Decolonising philanthropy with Shivani Gupta & Laura Somoggi

Let’s talk about power, trust, and effective collaborations…

In this episode of Be and Think in the House of Trust, I am welcoming Shivani Gupta from India and Laura Somoggi from Brazil, the new co-CEOs of the Womanity Foundation, a philanthropic organization that works to accelerate gender equality. Together we discuss the recipe for a successful co-CEO-ship of an operational philanthropic foundation.

We look at the platinum rule of “do unto others what they want to be done to them” which requires deep listening deep seeing, compassion, and devolution of power. We also explore the mind shift needed to decolonise wealth and philanthropy, and to understand how knowledge and the variety of languages used in the system, can impact change.

We look at how understanding who you are, the type of power you hold, and the knowledge you have can be just as powerful as money.

Highlight in this episode

(7:40) What are the DOs and what are the DONT’s

(10:15) Knowledge is power too

(11:10) The Platinum Rule

(14:43) Decolonising philanthropy: what it means in practice

(16:40) What sustainability means for funds recipients

(21:30) The missing link in the sector

(27:00) Even one life altered and changed can make a lot of difference

Useful Links

Womanity Foundation

Shivani Gupta on Linkedin

Laura Somoggi on Linkedin

Connect with Servane

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Servane Mouazan 0:00

Welcome to Be and think in the house of trust a podcast with and for people who love to invest in social and environmental change. My name is Servane Mouazan and together with my guests I look at the conditions that generate more trust, more effective and kind collaborations. We also look at what makes it easier for these people and the system to amplify their impact, embrace complexity and do some work that really changes things for the better. And with us today we have two wonderful women. Shivani Gupta from India and Laura Somoggi from Brazil. And they're sharing the CEO seat at the Womanity Foundation. Womanity Foundation aims to accelerate gender equality through innovative investments and close collaboration with social entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial organisations, that address women's agency and progress.

Servane Mouazan 1:08

Laura, you're the director of the Womanity award on top of your list which addresses gender-based violence through the deployment of evidence-based programmes in south to South partnerships. I have to share as a disclaimer that I was holding this position and handed the baton over to you Laura, in your safe and secure hands in 2017. So it's a very special conversation for me today. Thank you, you to Shivani and Laura for being in the house of trust today. So let's get started. If you had only one sentence to introduce yourself, as starting with "I'm someone who's passionate about", what would you say?

Laura Somoggi 1:48

Got this up? That's a start!

Laura Somoggi 1:53

I am passionate...

Laura Somoggi 1:57

I love working with people and talking discussing brainstorming to find solutions together. I love I love to work like that.

Servane Mouazan 2:11

Thank you Lauren Shivani What about you?

Shivani Gupta 2:14

I think I would say I would love to make work towards making this world more peaceful and equitable. Not only on gender, but other things as well.

Servane Mouazan 2:27

You are sharing this CEO seat at the table. And she founded maybe I'd love to ask you what's special about this CEO partnership.

Shivani Gupta 2:39

So, you know actually this is the first time I am a CEO of any company. So firstly, I don't know any other model and I think it's almost like having a partner in crime. I know it's a wrong analogy, but it is like there is somebody who is sharing your responsibilities sharing your angst sharing your joys and also given the kind of personalities that two of us are we are quite, quite opposite in our thinking too. Of course the purpose is the same, but we have fairly different personalities. So I feel a I have learnt a lot and be our decisions are more rounded. Maybe a bit delayed, but certainly more wrong.

Servane Mouazan 3:25

I love this.

Servane Mouazan 3:28

Thanks Shivani, Laura what do you think?

Laura Somoggi 3:31

Yeah, I agree. For me, it's the same the first time I'm gonna see position. And for me, it's just a model that makes total sense. Because there's no point in doing this by yourself. So I think even when you're working by yourself as like one CEO, I think I do believe in having people close to you that are not yes men to start with and then can collaborate.

