The Current is Shaping Us

Learning from lived experience and finding our role in the ecosystem

Oona Eager
5 min readOct 21, 2022
Aerial view of the Sahara Desert. USGS.

Highlights (tl;dr)

  • Since we published our last update in August, The Current’s Maker Team has been heads-down in a 8-week design research sprint to begin to answer its initial Phase 1 design question: How might we help those with an abundance of “disposable” income begin to “free” their money toward non-directive giving?
  • Our method primarily centred being in dialogue with people who have lived experience as funders of grassroots organizing and change.
  • The uncovered insights have helped to clarify The Current’s strategic direction, as well as to identify potential implementation partners.
  • Please consider joining our upcoming design sprint as someone who has lived experience funding grassroots change initiatives. Further criteria is below or get in touch.

After a slower summer to allow some space for rest, The Current’s Maker Team began a Design Research Sprint. We listened and learned from 15 people who have lived experience either as funders of, or as leaders of grassroots movements and public good initiatives, as well as some folks with professional experience advising high-net-wealth-individuals (“HNWIs”) on their philanthropic practice. As a baseline, everyone we spoke to already had experience moving or receiving unrestricted, multi-year funding.

In short: we learned a lot! Some of what we heard simply validated our existing assumptions. Some of what we heard was surprising and enabled us to avoid making some (now obvious) mistakes. All of what we heard helped to clarify a strategic direction for The Current’s further development, as well to identify (potential) implementation partners for our pilot.

Key Takeaways

We have identified several (interconnected) insights based on what we heard from those playing a funding role. These will inform a month-long design sprint leading up to the end of this year. See below for a link to the full synthesis. Some of the insights include:

  • “Funds initiated by grassroots leaders and organizations are preferable to funds initiated by philanthropists.”
    There are so many small funds doing an excellent job of being in relationship with, and accountable to, individuals and grassroots organizations that are leading community efforts and important movements (e.g. environmental justice) across the U.S. A couple of interviewees questioned why The Current would focus its initial efforts on building its own network of relationships with individual leaders “on-the-ground.” Shouldn’t The Current, instead, be focusing initially on “breaking the dam” (so to speak) to help release a larger flow of resources? This challenged us to imagine The Current as a series of tributaries or as a dynamic ecosystem of people, organizations and movements connected in service of a shared vision, rather than as a single initiative born in this particular moment, from a particular group of actors. To this end, we are excited to be exploring how The Current may be able to play a role in the existing ecosystem of funder organizers, grassroots-led networks and funder intermediaries. Additionally, we’re looking at partnering with Open Collective, given we share the same mission of moving more resources with more ease to leaders and collectives working on the ground.
  • “Most of the feelings are negative. There’s not a lot of joy.”
    Much of what we heard from those playing funder roles painted a picture of stress and suffering. Having sizeable amounts of money earmarked for philanthropic purposes does not translate into feelings of freedom, but rather anxiety about privilege, power and how the wealth interferes with healthy relationships dynamics. We wonder how The Current might provide folks with an avenue through which they can be generous and free with their money in a way that feels truly good and generative (and perhaps even playful?).
  • “Lift the burden of having to show you’re the smartest person in the room.”
    When one wants to move a lot of money philanthropically, a question naturally arises: to whom and how is the most responsible way for me to gift this money? Demands for impact reports, a focus on quantitative data (effective altruism, anyone?!), applying strict application criteria, and so on are the ways some funders try to answer this question for themselves, even though we heard that these behaviors often lead to further feelings of stinginess and clenching. And although many funders use “metrics” as a proxy for trust, those receiving the funds tend to experience this focus as mistrust. We heard that real trust in the philanthropic context is often built through relationships, either face-to-face, or mediated by story and communication-driven feedback loops. How might we ensure The Current liberates the funder from having to “prove” their due diligence process, while enabling a sense of trust and belonging to something bigger than themselves?
  • “I was able to decouple my sense of safety from the amount of money I had”
    When we asked interviewees about their relationship to money, it was clear that many were already far along on a path of personal transformation. For most, this contributed to their capacity to release funds more quickly and without restrictions, as well as avoiding using philanthropic power to shape “systems change” in a technocratic way. We have a hunch that The Current could be for people who do not necessarily want to play a full-time role as a “funder,” but who do want to contribute a significant amount of their resources to grassroots-led change in America. And we believe that many people already realize that grassroots change can be accelerated if funds move collectively, rather than as the result of siloed individual efforts.

Research Synthesis Artifact

You are invited to dive into the full synthesis of all the data from our interviews with those who play a funding role. Before doing so, you may want to watch this quick tour we recorded which will hopefully help to orient you in the mural board.

In addition to this research, we also conducted a series of workshops with community leaders who receive funds through a variety of funding channels; those insights will also inform our prototypes for The Current, and are being compiled in a separate artifact. Feel free to use the data from the synthesis to inform your own work, but please give credit where appropriate to design research lead Catherine Woodiwiss and The Current.

Join us for a month-long Design Sprint

Given what we’ve learned, we’ve decided to head into a period of ideation and prototyping. In the spirit of participatory design, we’re seeking to sprint with (more) folks who have lived experience funding grassroots change and community public good initiatives. Do you feel aligned with The Current’s V1 manifesto? Have you written a philanthropic cheque for $50K or more in the last year? If this describes you, please get in touch.

I would like to offer my gratitude to those who contributed their stories of lived experience to our Design Research sprint; we invited interview and workshop participants to be candid — sometimes about sensitive topics — so we committed to keeping their identities anonymous.

Note: The Current has been graciously seed-funded by private foundation TTSL, is operationally supported by Yoxi and is a Shared Future as designated by the Guild of Future Architects.