities, their needs, and is definitely not about giving credit or kudos to funders themselves.
It’s important for Astraea to consistently play the role of a responsible feminist intermediary by reducing the burden on our grantee partners, by making sure that they have the most flexible funding possible, and that we are actually resourcing according to what they need as opposed to what a donor might think they need.
Question: What kind of feedback do you get from grantee partners about the way that you have centered the giving?
Kerry-Jo: Consistently, the feedback that we get is that Astraea is the least burdensome of funders in terms of reporting, and that we are one funder who really understands what it means to prioritize their work, their issues, and the solutions they themselves have identified.
Question: What advice would you have for or what direction would you say that other philanthropic spaces should set up?
Kerry-Jo: When I first came into Astraea, one of the things that was apparent is that we didn’t realize how much negotiating power and leverage we actually had. We were the ones who had this amazing and trust-based relationship with hundreds of grantee partners across the world. Not the larger funders who were making the grants to Astraea. And those relationships are at the heart of our work and a huge point of leverage. I think that it’s important for organizations to recognize when they have more leverage than they do and exercise that for the benefits of movements.
Being able to negotiate and use your leverage with funders also means that you need to resource yourselves with the expertise to do so, and you need to build the capacity internally and dedicate that capacity to our fundraising teams, to our people who have the experience with particular funders.
Question: Internally, while you’re trying to do the best for the grantees, how do you do that and then not overburden and overwork yourselves?
Kerry-Jo: It’s definitely a struggle, because at the core of it, we all do this work because we have such a deep commitment to our grantee partners and to the movements, and we struggle on a daily basis to find a balance between doing the necessary work for our partners, and then taking time, and setting boundaries, and creating spaciousness in our own work plans. And that’s a struggle any organization goes through, especially as we’re going through a pandemic. The need to evaluate the pace at which we operate increased during the pandemic and it is really the remit of leadership to be able to set the course for our staff and the organization to slow down. And what that involves is having frank, honest conversations with funders, to be extremely realistic with them about what is possible and what needs to shift for us to continue to do our work sustainably.
Question: What are your hopes for Astraea this year? What are you most hoping for comes out of 2021, with the way that Astraea is shaping itself up?
Kerry-Jo: I have so many hopes for Astraea, to be honest. One big hope is that for those who remain committed to Astraea to remember the most essential parts of what makes Astraea great, and why it’s so necessary to have Astraea in this moment, and in this movement. When we ground ourselves in those fundamental things and trust a process, that is a huge hope. Quite frankly, we have been with faced quite a lot over these last few years, as individuals and as an organization – we’re at a point of exhaustion in the face of a global pandemic, racial uprisings, many of our own transitions internally, losing that human interaction in the office, when we travel and with our grantee partners – it fosters a lot of disconnection and fatigue. And trust is in short supply so we’re also trying to find ways to refocus on building psychological safety for our staff. My hope would be, as we are entering what can be an exciting phase of new leadership, new energy, unpacking old ways, reflecting on how we are positioned in philanthropy, dismantling some things, and reinventing others, that we also stay grounded and centered in what has made Astraea great, learn to trust ourselves in pursuing that, and trust each other in pursuing that together, in service of our LGBTI communities across the world.