Laura Somoggi 3:55

And I think having two really brings us when he said like the richness of perspectives. Yes, even hold each other's hand sometimes to make some decisions. Having someone to bounce off your ideas, and not being lonely and and then discuss a lot about that about how to manage we have I mean, it's a very small team we tried to be as I mean, we are quite flat. A lot of the decisions are made in collaboration asking the team's opinions so we both work like that. And but I think brings another level of sharing of showing what to do no. Right. And I think because, as you said, we have very different personalities, I think a lot of complementary skills. So it's been quite intuitive. Nobody told us how to do it. We discuss a little bit in the beginning and then we're just learning by doing and I think it's working really well. I'm really enjoying it.

Servane Mouazan 4:51

It sounds like a very agile way of resolving the angst of all the CEOs in the world and you found it.

Shivani Gupta 4:58

I think it's I do want to kind of take away the hard work which was behind it. It's not like one day, we were not the CEOs and the next day it was all running. I think there was a lot of anxiety. There was a lot of belief, but there was also a lot of hard work. We have spent hours on calls. Because Laura is based in London, I'm in Mumbai. And actually the first time we met in person was after we became the Gaussian. A lot of investment has gone into it and it's been primarily the time investment, but it also comes from a I feel a deep respect that we are working towards the same issue or same purpose. Right. So deep respect, and then a common language towards the purpose that you seek to to to accomplish right. I would add one more thing I think values aligned. We have our I think our values are very aligned.

Servane Mouazan 5:56

So let's talk about your values, purpose, respect, and I want to just maybe deep dive a little bit more about the purpose of Womanity and as a finance provider, where do you find yourself on that spectrum? How unique Are you Shivani

Shivani Gupta 6:13

I think it's a it's an interesting position to be in right because what we are what we call ourselves an operational Foundation, which means that we of course design our own programmes. Our founder funds, a chunk of the operational cost, but we also go ahead and raise money for our programme system. So within that construct of actually giving money and getting money from other grant makers, I think we are in a very good position to understand the power dynamics of the relationships that money gets, or which are established on the premises of, you know, grants coming one way or the other. And I think it's been an interesting journey. It's been a revelation for humanity as well as to how do you become more conscious? How do you become more grounded? And how do you get closer to grassroots organisations? And that's, I'm relatively new to the organisation three years only.

Shivani Gupta 7:18

But over the last three years itself, we've had, I think, numerous rounds of discussion within our leadership team on what do we stand for? What are the do's and what are the absolute don'ts, I would say in the house.

Shivani Gupta 7:35

So I think from a finance perspective, the key has been a journey of understanding how money can be such a driver of the power and because I was in corporates, everybody had money, depending on your level, but it was really the hierarchy. We used to drive a lot of the power dynamics, so it's been a new reflection. For me this is interesting because I've read a lot about what you've done, what you've put out, online rent and also in conferences and everything around that question on power and money.

Servane Mouazan 8:08

There's something around decolonizing and and really looking sharply at the issue of wealth in philanthropy that's, that's coming up here. And I wonder what's what you've been experimenting with that issue?

Laura Somoggi 8:24

Well, I think it's first understanding where we are. I mean, going back to the question you asked before, like where we are in the ecosystem, who we are being very aware of the power he holds by being who we are. So we are Swiss private foundation from the globe. So Swiss from the Global North.

Laura Somoggi 8:41

Very different from the very big foundations, we don't have an endowment, as you can explain, you need to fundraise. So we are in this space of going on both sides giving and receiving. But I think the first thing is really reflection, who we are how people perceive us in our relationships. It's not only how you think you are presenting yourself, but how people perceive and being very aware of it all the time in every conversation and depending on with whom you're talking and being very intentional about it. So give one example. So we talk at the monitor awards support organisations and again, in that relationship, we are the funders, right? So we hold the money, therefore, potentially you hold the power, right? So when we're having conversations, I am always very upfront in saying I know that I'm representing the donor, and this comes with power imbalance. But as much as possible in this conversation, I wouldn't be working as a partner to work with you, not to challenge you, but to work with you to understand what the issues are and how we can solve it.

