St John's Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Sherman, TX, hosts a drive-up food pantry in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has further exposed inequity in the U.S. Sara Carpenter/shutterstock
St John’s Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Sherman, TX, hosts a drive-up food pantry in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has further exposed inequity in the U.S. Sara Carpenter/shutterstock

When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation unveiled its Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge late last year, the effort marked one of its first major steps on domestic economic mobility following a 2018 commitment of $158 million to the cause. The challenge has an interesting focus: better storytelling and more accurate narratives around the subject of poverty.

The Gates Foundation has employed a “grand challenge” model many times in its global work to source innovative ideas. But Voices for Economic Opportunity was its first U.S.-focused challenge. Now, amid the economic fallout of a worldwide pandemic and during a national reckoning with racial justice, Gates has announced the challenge’s winners.

A total of 28 grantee organizations will each receive $100,000 toward their narrative change projects. Gates was never the lone funder involved, having been joined originally by the Raikes Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Though the original intention was to fund 10 grantees, several additional funders got on board since then, growing the list of recipients to nearly 30. Added funders include the Omidyar Network, the James Irvine Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Schultz Family Foundation.

The recipients themselves cover a range of issue areas, and one gets the sense that Gates and its foundation partners were trying to cover their bases. As Gates’ economic mobility head Ryan Rippel said at the challenge’s outset, this is all experimental and learning-oriented. “We’re new to this space, and we stand to learn from others who’ve been at this a lot longer than we have,” he said.

Given the resources of its funders, this challenge may pave the way for significant support to successful projects and strategies. It also demonstrates that storytelling and narrative change—always a nebulous area to fund—can be a place of common ground for anti-poverty funders whose grantmaking strategies otherwise differ.

The Road Less Traveled

Gates is a bellwether for the field, and its decision to join what we’ve called “the new billionaire war on poverty” in the U.S. was noteworthy. But the foundation’s domestic anti-poverty debut has been neither hasty nor disruptive. Gates began by doing its research, working with the Urban Institute on an open-ended learning initiative called the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty. That effort produced several themes to guide Gates’ domestic anti-poverty work. They include boosting access to good jobs, decoupling economic opportunity from zip code, delivering services holistically, better using data, and changing narratives about poverty.

By emphasizing narrative change with this challenge, Gates has chosen a somewhat unconventional path. Skills training and other workforce development services are far more popular among philanthropy at large, and research and data-driven local initiatives have received plenty of attention from the Bloombergs and Ballmers of the world. Gates has joined some of that work. In their effort to avoid anything with too strong a whiff of politics—a difficult endeavor these days—most donors steer clear of, say, labor advocacy and workers’ rights.

In funding narrative change, Gates and its partners have entered waters that may not be political as such, but certainly sit adjacent to the fray. Many of the challenge’s grantees want to uplift stories that explicitly counter narratives placing responsibility for poverty in the hands of those experiencing it. That speaks to deep and ongoing debates over who deserves what in American society. And while the challenge is not a response to the events of 2020, the foundation does note that “in light of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic early this year and the outrage against racial injustice that is gripping our nation, the effort to change the narrative around poverty and opportunity is now more important than ever.”

Gates and its funding partners received 1,225 submissions for the challenge and winnowed that list down with the help of a panel of 30 experts across a variety of specialties. Grantees will work together over the next 18 months to learn from each other and receive technical support.

Intersectional Stories

The full list of winning projects, which can be viewed here, covers a wide range of geographies and populations, often in an intersectional way. It does tend to favor larger and more well-established organizations, but there are some smaller local nonprofits in the mix. For Gates, organizational and issue-area diversity was the point. As Rippel wrote in a recent blog post, “Part of the goal of these 28 organizations will be to build a bridge between people who right now feel as if their experiences are quite distinct, separate, and often at odds with each other.”

The goal of many of the projects is to tell more accurate and just stories about marginalized people, including racial minorities. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, for instance, will pursue a digital documentation project to counter narratives that depict Black men in poverty as “social problems.” Meanwhile, Native American members of the Arizona-based Arrowhead Business Group Foundation will work with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health to document how Indigenous peoples in the U.S. were driven into poverty.

Children and young people are another area of focus. Grant recipients include the Children’s Defense Fund, the University of San Diego Children’s Advocacy Institute and the U.S. Dream Academy. In many cases, the stories being told involve the intersection of systemic factors that force young people into poverty. For instance, YR Media is heading a digital media project to highlight the stories of young people whose lives have been impacted by foster care and the juvenile justice system. Wayne State University is producing a documentary to showcase young people in Detroit who’ve led the charge on local community development projects, including in the face of COVID-19.

