Project Phoenix Convening Highlights

Project Phoenix: Connecting Democracy, Economy and Sustainability (Phoenix) was a year-long cohort collective learning program for funders designed and hosted by Neighborhood Funders Group. This report provides an overview of the learning we did together in our convenings.

Convening 33 funders and donors (from 20 institutions) aligned on values of social, economic, and environmental/climate justice, with a range of approaches to new economy issues.


For Phoenix, the term “new economy” describes intersectional activities supporting:

  • 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 cohort activities were designed for the cohort:

  • to develop shared analysis and framework.
  • to map out practical ways philanthropy can advance promising strategies in the next 3-5 years, that lead to a longer term just transition to a new economy.
Phoenix's Learning Focus

Over the 12 months, the cohort also learned about and developed narrative strategy (4 workshops led by Christine Cordero, Center for Story-based Strategy). Anna Quinn of NoVo Foundation and Alicia Jay of Make it Work brought a gender justice workshop and analysis to overlay onto our learning.

February 2016 Launch Convening in New York

Project Phoenix launched its year of cohort learning with a gathering designed to set an innovative learning culture, set context and develop shared framework and analysis. Content focused on the role of capital in society, with thought-provoking discussions on the financialization of the economy, reviewing “just transition” frameworks, and explorations of real world examples of community-benefitting scalable models of economic activity.

Exploration of the Range of Terminology in Use

On the first evening, the cohort explored various terms in use for this work (“new economy”, “just transition”, etc.). A practical orientation guided the group to appreciate that a “just transition to a new economy” includes by necessity a spectrum of practical elements: from engaging with existing systems to dismantle, reform, or innovate to pushing to invent “new” elements of a system not yet in existence and radically different from the status quo.

Later, narrative strategy consultant Christine Cordero from Center for Story-based Strategy offered reflections on an analogous situation: how various actors in the movement for workers’ rights affected transition through different efforts aimed at points along a spectrum from old to new.

Transition process drawing, Christine Cordero, Center for Story-based Strategy
Contending with Financialization of the Economy

We explored the rise of “financialization,” which refers to the vastly expanded role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors, and financial institutions in the operation of domestic and international economies. Over the past 40 years, as a result of policies of extensive deregulation, the amount of economic activity focused on extracting the largest possible short-term profit has increased. Since the economic meltdown in 2008, the flow of capital has also rapidly become consolidated in a small number of big banks, and one out of every four local banks in the United States has disappeared. A growing body of research links financialization to rising inequality.

Two guest presenters laid out the connections between financialization and growing inequality, and potential opportunities for change: Stacy Mitchell, Co-Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Lenore Palladino, Senior Economist at the Roosevelt Institute.

Opportunities in the current landscape

  • The “silver tsunami” – A huge wave of people retiring, selling, and converting locally-owned businesses. How can philanthropy support and finance conversion to local and worker ownership?
  • Crowdfunding – A business can offer a set of shares and ownership to people through online crowd-funding platforms. There is potential for wealth to generate and stay on the local level, but also serious risk of fraud. Philanthropy could explore and support experiments around crowdfunding.
  • Direct public offerings of small businesses at the state level.
  • Inject economic democracy for a smarter debate at the federal regulatory level.
  • Explore dormant regulatory powers at the state level.
  • Public bank models: North Dakota, Philadelphia, Santa Fe, New York.
  • Small Business Administration – Opportunities to expand lending, loan guarantees, address workers’ rights, remedy historic discrimination.
Cohort Visioning

What do we want the role of finance/capital to be?

  • To serve people. To be a generative system (not about extracting profits). To value community assets and leave communities more economically powerful (with tools to be their own developers).
  • To address social and ecological impact and returns in a longer timeline (not just maximizing profit in the moment).
  • To limit what’s privatized to protect the public good. Utilities, for example, should not be private.
  • Capital should be controlled by those who produce wealth (coops, community-controlled banks).
  • Foundations should invest the full spectrum of their assets (grants, investments, capacity).
Just Transition model from the Movement Generation’s Justice and Ecology Project framework
Reality Testing
Holmes Hummel

Holmes Hummel, Founder of Clean Energy Works and Former Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Policy & International Affairs of the U.S. Department of Energy in the Obama Administration, led a provocative session testing the Phoenix cornerstone assertions. The cohort learned about the challenges to building a more equitable energy sector, including the role of corporate power and its undue influence on climate action. Holmes also discussed the contradictions of cooperative models in the large utilities sector – for example, that private, community-owned utilities are the dirtiest energy producers in the country. Even so, their more democratic governance structures create an opening for civic engagement to influence these energy producers towards a clean energy future. Also explored was redlining of low-income communities out of the clean energy economy: underwriting standards in the financial sector and consumer protections disqualify about one-third of American households from access to capital. Discussion focused on possible solutions like regional scale community organizing, building community power to engage in governance of collectively-owned infrastructure, and “no-debt” or “pay as you save” financing offering virtually all utility customers clean energy upgrades without obligating them to take out loans.

