Speaker: David Bonbright

Sustainable Social Change and Philanthropy: From Transactions to Relationships

David Bonbright is a systems thinker and passionate systems changer dedicated to social change as a social entrepreneur and professional grantmaker. He is founder and chief executive of an initiative that aims to transform the fields of social investing and sustainable development. Previously, as a grantmaker and manager with Aga Khan Foundation (1997-2004), Ford Foundation (1983-1987), Oak Foundation (1988-1990), and Ashoka: Innovators for the Public (1990-1997), David sought to evolve and test innovative approaches to strengthening citizen self-organization for social justice and sustainable development as an alternative to prevailing bureaucratic, top-down models.

While with the Ford Foundation, David was declared persona non grata by the apartheid government in South Africa for helping fund the liberation struggle. In 1990, during the final years of that decade-long struggle, he returned to South Africa and entrepreneured the development of key building blocks for civil society, including the first nonprofit internet service provider (SANGONeT), the national association of NGOs (SANGOCO), the national association of grantmakers (the Southern Africa Grantmakers Association), and enabling reforms to the regulatory and tax framework for not-for-profit organizations that were among the first laws passed by the newly elected Mandela government.  He also founded and led a South African citizen sector resource center in Johannesburg relating to organizational development (the Development Resources Centre), and led the first Africa program of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. 

As a social entrepreneur, David co-founded in 2004 and serves as chief executive of Keystone Accountability (formerly ACCESS), an international nonprofit dedicated to bringing constituent feedback to social change practice. Keystone Accountability "helps organizations understand and improve their social performance by harnessing feedback, especially from the people they serve”. Keystone seeks to improve the effectiveness of organizations working in the human development field by developing new ways of planning, measuring and communicating social change that are practical and include the voices of their beneficiaries and other constituents. These include the introduction of systems for performance management and giving/social investing that realize accountability for learning in social change processes.  Keystone’s original Constituent Voice™ method is now being taken up across the world. 

After founding Keystone, David got an unexpected invitation to speak about his work with Nelson Mandela. He recalls sitting across from the charismatic freedom leader and talking about how much of development aid and philanthropic work runs aground because those on the receiving end have no say in it. Mandela politely listened to him for a moment and then generously shared his own experience. Mandela’s comment about the "lack of accountability by donors and NGOs to the people who are meant to benefit from the programs” serves David as a reminder ever since that "in social change, as in our personal and social lives, it is relationships that determine outcomes."

As David writes of that meeting with Mandela, "The juxtaposition that is most helpful in getting to more successful development or social change practice is doing-to versus doing-with. As President Mandela saw, powerful actors adorned in resources like money, education, technology, and access, rarely break out of their privilege to value relationships." The most effective philanthropic organizations "will demonstrate how they work to get high-trust relationships. They will measure and manage those relationships with continuous, light-touch feedback loops. They will invest heavily in the soft skills of doing-with for their frontline staff – things like coaching and appreciative inquiry."

David strongly believes in building partnerships with program beneficiaries based on equality, accountability and mutual understanding. In the field of development aid this might be a slow story because, as he believes, it requires patient observation, deep listening, and the forging of strong relational ties. About the relationship between giver and receiver he writes in one of his essays:  “To be an effective giver, you need to be a good collaborator. To be an effective implementer, you need to earn the trust of those you mean to help. (…) Invest in your own learning. Your highest and best role as a philanthropist is as a steward of learning – yours and those you work with, separately and together.”

Trained as a lawyer, David has authored and co-authored a number of reports and books on the subject of philanthropy in Pakistan, indigenous philanthropy and public entrepreneurship.

He sits on the boards, advisory councils and knowledge networks of The Constant Gardener Trust, AccountAbility Forum, Alliance magazine, Allavida, Goldman Foundation Environmental Awards, the Johns Hopkins University Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, and the CIVICUS Civil Society Index.

A relentless systems changer, David‘s impact can be seen in organizations, communities, and in at least two countries at the national level, with influence traceable across the world.

Join us in conversation with this innovative thinker and changemaker!

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