The following is a conversation between Amy Klement, the Managing Partner of Imaginable Futures, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Imaginable Futures is a global philanthropic investment firm that combines impact investing and foundation grantmaking in order to unleash human potential through learning. They aspire to shift inequitable systems and bring to life transformative solutions for learners of all ages.
And here to tell us more about what they do and how they do it is Amy Klement, the Managing Partner of Imaginable Futures.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Amy.
Amy: I’m happy and honored to be here, Denver.
Denver: Tell us about Imaginable Futures and how the organization got its start.
Amy Klement: Yeah, so our vision is a future of universal well-being, and we invest in people and ideas that unlock human potential through holistic learning. We aim to co-create with our partners more equitable and healthy systems so that all learners can thrive. We spun out of an organization called Omidyar Network a little over two years ago. Like Omidyar Network, we are founded and funded by Pierre Omidyar and Pam Omidyar. Pierre was the founder of eBay. We work through local teams in geographies, such as Kenya, Brazil, and the United States to really remove barriers to access to learning, to flourishing for all kids and families. And we do this through a unique hybrid structure, both for-profit and nonprofit. And over the years, both as an independent organization, as Imaginable Futures, as well as previously when we were part of Omidyar Network, we’ve deployed over $240 million across for-profit and nonprofit.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about that because you say to really create change, you have to have that unique structure that allows you to utilize all those tools in the toolbox.
Tell us a little bit more about how that actually works.
Amy: Yeah, so our structure is somewhat unique in that we have what we say is a dual checkbook. We have both a foundation from which we make grants; we also have an LLC from which we can make for-profit investments, but also just have more flexibility in what we fund and how we engage in the system. And we really take a very flexible approach where we look at the problem and we say: What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? And then we determine what tool we might use to do that. So for-profit, nonprofit, convening, research, you name it, we fund a variety of different things. And when we do our impact investing, when we do fund for-profits, we, to be clear, take an unabashedly impact-first approach to investing. I know that impact investing has become sort of a large tent these days, and we are absolutely focused on the impact first and alignment with our strategies.
Denver: Great. You also take a systems approach, and I think many listeners understand the concept of systems approach, but how do you actually go about doing systems work? That’s something we don’t understand. Tell us a little bit about how you approach it.
Amy: I mean, the first thing I would say is I think we’re all learning into it. I think the word you most often hear combined with systems is complexity. These things are complex. There is no silver bullet, and they are moving. We often talk about them being cloud-like problems, how clouds shift and move with the winds, versus clock-like problems, which are very linear.
So here’s how we approach systems. First I will say we know that doing systems work will never be “mission accomplished,” or at least not in our lifetime, but rather we ask the question: How are we improving the health of the systems? Such that if we move away from this part of the system, have we left it more robust and healthier? So one of the things we do is we take a page from my old product management days. I ran product at PayPal for many years, and we asked the five “whys.” Why? Get an answer. Why? Get an answer. Why? So we really try to get to the root of this system. Why is this happening? What’s the underlying problem?
And we do this, not internally with ourselves, but by asking people in the system. So we bring together students, parents, teachers, policymakers, founders, funders, academics, and we collectively tell the story of the system. We really deeply listen to not just the data as currently defined in our business cultures, but really the empiricals, the data that is people’s stories and what have they experienced.
And what I’ll say is across all of our geographies and across a variety of issues, what we’ve concluded after we’ve done this deep listening is all of these systems were perfectly designed to produce the inequitable results they produced. All of them were perfectly designed for this inequity, and that the root of that is all too often in systemic racism, in patriarchal culture, and in these forms of oppression. So we really know we need to work at that level if we’re really going to create long lasting change and healthier systems.
“…when we talk about deep listening is: we talk about all ways of knowing. I think too often, we value the rational, the pragmatic, the analytical thinking that is critical and is often created and published by an elite group, often Northern and White. And we’re not equally valuing the empirical knowledge of others, the stories that haven’t been told, and we’re also not valuing emotion and intuition, which are really important factors and also important sources of data that we need to listen to.”
