Rethinking Philanthropy with an Ecosystems Approach with EDGE Funders

Co-designing the EDGE Funders Alliance Annual Retreat and hosting a workshop on systems-thinking, ecologies and ecosystem approaches

Phoebe Tickell
6 min readSep 25, 2022

One of my favourite events of 2020 was the EDGE Funders Alliance Annual virtual retreat, where “200 funders and activists come together interested in systemic change in a spirit of mutual learning and strategising.” A 3-day virtual retreat where over 50 funders from a range of different sized institutions and foundations joined the virtual retreat, which brought together sessions and speakers from the funding world, social justice and environmental justice.

I was invited to be part of designing and hosting the EDGE Funders Alliance Annual Retreat which involved contributing a ‘Rethinking Philanthropy’ workshop in the 3-day virtual event. I worked together with an amazing team of

, Martina Fin, and others from the EDGE Annual Retreat working group, and invited Felipe Viveros as a co-facilitator alongside me.

“The yearly EDGE Europe retreat is an important convening to cultivate what brings us together in EDGE: The conviction that we have to acknowledge the systemic, interconnected character for the fundamental crises situation the world is in, and to seek for systemic answers, through experimentation and learning, together.”

Ecosystems Approach to Philanthropy workshop

The workshop I designed was called an “Ecosystems Approach to Philanthropy”, bringing the lens of ecosystems and ecology to philanthropy and funding. We used an exercise I have developed for “Thinking Like a Forest” and focused on decision-making, measurement, building ecologies, creating learning ecosystems and sense-making.

Before working as a funder at The National Lottery Community Fund, I worked with organisations to introduce “applied ecology” practices to their ways of working. Some of what this looked like was training groups in collective decision-making, advising on online tools that allow for collective intelligence, introducing practices of horizontal leadership and teaching deep ecology, ecosystems and ecologies at Schumacher College, drawing on my background as an ecologist.

I was invited to host the design and facilitation of the “Rethinking Philanthropy” track of the retreat, so I decided to bridge the practices and worldviews of my previous work with the world of funding and funder practice. This is also what I was doing within my role in The National Lottery Community Fund, bringing tools like using Miro boards (remember, this was 2020!), facilitation, horizontal practices and imagination into working with my team at the UK Portfolio.

Focus of the workshop

The focus of the workshop was on ecosystems thinking. When I say ‘systems’ or ‘ecosystems’ I mean a combination of things. It’s about taking a whole-systems view, and as ecology is the science of relationships, it’s about moving from an understanding and view of the world that perceives relationships not parts.

The goal of the session was to provide tools and approaches that can help to think in whole systems in order to perceive, sense-make and then act with this whole systems perception.

Practically speaking, there are skills and capacities that can be learned about how to do systemic practice like collective decision-making and participatory budgeting. Here is one example of a collective decision making method called Generative Decision Making, which is part of a collection of horizontal practices called Going Horizontal:

What we covered in the session

Here is some of what we covered in the session that illustrates what this could look like applied to funding and philanthropy:

  • Learning from the discipline of ecology — from ecological systems, and how Nature organises, and applying this to the how we organise and work with groups. In funding, this can look like moving away from funding single projects to funding ecologies of projects, both local and thematic, and learning the skills of how to support those ecologies. This can be implicit or more explicit like at the Organising Like Mycelium course we ran earlier this year.
  • Decision-making: Many funders in the network have been testing out and exploring approaches of participatory grant-making. We heard from funders and activists from FundAction and Mama Cash who is making the transition to a participatory model of grant-making. Many of us agree it is a clear part of the solution — but in itself it represents a range of possibilities, approaches and models — and needs other systemic changes to support it.
  • Moving from prescribing to collaborative sense-making: using tools and approaches for sensemaking, collective ethnography, to take the place of prescriptive practices. This is really important when it comes to decision-making — can we move from solo evaluation to collaborative sensemaking when it comes to making decisions?
  • Measurement: What are we measuring? Are we measuring the right thing? What if the things that need investing in are difficult to measure? (i.e. relationships). What are we incentivising with our measurements and what are we not seeing?
  • Globally-scaled solutions to horizontally-spread subsidiarity: A complex system can never be scaled — but it can spread, mutated and adapted horizontally. What are approaches and methodologies to scale approaches across and not above and over?

The session just scratched the surface of a whole-systems approach applied to philanthropy. Over the last year I have been inquiring into how the methods and approaches of whole-systems thinking could apply to philanthropy. I’m excited about what I’ve found but I also know it’s going to take both inquiry and experimentation with others to go further into it.

The questions I heard from participants

  • Where are more spaces for funders to go to, to learn? We need more spaces to think together, compare strategies, support bold experiments, learn about new ways of working.
  • How to do participatory grant-making well? What are different models of decision-making we can learn from? How do we support those in the decision-making process to truly decide together? How to avoid competition, and bring funders and grantees together in new ways?
  • Do we need new narratives for philanthropy? There’s a need for a larger shift and for us to talk about it.

We still have a lot of questions (more than answers!) and we’d like to keep inquiring around how we can do this well. To fund systems change, maybe we need to learn more about systems and develop new practices (and learn from the old ones) together.

Outputs of the workshop

In the session, we worked through an exercise I created to help people “Think Like a Forest” called the Whole Systems Questions Game and created a collective artefact on Miro (picture below!) with many answers and further questions. The point of this exercise is to surface collective intelligence and explore a sector or organisation in a whole-systems way. A couple of people have been in touch and we would like to develop this into a collective resource and map — please get in touch if you’d like to be involved.

Some of the highlights are:

  • What is our role in the ecosystem? — Fund risky experiments
  • What is the role of philanthropy? — To inspire, stimulate and urge other financial actors to be progressive.
  • What does philanthropy enable? — Risk-taking, diversification of voices and actors in movements, collaboration, connections, action, access, infrastructure, reparations
  • What does philanthropy perpetuate? — Power of money with no democratic legitimation, Extractive Investment practices, competition, tax evasion, charity over justice, colonialism, a good feeling to be work in the sector but is it a small bandaid?
  • How could we understand philanthropy as reparations, not charity? — Can we hold a conversation about this?
  • How do we inform our decisions? — Inquiry of different knowledge and non-knowledge
  • Might we lean into our roles at the boundaries, as signal funders for more risky / social impact focussed grants and investments?
  • What are the things we will never go above or over (upper limits)? — Is it personal discomfort? What are our principles?
  • How do we contribute to the ecosystem? — A role for philanthropy in facilitating spaces for reflection, scenario building etc.

Key resources shared:

Article on the Whole Systems Question Game by Phoebe Tickell

Why Whole Systems Thinking? by Daniel Christian Wahl

Warm Data: Contextual Research and New Forms of Information by Nora Bateson

Thank you to EDGE Funders Alliance for hosting this workshop, to Tobias Troll, Romy Kraemer, and the Annual Retreat working group for organising, and to

for joining me as co-facilitator.

If you think this article is important, please make an effort to share it with your networks, and show your encouragement with some claps and remember you can clap up to 50 times if you like it a lot!

Follow my work and newsletter by visiting

Phoebe Tickell — Narratives, complexity, systems. Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on complexity approaches, systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development.



Phoebe Tickell

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.