Updated: Sep 1
Written by Ronda Alexander and Camilia Beiner
Networks of Opportunity for Child Wellbeing (NOW) is built upon pillars of equity, dignity, and community-centered leadership. As NOW’s work has grown over the last several years, there has been an intentional focus on how to build and support local capacity to drive the transformation they want to see in their community. In the late spring of 2021 NOW partnered with 15 community champions from across the country to embark on a journey of reimagining funding structures to center, honor, and uphold the values of local communities and coalitions. The group began to explore cooperatives as a model for restructuring funding in a way that uplifted partnership rather than power. The practice of self-determination is a core principle of cooperatives movements and structures, which makes room for autonomy, while also celebrating the wide array of wisdom, knowledge, and talents that exist within our communities.
Cooperatives have long served as an important model for building community well-being, guided by values of democratic decision making, shared power and ownership, and equitable distribution of health, economic, and social benefits. Networks of Opportunity for Child Well-being, an initiative of Vital Village Networks at Boston Medical Center, launched the NOW Cooperative Design Lab in April 2021 with the aim of creating a new model for a community-led funding structure that centers those who will use and benefit from the funds.
Participants of the NOW Cooperative Design Lab worked together to outline how barriers of traditional and current funding structures create and contribute to unequal power dynamics. Some of the barriers that emerged included rigid grant timelines and requirements, traditional and deficit models of required reporting that contradict community values, limited staff capacity, and restrictive funding. The Design Lab served as an opportunity to not only develop solutions in collaboration with one another, but to also deepen each participants’ understanding of human-centered design. This iterative approach to problem solving shifts focus from the designer to the intended end user; which is in direct alignment with the key values of this group. The stages of design include empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Through the application of human-centered design participants sought to create alternative solutions and landed on four key areas - fostering space for community capacity building, shared decision making, nurturing relationships, and provide funding.
The alternative funding structure created by Design Lab participants benefits both funders and potential grantees by placing them on equal footing with one another, thereby reducing power imbalances and creating space for authentic partnerships and collaboration. In this approach money is no longer seen as more valuable than wisdom, knowledge, and experiences; they are all equally valued as tools that can contribute to community transformation. “A lot of the times we try to fix communities with the vision that we have for them,” one of the participants highlighted. “Understanding what the community needs is very important.”
This alternative model shifts the focus from transaction engagement to one that is intended to foster and maintain relationships and partnerships. The hope is that relationships between funders and grantees center on the leveraging of ideas and resources to uplift and honor communities. One of the participants expressed, “they have other types of research, [such as] clinical research that we don’t or may not have… that I think is valuable.” Together members of this cooperative will create a powerful dynamic where they are all surrounded by people who are all committed to the same vision and are building on each other’s gifts, which eventually allows for innovation to happen.
Following the Design Lab workshops participants had the opportunity to share their learning and insights with potential partners during a showcase. While the group is still quite early in the process of designing and bringing this structure to life, they did walk away from this series with some important action steps. A steering committee consisting of five members of the group summarized insights arising from the Design Lab with the creation of an “Intentional Reflection Tool” designed to help current funders think deeply about their intentions when developing grants. The tool invites potential funders to consider whether they are interested in funding “charity projects” or working in partnership to truly impact and inform transformation.
The journey to reimagine and design a funding structure grounded in equity, dignity, and community leadership will continue in the fall of 2021 during the Vital Village Networks National Community Leadership Summit. Designers will reconvene, perhaps with new partners engaged to further develop the framework and outline a plan for implementation. The NOW team will continue to capture and share learning, ideas, insights, and reflections from designers throughout the process.