Denver: What have you learned about listening? You mentioned before deep listening and I think sometimes we just go over that and say, “Yeah, sure, you got to listen: we all understand that.” But, how do you really become an active, deep listener to really get the information that you need? Do you have any secrets or ways that you go about doing it?
Amy: A couple of things come to mind. One is, I’ll tell you an embarrassing story, which is…
Denver: Be my guest.
…I’ve been in this space of preaching, if you will, listening to the customer for too long to know. Since 1999, I’ve been in product and building product in eBay and PayPal, but what I was doing too often was I was listening to the customer, and then I was doing sort of the Steve Jobs thing, which is: you need a thousand songs in your pocket, and not in social change. It’s listen, listen, listen, and it’s: What do you want? How can we co-create? What works for your community? What works for you? And it’s about supporting the assets and the brilliance and the opportunities of others, versus coming in with the: you need a thousand songs in your pocket.
Denver: Yeah. You don’t tell me what the solution or the advice is. They know better than you.
Amy: Yeah. And we were listening to customers, right? We were listening to customers, but we were also coming back with the solutions. So that’s one. The other one that I think when we talk about deep listening is: we talk about all ways of knowing. I think too often, we value the rational, the pragmatic, the analytical thinking that is critical and is often created and published by an elite group, often Northern and White. And we’re not equally valuing the empirical knowledge of others, the stories that haven’t been told, and we’re also not valuing emotion and intuition, which are really important factors and also important sources of data that we need to listen to. So those are some of the ways that we’re shifting as we think about listening to the customer, that we’re shifting to be different kinds of listeners.
…“Listening to optimize for you, whether it’s for financial gain or not,… a self-oriented listening. It’s really hard. You’ve got to take your shoes off before you can get into someone else’s shoes, and that’s the hardest part.”
Denver: Oh, those were great points. And I would also add to that, I think sometimes we listen in this society to optimize financial gain. And that’s where the rational comes in, and the data comes in. It isn’t anything else but: how can I optimize income from this listening. And if that isn’t a very, very narrow and not healthy sliver of listening, I don’t know what would be.
Amy: Yeah. Listening to optimize for you, whether it’s for financial gain or not, but a self-oriented listening. It’s really hard. You’ve got to take your shoes off before you can get into someone else’s shoes, and that’s the hardest part.
Denver: It really is. I’m an executive coach, and one of the things that I had a hard time learning was that when you listen to somebody, you really have to listen to them and not think about what you’re going to say back to them, and that’s what we’re doing. You’re half-listening and say, “Oh, I got the response,” or “I’ve seen this before, I can solve this problem.” Of course you haven’t seen it before, but in a sense of trusting that if you just listen, the right response is going to come up, as opposed to saying it in your mind after you think you’ve gotten what they’ve had to say, because you really haven’t.
You talked about geography before, so let’s talk a little bit about that because you have an evolved strategy. And what you’re doing now is you’re focusing on three specific geographies, and you touched on them– Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa– and that’s predominantly, I guess, Kenya and South Africa– and the U.S. So why don’t we start with your work in Africa, how has that work been evolving, Amy?
Amy: Yeah. So in Africa, we know there is massive–this is the place on Earth where population is growing the fastest.
Denver: Exploding, yeah.
Amy: And I really believe: as goes Africa, will go the rest of the world, and we need to create more opportunity. I think this is a massive global issue that we are not talking about enough, is the future of Africa and the youth in Africa. And so we are really focused on creating more diverse pathways to holistic learning and thriving for African youth. And maybe I’ll just give you an example that a partner that demonstrates this in our work there, which is an organization, it’s a project of the Regional Education Learning Initiative called the Assessment of Life Skills and Values; the acronym is ALiVE. ALiVE is really focused on generating evidence and research and knowledge on social-emotional learning, and fostering a community coalition that can influence policy in east Africa, including Kenya.