Crowdsourcing Exercise

May 2016 Convening in Eastern Kentucky

Graphic: Appalachia's Bright Future Conference (KFTC)

The cohort met with community groups and leaders, and philanthropic and government funders to explore practical experiments to realize a just transition. Eastern KY’s economy has relied heavily on the coal industry, which is in serious decline alongside mounting national recognition of coal’s human health, environmental and climate cost. There is is a growing effort (despite entrenched coal interests in politics) to create a new sustainable economy and a more diverse energy future that works better for people and places. Community power-building and involvement of those most directly affected is a big part of the story. Young people, public-private partnerships, entrepreneurs and community organizations are creating new economic opportunities and looking for effective solutions drawing on the region’s assets (arts and culture, ecological diversity; and strong community organizations and leaders). Phoenix partnered with 2 community groups: The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) to program the learning tour.

Checking out interest in three-ish ideas for near-term collaboration

June 2016 NFG Conference in Oakland, CA

Learning tour exploring current on-the-ground experiments in Oakland and Richmond (40 participants)

Phoenix also offered some programming for a broader audience at NFG's National Convening. Our half-day learning tour explored current on-the-ground experiments creating strong movement building strategies to transform local economies in Oakland and Richmond. We learned from technical assistance gurus supporting business conversions to cooperatives, innovators developing strategies to create land trusts in an ever-gentrifying region, and grassroots leaders leveraging experiments to build independent political power.

Our breakout session Power & Markets: Structural Reform Toward a New Economy explored short term and mid-term possibilities for aligning markets with social justice values to reshape the economy to prioritize fair labor standards, environmental protection, social cohesion, and power in low-income communities and communities of color. Speakers: Madeline Janis, Jobs to Move America; Holmes Hummel, Clean Energy Works ; Alex Galimberti, ROC United, Laine Romero-Alston, Ford Foundation.

November 2016 Convening in San Diego

Meeting in San Diego was an opportunity to learn how a just transition approach can connect with and add value to local momentum where local actors have not adopted a “just transition” framework. San Diego provided an urban contrast to rural Eastern Kentucky. The US-Mexico border featured prominently in the story of San Diego's communities and economy.

US-Mexico border tour with the Environmental Health Coalition and immigration attorney Cesar Luna

Given the Trump election earlier in November, the cohort started by sharing individual and institutional responses to the election. There was discussion of how the new federal realities would impact the kinds of solutions that might be viable in the next 3-5 years and the importance of understanding what can be advanced at the local, regional and state level.

Leadership development workshop for funders in the cohort - San Diego convening
Dinner in Barrio Logan with musicians Los Romanticos
Narrative strategy workshop #3 or 4 led by Christine Cordero, Center for Story-based Strategy: Themes from interviews with a sampling of cohort members

Phoenix community economics advisor Michael Shuman gave a presentation: What If? Envisioning Possibilities for Transformational Local Investing, Nurturing Local Business and Local Wealth-Building in San Diego. Michael shared national experiments and stories to delineate a tipping point of enabling conditions that could about systemic economic change in San Diego.

Phoenix also hosted a workshop with local actors on: What does it take to govern? How is independent political power built and wielded to change a city and change a state?

Independent Political Power presenters: Marj Plumb, Diane Takvorian, Clare Crawford, Ludovic Blain, Vivian Chang

Theater of the Oppressed was used the last morning to try out responses to the question: Given what we’ve seen in San Diego so far, how could a group of funders align to move forward a just transition to a new economy in the next 1-3 years?

January 2017 Final Convening in Boston

Phoenix held a final and fourth convening in Boston, January 23 - 26, 2017. The purpose was:

  1. To reflect on where we had come to after a year of learning as a cohort.
  2. To support continued collaboration among Phoenix members.
  3. Mutual learning with a range of local actors in Boston, where big ideas are finding practical application.
What does the biological process of metamorphosis teach us about how to transform our economy?
So what?

After 1 year of learning together... what has emerged as a Phoenix view on 'just transition' & 'new economy'?

The convening opened with a shared presentation from Core Team co-chairs Aditi Vaidya, Senior Program Officer, Solidago Foundation and See Forward Fund and José A. García, Program Officer, Surdna Foundation Strong Local Economies (now program officer on the Inclusive Economies team at the Ford Foundation).