Other projects will document the experiences of women in poverty. Women’s Way is developing a fellowship to help low-income women share their stories, while the YWCA of San Antonio will respond to “why can’t they just” questions about poverty (i.e., “why can’t they just get a job?”) by highlighting the lives and livelihoods of local women of color working in hospitality, caregiving and food service. Meanwhile, the National Women’s Law Center’s Show Me the Receipts project will help storytellers document how people are held back by labyrinthine benefits systems and structural financial barriers.

Other themes among the grantees include rural poverty (Partners for Rural Transformation and the West Virginia Community Development Hub), faith communities (Sojourners and the YMCA of the Coosa Valley) and criminal justice reform (the Vera Institute of Justice). Another interesting grant went to the Metropolitan Planning Council to build a website to “push back against the myth of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ neighborhoods” by centering the stories of residents in segregated, low-income communities of color.

No Funder’s Alike

In a way, the mix of winners reflects the varied perspectives of the funders involved. Robert Wood Johnson, Kellogg and Raikes came aboard early, in part to offset Gates’ newcomer status in the domestic poverty space. As philanthropy’s leading proponent of funding to address the social determinants of health, RWJF has played a role in the effort to break down anti-poverty funding silos. COVID-19 has been a sort of validating crisis for the foundation, both in terms of its equity lens and its insistence that “health is about more than healthcare.”

RWJF’s longstanding attention to big-picture issues in health segues well with Kellogg’s focus on racial justice and youth success, themes that clearly impacted Voices for Economic Opportunity. And Jeff Raikes—whose foundation channels the proceeds of a career with Microsoft and know-how gained as CEO of the Gates Foundation itself—has made overtures toward the need to shift power in philanthropy. “The people you need to listen to—to both correctly identify the problem you are trying to solve, and to come up with ways to address it—are those with lived experience,” he wrote last year.

Then there are the newer entrants to this funding partnership. Like Kellogg, the James Irvine Foundation and the Omidyar Network have taken the rather uncommon step of investing in labor advocacy to tackle systemic challenges to mobility. But unlike with Kellogg and Irvine, a major living donor heads the Omidyar Network. That makes its bid to “reimagine capitalism” all the more noteworthy. Two challenge grantees, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project, are involved in the labor movement. NDWA is producing a video series on the daily lives of domestic workers in the U.S., while Voz is building out a legal clinic for day laborers, along with an accompanying public awareness campaign.

The Schultz Family Foundation channels the wealth of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz toward grantmaking for disaster relief, veterans and opportunity youth. In that final category, the foundation has supported a range of youth justice organizations, universities and research initiatives toward its wider vision of extending opportunity to all, regardless of zip code.

Meanwhile, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation focuses its attention on closing economic and educational gaps in Arkansas, the state its eponymous founder ran as governor between 1967 and 1971. At least one of the challenge recipients, the Arkansas Asset Funders Network, speaks to this funder’s involvement.

Conversation Starter?

From a funding perspective, Voices for Economic Opportunity isn’t all that massive—$100,000 each to 28 grantees puts the total just shy of $3 million. That’s a tiny fraction of Gates’ relatively modest $158 million economic mobility commitment, and it’s an even smaller portion of all these funders’ combined resources. However, the challenge highlights how storytelling and narrative change can be a palatable option for a wide range of funders—those who back edgier strategies like worker organizing, and those who’ve steered clear.

Only a few major living donors (like Soros and Omidyar) have backed the labor movement. But plenty support a broader constellation of anti-poverty work including research and data initiatives, local community development and public-private initiatives to boost economic mobility. Next to workforce development and labor advocacy, that loose collection of mostly uncontroversial funding constitutes a kind of third leg on philanthropy’s economic opportunity stool.

It’s easy to see how media and storytelling can supplement that work, uplifting successes and placing valuable findings before policymakers and the voting public. As converging crises put the onus on funders to get serious about economic justice, narrative change may get a boost.

Still, there’s a reason why narrative strategies often receive more lip service than actual grant dollars. Engagement with traditional and social media may be quantifiable, but it’s harder to track whether and how stories change hearts and minds. Are these stories breaking out of ideological niches or do they preach to the choir? Do people see them as authentic or as politically motivated and “paid-for”?

This is pretty new terrain for mainstream philanthropy. It makes sense that Voices for Economic Opportunity is funding a bunch of projects to see what sticks.

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