And so,this recognition that we all know that learning is not just about numbers and letters, and that it’s developing the whole human being for creativity and critical thinking and communication, all of these pieces. And so they’re really looking at how to bring this to life through policy and data and evidence. But what I love about this investment is that it’s really about generating local evidence. The researchers are not being flown in from the north. The questions are not being asked from cities far away. This is really being driven locally, which unfortunately is not the norm all too often in Africa. And so I’m really excited to be supporting these local leaders doing really fantastic and systemic work.
Denver: Yeah. And I think that’s a real manifestation of systems change that people don’t think about. They think about systems change, and they think about the big giant system and the levers in the system. Every system is different locally, and therefore real systems change only can take place, I think, in the local community. And it seems like you’ve really put your finger on it. Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world. And the impact of COVID-19 has just made it that much more unequal; the disparities are even greater. What is your focus going to be there?
Amy: Yeah, but you know what? As we listened deeply and got close to the systems in Brazil, what we determined was there’s just a massive need and growing energy around racial justice in the education system.More people were trafficked through Brazil than to the United States. And it is, as you say, an extremely unequal country where equity is coming to the fore, we hope.
So we are investing in things like more leaders of color in the education system. We’re investing in things like bringing together the big policy, education policy think tanks, together with the racial justice organizations who’ve been doing this work for years and years. We are investing in things like bringing schools and communities closer because we know that too often in education, education has really been siloed from community and from context and from culture, and we see that across all of our countries.
One example of an investment that we’ve made there is an organization called Baobá Fund, which is a nonprofit that’s focusing on social and racial justice. And we really did this during, I don’t want to say the height of the pandemic– knock on wood we’re on the way down, but I live with a heightened sense of reality there– but Baobá is a funding intermediary that enabled us to get funding out to 56 different organizations that really work at the community-based level, really working with kids and families, working on scholarships during this time.
Denver: Mm-hmm. In the United States, I believe you take a two-generation approach. Would that be right?
Amy: That’s correct.
Denver: Tell us about it.
Amy: Yeah. So in the U.S., when we started our work in emerging markets was when we really turned our eyes to the U.S. in 2016. And as we looked across the U.S., what we found was there was a really enormous opportunity in early childhood. And you can’t focus on early childhood without focusing on the caregivers and parents in those children’s lives. So focusing on our earliest learners, as well as their caregivers, the adult learners.
So what we discovered was that almost one in four Higher Ed students in the United States is a parent. They’re largely an invisible population. They’re much more likely to be people of color, women, first gen, and low income. And the system was absolutely not based for them, not built for them, so much so that they are often ashamed or embarrassed by professors for having children and for having a family, which is absolutely incredible. So one of the examples that I’ll share there is a for-profit company called Edquity. Edquity, I just love this organization, and they were completely prescient because they started right before the pandemic and have just completely exploded. So they’re an end-to-end provider of emergency cash transfers, on behalf of Higher Ed institutions and governments. And they have the technology that supports the application, the decision-making, and the payment to ensure that these cash transfer programs get quickly, equitably, and effectively to the people who most need them.
Too often, we see people drop out for $300 to pay rent or for groceries. And they then have the sunk cost of Higher Ed, which is extremely expensive. And so, as I said, they started right before the pandemic, and because of the capital that was made available for relief during COVID, they were able to deliver over $75 million in federal funding to nearly a hundred thousand students just in the past year with an average funding time of 25 hours, which to me is the most critical piece because this stuff, if it takes two, three weeks to make a decision, you’re too late. They’re really harnessing the power of sociology, behavioral science, technology, automation, et cetera, to really confront racial bias, systemic inefficiencies, compliance, et cetera.
