Project Phoenix: Connecting Democracy, Economy, and Sustainability (Phoenix) was a year-long cohort collective learning program for funders who are:
- Grounded in social and racial justice values and analysis,
- Focused on how to practically achieve a just transition to a “new economy” and philanthropy’s role in that transition,
- Interested in developing as “new economy” philanthropic thought leaders, in a cohort that is challenging itself to grapple with complex structural and intersectional issues and lift up viable pathways forward.
Several conversations have emerged in philanthropy over the past few years exploring fronts ranging from local economies and climate justice to worker co-ops under the frame of a “just transition” or “solidarity economy” or “economic resiliency” or “new economy.” For Phoenix, the term “new economy” described intersectional activities with an intention to support:
- a democracy that works for all
- an economy that provides good jobs and promotes local economic prosperity
- the growth of ecologically sustainable and non-extractive sectors
- a re-prioritization of the role of capital in society to better serve the goals above.
Phoenix was hosted by the Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG), a national membership association of grantmaking institutions. NFG’s mission is to build the capacity of philanthropy to advance social justice and community change.
Phoenix was led by a Core Team of NFG members, Solidago Foundation (Aditi Vaidya), and Surdna Foundation (Jose Garcia), along with NFG staff (Dennis Quirin, Yolanda Hippensteele, and Kita Urias), and project consultant and facilitator Viveka Chen.
Several funders generously committed contributions, in addition to a program registration fee, to make Phoenix Project possible: Chorus Foundation, Ford Foundation, Mertz Gilmore Foundation, NoVo Foundation, Solidago Foundation, Surdna Foundation W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and The New Economy Funders Network.
Phoenix advanced a three-part learning agenda:
- What are the core elements of a full-scale vision of a just transition to a new economy? (pushing a starting, baseline set of cornerstone assertions that can be found below)
- What can be learned and scaled up from current on the ground transition experiments?
- What is the 3-5 year practical road map that can orient and align funders towards a bold, just transition to a new economy? What is the role of funders in that transition?
Drawing from innovation best practice, the cohort took up these questions in multiple iterations over 12 months. Times of concentrated collective learning were at in-person convenings to learn from specific on the ground just transition experiments. There, the cohort developed an understanding of what is working on the ground to reality test scalable funder investment strategies.
The project outcomes have been synthesized in the form of a Road Map document to serve as a “straw person” framework for cross-sector philanthropic engagement around a broad set of interventions that are commensurate to the challenge of developing a new economy that works for all.
Project Phoenix Cornerstone Assertions
In the interests of accelerating learning and innovation, Phoenix, as a starting place, posited five cornerstone assertions. These were high-level, values-aligning working hypotheses about essential core elements of a full-scale just transition to a new economy. These working hypotheses provided a starting baseline. Early on, the cohort had a process to internally test pushing the assertions to be more provocative.
Over the 12 months of Phoenix, the cornerstone assertions were reality tested and further honed and strengthened, or redefined. The design challenge for the Phoenix cohort was to find viable actions that can be taken in the next 3-5 years to realize bold cornerstone assertions.
The 5 starting cornerstone assertions were:
Impacted and historically marginalized communities, especially low income and people of color communities, should be leading and making decisions for themselves in the visioning and creation of a new economy. There should be expanded alternative forms of community ownership and wealth. Physical and public infrastructure are means to drive community-generated decision-making that addresses community solutions for environment, economy and democracy. Alternative local economies and finance mechanisms will deliver more equity and community resilience than current global systems.
Independent political power is key to democratizing our political system and this requires fundamentally removing corporate influence and resources in our economic and democratic systems. Independent political infrastructure and capacities among grassroots community organizations are needed to contest for governing power and move a progressive agenda.
The role(s) of government is critical to a just transition and must include regulating corporations, setting high social, economic and environmental standards, and supporting alternative financial and publicly/democratically governed infrastructures that make capital subordinate to people’s needs.
The private sector should have greater social responsibility and must create a better balance between positive social, worker and environmental returns and profits, and prioritize democratic workplaces and the rights of workers to organize. Government should incentivize those companies that meet the highest social, economic and environmental standards throughout their supply chains.
Philanthropy must use capital and its unique social, political and economic resources and influence to create infrastructures and build community capacity that: 1) drive governments to set the highest regulatory and enforcement standards on corporations and the private sector, 2) demonstrate alternative financial institutions to Wall Street, that provide fair and accessible capital to support community infrastructure and socially and environmentally responsible local businesses, and 3) keep major sectors of our economy public (education, healthcare etc.). The role of philanthropy will need to change in the transition to a new economy.