What It Really Takes to Fund Peace and Security

A meeting organized by Tostan in Africa

A meeting organized by Tostan in Africa

The theoretical physicist Albert Einstein said this: "Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding." In our current global climate, understanding one another seems—to put it mildly—a bit out of our collective reach. We wonder if, indeed, you need advanced degrees in matter and phenomena to understand the state of our world. Yet, working to achieve peace remains at the top of agendas in every sector throughout the world: government, grassroots, enterprising institutions and unsurprisingly, inspired and hopeful philanthropists.

These philanthropists are not asking "Is peace possible?" Rather, "How is peace made possible?" They're examining the right role for philanthropists in actualizing peace from Maine to Mongolia. They're funding models that are, as of this writing, transforming communities once at odds into non-conflicting, and even harmonious neighbors working together to build a better future. They're investing in solutions to create roadmaps for an uncertain world. And they're finding those solutions in the grassroots.

"I believe the key to solving almost every single problem humans face is at the grassroots level. We hear about what feels unfathomable, like war and global conflicts. We then think that conflicts between neighbors isn't of consequence. It all matters," says Seattle-based philanthropist and community activist Mary Ellen Cunningham.  "Funding peace and community security is going deeper into the levels of community and having it trickle up. Grassroots can inform government."

Philanthropists like Ms. Cunningham and the change agents they are funding are not shirking from the awesome responsibility of navigating global unrest. Instead, they are embracing the belief of author Clarissa Pinkola Estes that "we were made for these times." In this stepping up, they are learning that grassroots blueprints for peace that were once dismissed as iterative, difficult to measure, or unviable may just be the guide for the future and the present.

"They key is listening, learning and remembering that these are long-term, protracted problems. But they are not intractable," says New York City-based philanthropist Jessica Houssian, a philanthropic advisor and a trustee of her family's foundation, the Houssian Foundation.

She adds: "Peace and security is not easy, and it's not overnight."

Ms. Houssian has spent 10 years exploring, learning about and funding solutions to the global refugee crisis from Syria to Kenya. And a crisis it is. The United Nations refugee agency reports that the number of displaced people is at an all-time high, surpassing post-World War II numbers; there are more than 65 million displaced persons in the world today. That accounts for one of every 113 people on Earth.

What, then, are the answers to problems as global as human displacement and as local as conflict on a school board? Research shows that the best and most effective peace-building initiatives are community-driven and community led. Their success comes not from the top-down, but from the grassroots up. What amplifies this success? Findings point to something that is in short supply these days: inclusive and respectful dialogue.

And it turns out that the approach that transforms communities also transforms the philanthropist. Ms. Cunningham says, "We practice inclusive and respectful dialogue in my home and now in my community. Organizations I fund, like Tostan, are modeling peace and security from the macro to the micro."

Tostan, a west-African based NGO, has spent the last quarter-century equipping thousands of African communities in charge of their own futures through a grassroots alternative education program steeped in human rights. They are best known for just one result: more than 7,700 communities have declared an end to female genital cutting and child marriage. Because they are not a single-issue organization, because they take the approach of listening deeply to the community and facilitating discussion, their results manifest in several areas. And many outgrowths have sprung from this approach, including a Peace & Security program led by women and youth that has resolved more than 1,500 local conflicts in the first two years.

As Ms. Cunningham says, "With models like Tostan, after participants have been through the program, you're never starting from scratch. You've laid a foundation for future conflicts. Peacemaking lays a foundation. You're not having to start from square one every single time. You carry it forward. It's not a cerebral process with a check box. You're looking at ethics and values-induced, informed process. You're listening and learning."

How, then, can other philanthropists join the effort to fund peace? 

"If you're a philanthropist, it can feel intimidating," says Ms. Houssian, "It helps to remember that this is a long-term, protracted situation. it's complex and changes almost daily. Your role is to be on a learning journey. Listen. Learn. Ask questions. You will experience humility. Let go of feeling intimidated. You don't have to have the answers to be a part of the solution. Let your philanthropy be experiential. Ask for data and reporting, but be mindful that for grantee partners on the ground, doing the work is long-term. Along the way, learn together and pivot on strategies. The best you can do is believe in the mission and the strategy and resource and trust the leaders. Then, be their champion."

Kathy LeMay is the founder and president of Raising Change, Inc. Suzanne Bowles is director of philanthropy at Tostan