“…you need to recognize that you’re not going to get it right all of the time. And so you need to recognize that if you’re getting it right all the time, you’re not doing things that are hard enough, and that you need to really be open to listening to the failures and learning quickly and pivoting from them.”
Denver: It is interesting, I’ve talked to a lot of people about those who have dropped out of higher education, and you always think it’s a really significant gulf, that it just wasn’t meant to be. And when you dig into it, you realize that two bucks and three text messages would have made all the difference in terms of them completing their education. It’s not that much. And it is, as you say it’s behavioral, it’s just those little different things that can make such a huge difference in people’s lives. So, that’s great impact.
Speaking of impact, how do you go about, Amy, measuring the impact of these grants on these investments?
Amy: Yeah, we look across a host of ways, but the first thing I’ll say is: it’s not about a KPI dashboard. Certainly quantitative metrics are important, but that is not all we look at. The kinds of things that we talk about when we look at our organizations– and I think the three examples I gave you show you the breadth of the kinds of things that we do, from equity investment in early stage for-profit, to systems conveners, to intermediary funders… a whole range of things.
We really look at, most importantly: what is their vision? What are they hoping to achieve? For us, when we– sort of diligence and organization and we get behind an organization, what we look at first and foremost is their values alignment, and do we believe in its leader. And then we try to get fully behind the leader. And we look at what they are looking at, and we listen to their stories because too often, people try to boil things down into a host of numbers, and that is not the fullness of their impact. We also talk internally about depth, breadth, and influence.
So let me break those down for a little bit. So when we look at breadth of impact, that’s scale, that’s lives touched. That is not the only thing we look at. We also look at depth, the depth to which those lives were touched, and the sort of sustainability of that. And then we also look at influence. So really, is this an organization that is creating a new model in the sector? Is this an organization that is having ripple effects far beyond? And is this an organization that’s influencing policy, influencing the dialogue in a variety of ways? And the only way that we get to those questions is really by listening and coming together, and taking a deep breath and quieting down, and coming together with a variety of actors in the system and say, What are we seeing? What’s changing? And listening to those stories and giving validity to those stories.
And the other thing that I think is important is if you are going to do the systems work and try to sense how the system is changing, you need to recognize that you’re not going to get it right all of the time. And so you need to recognize that if you’re getting it right all the time, you’re not doing things that are hard enough, and that you need to really be open to listening to the failures and learning quickly and pivoting from them. It’s a page out of the Silicon Valley textbook in some ways.
Denver: Yeah, and I think to a certain degree, you have to have a longer time horizon. And I think in listening to some of these leaders, they’re not looking at the next quarter. They’re not like a nonprofit organization that says: This is how many meals we serve this quarter so we get funded again. They have a much longer time horizon, and it almost takes donors, of which you’re one, who understands that we’re not looking to see what happens in the next year, that this work is going to have to be evaluated differently than the way we’ve done it in the past. And it’s going to take five, seven, eight years maybe. It’s not going to be: This is how we fixed it. It’s sort of that Western quick fix– Go in there, and then leave– and it just doesn’t work.
Denver: Take these last two years.
Amy: It’s a huge shift though. What you just said needs some sort of exclamation point behind it, so I’m putting that.
Denver: No, it’s a way that I think organizations have to think differently about it. I think boards have to think differently about it. I speak to some people sometimes about their board. I say, “If you’re a nonprofit, your board better redefine success because you may have achieved a lot as an organization, but the problem you’re tackling is getting worse.” So what good is that? So you have to begin to redefine the way you measure success. And it’s more of counting down to zero in terms of eliminating something then saying we helped 100,000 people last year, and we helped 150,000 this year, and you’d say, “That’s great, but there’s actually more people with the problem this year than when you did that.” It doesn’t make any sense if you want to solve the problem.
Take a look at these last two years. They’ve been something, haven’t they? Where do you think the impact, Amy, is going to be on the philanthropic sector in terms of the way it goes about doing its work?