Laura Somoggi 9:49

And sometimes I realise it works sometimes no matter what I say it doesn't work, because because the word is as it is and power and money are very close. But the other thing is also the understanding that the other things that give power so knowledge is power as well. And they have a knowledge that we don't have. So as part of the work we do, for instance, I have been giving workshops on partnership building, and then we talk about partnerships and they say okay, what resources, each one of you or each one of us are bringing to this partnership and money is one of them. Money is not everything. Right? So being aware that everybody has power in different ways. And I'm calling it out. People still even the people who have the knowledge sometimes don't understand that. That's power as well. It's not only that, not only money is power, so long answer,

Servane Mouazan:

right. So power has got different layers, a prism with different facets. There's issue but how you perceive others how they perceive you have read in an article that you put out recently, all of us thought for a while that you know you need to do to others what you want them to do to you but in fact, you're talking about a platinum rule that supersedes this belief, you know do to others what they want to be done to them. And that requires listening compassion and devolution of power.

Servane Mouazan:

And I wonder how did these Platinum Rule influence your work personally and as CO CEOs of the womanity Foundation?

Shivani Gupta:

It's been a process to be absolutely candid, because I think it's a mind shift. For a lot of us in the ecosystem, right? We as funders, we as grantees, and for us it's been because I was like kind of fortunate enough to launch a new programme. Therefore setting the rules upfront was kind of our responsibility right? My responsibility. A few things that we did to at least start having these conversations with our potential NGO partners and grantees was to put it out in a paper. So we wrote in black and white, what are the rules by which we do our grant making? We clearly talked about failures, learning from failures. We clearly talked about you asking us as many questions as we ask you questions because once the contract is done, it's about managing the project. Well, it doesn't make a difference who was going to kind of do it right. And also, I think it all translates to the body language and the language and the conversations which happen with those partners in the room. And to me successes when they call you irrespective of the reporting side, right? Like, oh, show me I need a gender expert, can you kind of help us find that person? So when you become a true partner beyond the money conversation is where you have at least made a couple of steps towards having a more equal relationship. I think it's been semi successful in a way because some organisations are more ready for it. And some organisations are not, and it's not their fault. It's nobody's fault. It's just that traditionally there has been a very, very strong power dynamic between the two community, grant makers and the grantees.

Shivani Gupta:

People are not sure whether you are real or whether you're just putting it up. I think it's been an interesting journey in the last almost 1516 months that I have been doing it and it's been rewarding in times. It's been super challenging at times. I think it's something which has been built over probably three or four decades. So you should give it a decade to come down as well. So maybe steps but long way to go.

Servane Mouazan:

So I think there's there's a convening objective here where everybody has to learn a new language and go over the shock of being treated with respect somehow and that takes a while for all parties.

Shivani Gupta:


Servane Mouazan:

So there there is a notion Okay, the Platinum Rule, do unto others what they want to be done to them learning that new language, travelling together when this new practice testing the ground. And and that question about decolonization. I know it's really important for you. What does it mean in practice for a foundation such as yours to decolonize itself and maybe I'm gonna ask you about these things that might not be Oh, that might be hidden in plain sight. But, you know, not necessarily just to work with grantees, but the boards, traditional boards, the founders, how do you all work together in practice behind the scene, in order to let the community have self determination and power over resources. How does that work?

Laura Somoggi:

Well, I think there are lots of layers to that. So I think one thing is, first of all, having this conversations internally, right, and really reflecting. So it's interesting that now there are two of us. So it's already sharing power within, right. And as soon as we have a leadership team, so as a lot of decisions are made collectively. So this is more about like sharing, not so much of decolonizing I think it's really, if I can give an example of what to do with the one inch award and they have such solid collaborations, again, not seeing that what we know and what not is knowledge for us, is the one that's worth more because I think that's a really big thing as part of decolonizing philanthropy is decolonizing knowledge if you don't see that what others know, is as valuable as you know, and maybe for what crisis we're facing our environment, maybe even more valuable like regenerative agriculture, ancestral knowledge. So all these things are incredibly important for social impact. I see there's a lot of tendency and angst to say okay, I they don't know what to do if they do that to be so much more effective, or using metrics that come from the capitalist system. To measure social impact, like scrap that you can't, they're very different from it. They're very different things instead of failing to the partner. What you want them to achieve is asking them what you want to achieve, what is sustainability for you? Because we always say we want to support organisations, we want them to become sustainable. what they understand about sustainability might be very different from what they understand my sensibility. So for instance, two examples where I had discussions internally with also the founder and the board, when we're discussing about Afghanistan, what's happened, what we do in Afghanistan with all with the Taliban seizing power and banks, and he put our programme on hold, going out, talking to lots of different people in different positions in the ecosystem to understand what's going on there. And understanding that keeping an organisation alive is social impact. And to have the conversation telling me say maybe for some period of time, we're not going to have a big impact. We're not going to be reaching 1000s of people. So I think for me, that's, that's a bit of decolonizing of the knowledge internally, like it's not only about hitting big numbers or even doing COVID A lot of the work and we have a special fund for organisations working professional pilots doing COVID And for them, some the money was used for them not too close to pay salaries.