  • What has emerged as distinctly “Phoenix?”
  • What is the new economy we envision?
  • What do we mean by “just transition?”

The cohort conversation sparked by the opening presentation focused on how funders can collaborate in the process of economic metamorphosis.

Phoenix has found it practical to to look for collaboration opportunities among institutions that hold different pieces along a spectrum of transition, ranging from:

  • Reforming the old economy. Where a diverse cohort can find more convergence and collaboration to: stop the bad + move the money.
  • Building the new economy is where there is more cohort divergence about what the end goal looks like. Here the cohort was exposed and open to conversations about bringing a deeper political, race, and gender intersectional analysis and frameworks to philanthropy.

A PHOENIX PRAGMATIC APPROACH: Even with divergence on the end goal, we can find ways to cooperate on nearer-term strategies.

"I am deathly afraid of final solutions coming up as something we are going to all work towards, and therefore we know what we are doing at each point. I think our capacity to see that far into the future is so drastically limited, and we often don't recognize it because all we are bringing with us is what we know from now. But what that new reality will be created of, is an emergent world of new things that we haven't even seen, coming into being."

How philanthropy can support just transition to a new economy

Phoenix members are eager to continue grappling with BOTH principles AND pragmatic near-term strategies.

Crowdsourcing the principles
The Principles

What to Stop

  • Making funding decisions without input from impacted communities
  • Massive wealth accumulation
  • Profit as prime driver for basic needs (food, healthcare, housing)
  • Philanthropy investing in destructive industries
  • Philanthropy investing in ideas without infrastructure

What to Shift Towards

  • Philanthropy in relationship to community and community self-determination
  • Funding infrastructure for communities to understand and lead just transition
  • Philanthropy investing in generative industries and local projects
  • Philanthropy with a political and strong race and gender intersectional analysis. Keeping talking openly about ideology
  • Philanthropy investing in small scale experiments. Being bold, tolerating and taking risks. Thinking about success differently and using human prosperity and equity measurements.
The New Economy We Envision and Can Work Towards Together
Radically simple version of what we could agree we are ultimately working towards (even if different people might use different words to describe this)

What do we mean by 'new economy'? 10 ideas that resonated the most across the cohort (in order of ranking).

  1. Return wealth to the commons (i.e., democratic public banking, developing revolving loan funds).
  2. Distributed, dynamic, and local solutions to the areas of greatest human oppression (i.e., energy, food, housing, finance, etc.).
  3. Fund interventions that build local power and promote institutions that exemplify the values of a new economy.
  4. Not harming the earth or vulnerable populations.
  5. Basic needs should be guaranteed, not driven by profit (healthcare, housing, food, etc.).
  6. Economy should be subsumed to communities’ political power.
  7. All collective decisions should be made democratically and as locally as appropriate, prioritizing the participation of those most directly impacted by the outcome.
  8. Workers/producers of labor should have greater decision-making power in the workplace and in the larger market place.
  9. Building political power in community, that reflects and serves the needs that arise for everyday people.
  10. What matters is eco-systems of organizations and how they work together. Not individual organizations, (c)3, (c)4, businesses, etc.
The Pragmatic

After a morning clarifying principles, the cohort took the afternoon to surface practical ways philanthropy can advance promising strategies in the near-term.

There is an opportunity at this time, when the old economic system is falling apart.

How to Identify a Promising Strategy

  • What is the next new thing? What short term actions in the next 3-5 years, can lead the way to a longer-term just transition to a new economy? What are the gaps and intervention points to move in the next 3-10 years?
  • What are we trying to test?
  • What is: Scalable? Intersectional? Pragmatic? Community self-determination?
  • Scale can be "What big things we can do?” AND, it can be “What small things can we do, where we are not yet engaging, that can make a difference and create more energy and momentum and learning?”
Innovation Workshop: Three Funder Interventions

The cohort took the opportunity at the final convening for more innovation practice. They identified three promising interventions to workshop together. Small groups worked on hypotheses for these interventions: “If we X, then Y.”

Democratizing funding decision-making

INTERVENTION: Shift relationships and power dynamics between grantees and funders to address questions of HOW to move forward. Democratize decision-making. A culture change. Difficult conversations are a way to build relationships. Experimentation necessitates reimagining and willingness to fail.

Winning electoral seats to win just transition policies

INTERVENTION: Win electoral seats in service of winning policy outcomes for a just transition. If we support a new set of voices in an organized way, then regulatory agency power will shift!

