Ten Reflections on a Decade of Building a Philanthropic Alliance

Ruth Richardson was Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food between 2012-2022. As the Global Alliance marks its 10th anniversary this week, Richardson reflects on how the alliance has evolved and grown and shares her recommendations on what enables the network to work together.

1. Focus on Shared Goals

From war to pandemics and the collapse of natural systems, there is no time to be anything less than strategic with foundations owning their agency and taking a more explicitly active role in pushing for change – with all the accountability, transparency, and profound responsibility this entails. For philanthropies that want to work together to deliver more impact, this includes focusing on shared goals and not on institution-building. From the very inception of the Global Alliance it was agreed that we are not in the business of institution-building but instead in the business of creating an alliance that is strategic, collaborative, needs-based, focused, and responsive. Alliances hinge on knowing your niche and sweet spot; knowing who you want to influence on what, knowing why, and figuring out how.

 2. Let Principles be the Glue

Developed in 2014 through a collective exercise, seven principles – resilience, renewability, health, equity, inclusion, diversity, and interconnectedness – guide the work of the Global Alliance. Principles are a powerful guiding framework for any collaborative or network working in systems transformation: they surface what really matters to the group, they shape collective vision, they provide a tool to guide strategy and action, and they create a container that holds everyone but provides enough space for each member to be themselves. Principles are their most powerful when they are a set, not a menu – when no one principle has supremacy and all are brought into service to help groups achieve multiple objectives at once in a complete and beautiful whole. Check out this Framework for Action to find out more.

3. Use Your Collective Voice

In a world of deep fragmentation and increasing polarization, it might seem impossible to find common ground. Yet, for philanthropies who set out to campaign around a shared goal or objective, they must find ways to agree and speak with one voice. A critical turning point in the development of the Global Alliance was when it solidified communications and advocacy as a central part of the strategy. With some robust communications protocols to ensure members were speaking with one voice, the Global Alliance has found the power and integrity in its collective voice. There’s never been a better time for alliances of changemakers to lean into the power of coming together, finding consensus on core issues, and then shouting from the rooftops. In reports such as this one, the Global Alliance works to amplify its members’ collective voice and those of its partners and allies to tackle the narratives and questions that undermine action and mislead the public about what’s possible.

4. Invest Ambitiously Together

The Global Alliance recently released Mobilizing Money & Movements: Creative Finance for Food Systems Transformation with examples of financial investing that had propelled food systems transformation forward. One of the key findings? A food systems investing approach enables public and private finance to be better coordinated, augmented, and strategically aligned, resulting in maximized environmental and social value for initiatives and funders alike. In other words, investing ambitiously together. The scale and scope of the challenges food systems face calls for levels of philanthropic investment and requires new modes of blended finance not seen before, prioritizing holistic and cooperative approaches that meaningfully engage all actors in food production, distribution, and consumption.

5. Take Care of the Whole

Everyone comes to an alliance, network, or collaborative with different interests and agendas. This is unavoidable. Within the alliance, however, those interests and agendas need to take a back seat to the collective goals of the initiative. Both can co-exist – what might be right for one foundation might not be right for the alliance and vice-versa, but they can stand side-by-side. Alliances must take care of the whole. This builds trust and requires listening explicitly to each other, to diverse perspectives, to different opinions; and it means listening implicitly to the “shadow system” of tensions and disagreements that lurk in corners that may need to be tended to in order to protect the health of the whole.

6. Embrace Multiple Theories of Change

Just like having different interests and agendas, many foundations typically have their own theory of change (and this helps guide and inform their work). The power of the alliance is in that difference – it is in embracing the diversity of strategies that foundations employ. Complex issues require systemic responses, for example, we cannot achieve the climate objective of 1.5 degrees through one theory of change alone, it will require all we’ve got on every front. Instead of attempting to rationalize diverse theories of change, the Global Alliance embraced an overarching Theory of Transformation in 2020 that is inclusive of multiple approaches. It’s not one or the other. We need all of it.

7. Never Forget that Language Matters

We don’t all use the same terms, have the same understanding of common words, or bring the same assumptions to discussions when sharing our perspectives and opinions. This is all the more exaggerated when working across business to policy; Global North to Global South; youth to elder. Language matters. By attending to language we surface values, we expose biases, we build relationships, and we find ways to hold our collective understandings that form the basis of working together. Throughout the Global Alliance’s history, we’ve had robust conversations about the terms such as “agroecology,” “nature-based solutions,” and “net zero.” Working through them has been an opportunity to learn more, engage in respectful debate, and work toward an agreed-upon way forward.

8. Feed the System with Information

This is one of the non-negotiable commandments for effective alliances. As the late, great Donella Meadows said, “Thou shalt not distort, delay, or sequester information. You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.” The Global Alliance has relied on frameworks for transformation to facilitate the collection of information, analysis, and peer learning; feeding the system of the membership and the work of the Secretariat. One of its frameworks for transformation is Blue Marble which is both a framework and a growing, global network of practitioners working to ensure that evaluators, along with funders, implementers, innovators, researchers, and other agents of change, are prepared to engage with and evaluate global efforts towards transformative change.

9. Go Slow to Go Fast

Like it or lump it, process is absolutely fundamental to the effective functioning of an alliance and, ultimately, the long-term sustainability of collective initiatives. A proxy for some is “go slow to go fast,” but process doesn’t have to be slow, it just has to be good – well-considered, clear, trusted and respected by all. Those that want to move quickly push back on process, but its value always wins out in the long-term. Equally important as good process is to be adaptable and developmental. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand. With good process, a complex alliance working on complex issues can work adaptably as the only appropriate way to navigate internal and external complexities, navigate the inevitable roadblocks, traffic jams, and sideroads that lead to nowhere, making mid-course corrections along the way together with supporting tools and with a clear goal in sight.

10. And Act with Urgency

With increasing and compounding crises – COVID-19, invasion of Ukraine, sky-rocketing rates of obesity, wildfires, and heatwaves – the evidence that our food systems need rapid and deep transformation is irrefutable. We must tend to the immediate emergencies these crises provoke such as extreme hunger, and – at the same time – we must not shy away from embracing longer-term, systemic solutions that lead us out of mindsets, behaviours, policies, and practices that keep us locked into an industrial food system that threatens our children’s future and the fundamental life-support systems that will sustain them.

This week, the Global Alliance is celebrating 10 years. This is the challenge that sits in front of the Global Alliance – and all of us – for the next 10 years. How do we act with urgency and attend to immediate needs (especially of those most impacted by crises such as marginalized communities, women, and children) and advance solutions that equitably and sustainably deal with the systemic interconnections of climate, food, and nature?

Ruth Richardson

Executive Director, Global Alliance for the Future of Food (2012-2022)