Servane Mouazan:

It's okay keep they're retaining the knowledge within and so that they could rebounce once the time was ripe,

Laura Somoggi:

being alive basically, it's like keeping the women's organisations alive is already impact.

Servane Mouazan:

I like that because there is a systems approach here where you know, just talking your old ways of operating reusing in our day and you see okay, what else is going on here? That we could influence or rally partners around? So in your observation or candid observation, as you were saying earlier, not just for womanity, but that type of system. ecosystem is moving and other people are trying to do that work and they're really working hard to do that decolonizing word or that systems practice and I wonder what might be limiting the thinking of the organisation in the ecosystem, you know, as they try to put these benevolent thoughts into practice.

Shivani Gupta:

I think, like you rightly said, right, a lot of good work a lot of resources are going to have good causes, specifically gender. So you see so much so many billion dollars being allocated to it. I think the couple of challenges which people face and let me start with, what are the challenges as a funder? I think as a funder, a lot of the challenge is just a couple of them. One is the transparency which comes across from the nonprofit partners. In some cases lack of it. Sometimes the relationship starts with a trust deficit. And the entire three years or two years or five years of spending actually coming to a place where there is some level of trust. So I think that's one issue. I feel a funder really struggles. I think the second thing that I have been talking to a lot of the larger funders, if I may say they really struggle to work with small grassroots organisations. And when I talk about smaller like if I look at an Indian context, it's I'm talking about organisations which have an annual budget of less than half a million dollars, typically, right? So because their systems and processes are not geared up to talk to a large fund, and yc versa. There is a bit of a disconnect in that ecosystem in my in my view, whether it's gender, whether it's education, whether it's comprehensive rural development, those kinds of issues, right. The issues which are not in the forefront like education, health care, and livelihoods, tend to suffer a lot.

Shivani Gupta:

And I feel like if I was to go from the nonprofit side, I think one of the biggest things that we completely underestimate is the language barrier.

Shivani Gupta:

It is so huge, that it is ridiculous even within India. I feel we are not reaching a lot of the organisations because we have a language barrier within it. And there's also perception within nonprofits, at least, I think in the issue region that if I don't answer for a proposal request in English, I will not make it. So I think it's a lot of perceptions. It's a lot of, I would say legacy, which is hurting even when both parties want to change.

Shivani Gupta:

Now let's see how the next 5-10 years pan out. But this is the place where I feel we could draw from the corporate sector and I know a lot of people don't like that when I say is I feel a lot of the corporate sector works on what the customer is demanding. It does not make a difference with what you see your things or what you know, anybody else shopkeeper things if the customer demands something, you get it. And that orientation to me is a bit missing in the..

Servane Mouazan:

Shivani and Laura, I'd like to take you to the futures this part of the feature of this podcast and talking about the future of leadership and its practicalities. So we are in 2033 and you've applied or your themes, your ideas, your movement, it's been happening with ups and downs. What do you see yourself saying about the practice of generous, interested shared leadership? You have been practising for all these years.

Shivani Gupta:

That's something I can kind of immediately come in. I would say. We started it was a watershed moment in the way CEOs were perceived and power positions were perceived.

Shivani Gupta:

It was not so much about the self but about the role.

Servane Mouazan:

Laura, I've got a question for you as well. So think about 2033 Would you feel you need you could have behaved or done more of irrespectively of outcomes in the past 10 years.