Finance strategy: local grassroots investors

INTERVENTION THROUGH FINANCE: Leverage and use the municipal/public space for local investments and local grassroots investors. Show grassroots investors they can get a good rate of return AND a lot of other benefits like good local jobs, community stability, etc.

Learning with local actors about just transition work in Boston
Evening Field Trip: Just Transition Work in Boston

The cohort headed for the Old Oak Dojo in Jamaica Plain, "a place where neighbors gather to rediscover how to create healthy and resilient communities." Several local actors shared promising economic justice, democracy and new economy work and how these connect to broader movement building that funders have been supporting for many years. The guests that joined Phoenix for this conversation were: M. Elena Letona, Executive Director, Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, Penn Loh, Lecturer & Director of Community Practice, Tufts University/Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning, David Y. S. Moy, Officer - Civic Engagement, Hyams Foundation, and Prentice Zinn, Director, GMA Foundations.

Much of what was explored in this conversation is described in the report Solidarity Rising in Massachusetts: How Solidarity Economy Movement is Emerging in Lower Income Communities of Color. The report, commissioned by the Solidarity Economy Initiative, examines eight cases across lower-income communities of color in Massachusetts from Worcester and Springfield to Lynn and Boston. Communities are organizing to resist and reform the current system, while building alternatives that go beyond capitalism. They are incubating worker-owned coops, community land trusts, and community-controlled capital. They are modeling an economy and democratic governance based on collective care and putting people and planet over profit. Communities are dreaming big, of building regional ecosystems that can scale up transformative impacts.

Solidarity Economy Movement in 3 Dimensions presented by Penn Loh
Narrative Strategy Workshop

Christine Cordero form the Center for Story-based Strategy offered a final narrative strategy skills and analysis building workshop. She walked the cohort through a series of steps and tools for: 1) uncovering the dominant narrative in a space and, 2) developing and introducing new narratives into spaces that make the new more possible. Three small groups worked on shifting narratives in three different arenas: worker power building, climate funding, and democratic governance.

Now What?

Peer Coaching:

How might you push the boundaries of your work going forward? What might you start doing differently?

Format for writing feedback notes to each other and yourself

The benefit of a year-long cohort program is that participants get to know and appreciate each other as people, and for the particular areas of work people are doing along the spectrum of just transition. The final convening leveraged the trust and the relationships built with a peer coaching session. We started with 20 minutes for people to write feedback notes to each other - including writing themselves one challenge!

A feedback note

In 3-person peer coaching groups, each person received 15 minutes of peer coaching related to the feedback they received.

Self-Organizing: Continued Collaboration After Phoenix Ends

NFG has two working groups where funders can continue to learn with others on topics relevant to Phoenix:

  1. Funders for a Just Economy (formerly known as the Working Group on Labor and Community Partnerships - WGLCP) is an organizing space to expand the field and topics of interest, provoking conversation on: ‘What is a just economy?’, new ways of building worker power (ownership, influence over public capital), the future of work, intersectional work (race/class/gender), expanded sectors of priority.
  2. Democratizing Development is harnessing innovative solutions that increase and strategically leverage philanthropic resources for more inclusive, community-led and equitable approaches to development.

Let us reverberate outside from this space, using this group as a touchstone while we move the center of gravity in philanthropy.

The cohort discussed strategies for connecting Phoenix work to funder convening spaces . A calendar of 2017 funder events was co-created.

As a result of this strategizing, Phoenix hosted a workshop at the EDGE Funders Alliance April 2017 conference in Barcelona.

NFG offered support for continuing learning webinars cohorts members want to offer to Phoenix alumni and their colleagues. The first webinar illuminated what the current landscape of impact investing looks like and how program officers who shepherd grantmaking portfolios can think about aligning their work with social movements and supporting projects to absorb both grant resources and investment capital.

A Slack channel was initiated for cohort members to continue to communicate and network and strategize together.


People have changed their thinking and funding as a result of participating in Phoenix.

What was valuable?

  1. New and deepened relationships that will support on-going joint strategizing and collaboration.
  2. Learning from pragmatic examples of on-the-ground work.
  3. The exchange of ideas, and supported space to grapple with questions and think in fresh ways that makes our work as funders stronger and more strategic.


Project Phoenix was led by a Core Team: Co-chairs Aditi Vaidya, Solidago Foundation and See Forward Fund (now at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), and José A. García, Surdna Foundation (now at the Ford Foundation, NFG staff Dennis Quirin, Yolanda Hippensteele, and Kita Urias, and project design consultant and facilitator Viveka Chen.

Created By
Viveka Chen

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