Amy: Well, I will say having been in this space for 12 years, I am hearing and seeing more self-critique of philanthropy and more willingness to shift, more deeper inner reflection than I’ve ever seen, and I find it so inspiring, including self, present company. And my hope is that this continues. And the way that I’ve been looking at it is: our roots at Omidyar Network were very much based in impact investing and venture philanthropy.
Amy: And while there’s critique of venture philanthropy and impact investing that I can share as well, what I will say is we want to take the best of that work– and that includes things like general operating support, multi-year grants, non-financial supports, strategy, fundraising, access to networks, et cetera. Potentially board roles, where invited and welcomed, in this effort. We want to take the best of that and then layer on,and have been layering on over many years, like the key bullets from the dialogue. And so the key bullets from the dialogue are things like shifting power. Shifting power, that the actual work that we’re funding is shifting power to historically oppressed communities, but that we as funders are shifting our power.
And so an example of how this shows up for us is really shifting how we’ve done diligence versus diligence that makes you want to pull your nails out and many calls and deep dive, but rather instead put together a Google folder and just put in there everything you’ve sent to recent funders. And if we have any additional questions, we’ll let you know. We want to spend time with you, leader, getting to know you and your values. And then being willing to make some funding bets without having all the answers, and because diligence is really the entryway into relationships between funders and nonprofits. And so entering into that way in a way that is humble and recognizing that we don’t have all the answers, that this leader in this organization is much closer than we ever will be and into a more collaborative state, just changes the trajectory of the relationship going forward and shifts the power of that relationship going forward.
And other things like more community-based philanthropy. I think there’s been a lot of: let’s invest in the high, scalable, high impact charismatic leader. And all too often, as you said, real systemic change starts locally. And so, who… we’ve been doing a lot more over the recent years, a lot more community-based philanthropy, to really learn from and support community-based change. And it’s a really different angle, and I think it’s a big funding gap in the space, so I’m hopeful that there will be more leaders who step up to fund in that space.
Denver: Yeah. It sounds like maybe just going out there and seeing what they’re doing and talking to them, instead of them having to fill out a whole bunch of forms. It just doesn’t do anybody any good, you know?
Amy: Yeah. We thankfully never ask for that. We don’t even ask for proposals, but there’s still things we can let go of.
Denver: Oh, yeah. I was talking to somebody the other day, and they said that they’ve switched in these communities from advisory councils to accountability councils where we’re now being held accountable to the community, as opposed to getting their input. And very often in these advisory councils, too, I’ve always observed that everybody in the room was getting paid, except the people from the community who are telling you what needed to be done. And that, to me, was just one of the great power imbalances that was just so obvious and everybody felt: “My God! We’re giving them an opportunity.” It’s like, “Well, pay them like you’re paying everybody else in the room. Why should we be the only ones?
Amy: Yeah, they’re bringing their expertise, and they have busy lives, too. Yeah, we have a board of student-parent advisors, and we absolutely compensate them for their time and their energy.
“And if you hire people who are values-aligned, and you’re clear about where you’re going– how can you empower them? And we’re still learning into this, all of these things we’re still learning into. I mean, I will say our values are very aspirational, but I think they need to be in order for us to create the kind of world we want to see.”
Denver: It’s respect. Yeah, it really is. Well, with all these changes, speak to me about the nature of leadership. This has not been an easy time to be in charge of an organization; that ,I well know. What kind of changes do you see that leaders need to make, as someone who will be leading a major organization? And what have you done to adapt over the course of the last 24 months?
Amy: You’re a leadership coach, so I’m really curious in your answer to this. Here’s what I’ll say, I became a first-time CEO six weeks before the pandemic hit, and I actually think it was an incredible opportunity because when the world turns upside down, all you can lead from is your values. And so I was always a values-based leader, but what it really did was it tested that for me and reinforced to me that is where the world must go. When we got approval from our board to spin out before we did all of the heavy lifting of spinning of the entity, and brand, and compensation, et cetera, et cetera, the very first thing I did was I brought our global team together and I said, Let’s co-create our values.