Shivani Gupta:

I took the easy one Laura

Laura Somoggi:

I think which is something that's already happening.

Laura Somoggi:

And I think it's the next level of decolonizing it's really creating participatory approaches in everything we do. Because even if you talk about it, you listen you speak other language. I think all of these is critical for change. But if you really want to apply the platinum rule at its core, it's been not asking what you think it's sustainability, but asking the ecosystem.

Laura Somoggi:

What changes how they want who should be doing it, and having more money moving in the right direction. I think going back to the question was about the barriers, the system, how things are financed. I think in a way it's going the other way. So we're talking about like please need to speak multiple languages. We need to be able to create space for people be able to communicate in different ways in the way they feel comfortable with. But when you're talking about the way the money moves, it's our Lord asking for small organisations to adapt themselves to the big system. So it's again, creating a language it's very difficult for them to understand so you can ask them in their language. It doesn't matter. You're still asking them to measure things that make no sense for them, even if you're asking their own language. So is for the system to change and I don't think it's going to happen in 10 years. I think it's gonna take longer for that. I think it's talking about all the all the different languages that we use in the system. Again, one of one of the things I read about and I've been conversations about I don't want to become very political, but I think it's a very good example when you understand how the far right has been funding the movement. And how the more liberal or progressive or I wouldn't say left because I don't think big organisations giving money for social impact unnecessarily left, which doesn't matter. I mean, there's no judgement here, but the right wing and the more progressive the right thing has been much more flexible the money flows and that it has allowed for the movement to be able to do things that we're seeing happening in the world in the States with reproductive rights and all the push backs with the more progressive movement and, and the more progressive side still asking reports and metrics and very constrained ways of measuring change, and making all these organisations spending too much time proving they're doing the work instead of doing the work. So I think if that doesn't change it's gonna be very difficult to see the progress.

Servanbe Mouazan

So I like this, this stunning example of looking at what you are, well, the people you might might not agree with, how they do the work and how they make things flow.

Servane Mouazan:

What a... am not going to say "cool" example but

Servane Mouazan:

pristine example of that really inspiring ourselves from any example around that managed to reach their purpose, whichever it is. So I wonder, as we're coming to an end of our moment together in this house of trust is what more do you think or feel or want to say in a nutshell, that would close our time together?

Shivani Gupta:

First of all, thank you for having us.

Shivani Gupta:

I know there's a lot of negativity in the system about a lot of stuff which is happening in the world, which is not cool, right, from wars, to refugees to famines to inflation, but I think one should keep going at it. Keep working on it. I think even one life altered and changed can make a lot of difference. So I would say we should understand the lay of the land but keep our positivity in mind as we work in this sector. It's very, very important to keep a positive mindset.

Servane Mouazan:

Thank you Shivani for this message of hope. What about you, Laura, What more Do you think or feel when to say as we're closing our time together?

Laura Somoggi:

Well, thank you as well and pretty great to have the space to think together. For me.

Laura Somoggi:

I think there are two things that are really missing is deep listening and really seeing because when we see what's happening with climate and I mean and violence against women and all the injustice and all the patriarchal system we are in if people cannot see what's happening, like what else needs to happen in the world for people to see there is a climate crisis, a climate emergency. So I think it's really people opening really their eyes and their ears and see that everybody needs to play some type of role in making a change.

Laura Somoggi:

So I think people they see but they don't see the hear but they don't hear so I think anything and I don't know if you can say deep seeing, the world.

Servane Mouazan:

Deep listening deep seeing and we've got all these eyes and ears generally they come in pairs. There must be a reason. Thank you so much, Laura Somoggi and Shivani Gupta from the Womanity Foundation for spending this time. This is it for this episode of Be and Think In The House of Trust. I'm your host Servane Mouazan, and I look forward to our next show for more thinking, seeing and listening. The series is available where ever you love to listen to your podcasts. Connect with me through and get some regular conscious innovation updates to help you navigate all these mental models that are needed to collectively and individually ignite positive social and environmental change. That's it from me. Stay well, be nice to each other. Bye bye!

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