And I was so thankful that was our first step together because our strategy was out of the door; our sort of execution mechanisms were out of the door, and so when I think about the future of leadership, I think it’s about, I think it’s values-based. I think it’s about seeing people fully and recognizing that we’re taking great steps. I think most people have made great strides in this and seeing people as full humans who have families and interests and other demands for their time and energy, and that it’s about empowerment. And if you hire people who are values-aligned, and you’re clear about where you’re going– how can you empower them? And we’re still learning into this, all of these things we’re still learning into. I mean, I will say our values are very aspirational, but I think they need to be in order for us to create the kind of world we want to see.
Denver: Yeah. I’ve always asked people when I’ve interviewed them about values. I’ve always asked them to tell me an occasion at the organization where they work, what one of their values was and: When did they have to exercise it that cost the organization money… that they had to turn down a great opportunity? Because values are very easy to live, but when you have to make that choice in terms of your values preventing you from doing something that would be, let’s say ostensibly good for the organization, that has really always been my question to find out whether somebody can really live their values or not.
Amy: My slight edit on the question is when it costs you in the short run because I deeply believe that if you live to your values, it will not cost you in the long run.
Denver: Oh, now, that’s the whole point of the question. The whole point of the question is that is going to be the thing that’s going to–Yeah, because when you do it for that expedient reason…
Amy: Yeah, and I think there’s a whole host of examples of– I mean, living into one of our values is justice seeker and I think living into, we call it Jedi internally– justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, living into that takes time and energy. Recruiting, it’s going to take time. You’ll find people, but it takes more time. You need to be in different circles, and you need to be listening more authentically. We invested heavily in Jedi training over recent years and that took time. That cost us a lot of money. There’s a whole host of examples I could give that I would say are near-term, but pay back within two to five years, for sure.
Denver: For sure is. Right. Finally, Amy, what’s next for Imaginable Futures?
Amy: I think what’s next for us is to continue on the journey we’re on. We have big aspirations. We know that the challenges we’re trying to tackle are deep, and we know the partnerships and relationships we need to create are long-term. And so I think for us, it’s really about continuing to be on a learning journey, listening from others, and doing the work of being a great enabler of all of the amazing doers out there.
Denver: It’s hard work. Do you ever get discouraged because of the difficulty of the work and if you do, what do you do to soldier on?
Amy: I think I have great faith in humanity. And there are absolutely finite disappointments, but I think there is infinite possibility in the future. I’m somewhat paraphrasing a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. And I really think it’s about the inspiration. I mean,when you’re in this space, there’s just gradations of good. There’s just incredible people, and I think just so quickly as to recall a time you were meeting with a student or a family or a parent and remembering what we can do collectively.
Denver: Yeah. I think in a world that’s been pretty difficult all around us, I have found in the nonprofit space and in the philanthropic space, a lot of positive energy that kind of shields me from turning on my TV at night and saying, “My goodness! Thank goodness, I have this haven to come back to where I’m seeing amazing people changing people’s lives.
Tell us about your website and what’s on it and how people can get involved with the organization, if that’s at all possible.
Amy: Absolutely. So our website is imaginablefutures.com, and on there, you will see our approach; you will see our values; you will see our partners and our portfolio. You will see more detail on what we’re doing in each geography because each geography is very different, and therefore our approach is very different. And you will also see a portal to job openings, both at Imaginable Futures as well as within our portfolio. We’ve got some amazing organizations there that are hiring at all levels. And yeah, we welcome feedback, engagement, et cetera. And even your listeners can email me directly, I’m at email@example.com and would love to learn from all of you.
Denver: Well, fantastic. And thanks, Amy, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show, and I really enjoyed our conversation.
Amy: The pleasure was mine. Thank you.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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