A Conversation with Diana Barrett

Story in: Among Peers

A Conversation with Diana Barrett

Most private foundation donors restrict their support to one or perhaps a few select causes that engage their passion. Not Diana Barrett.

As President and Founder of The Fledgling Fund, Diana tackles a broad swath of challenges by inspiring social action through storytelling. In concert with nonprofits and funding partners, The Fledgling Fund supports outreach and audience engagement around documentary films so these stories can be used effectively to raise public awareness of complex social issues, engage audiences and ignite change.

One such example is last year’s critically acclaimed, The House I Live In, detailing the U.S. War on Drugs and its impact on communities. More recently, Diana has been involved in, “Death by Design,” a film project that explains how even the smallest technology devices have hidden environmental and social costs. The consequences of these devices are traced from their origins in China, spreading to Mexico and the United States. Diana elaborates on this topic in the interview below.

 Diana founded The Fledgling Fund in 2005 after a long career as a professor at Harvard University, where she taught in both the Harvard Business School and the School of Public Health. At Harvard Business School, she was a member of the Social Enterprise core group teaching “Business Leadership in the Social Sector” as well as various executive programs. Her areas of interest included the use of public-private partnerships for global poverty reduction and specifically for addressing the social and personal burden of disease such as HIV/AIDS. In addition to leading The Fledgling Fund, Diana serves on the boards of The Lord’s Place, a homeless shelter in West Palm Beach, FL, the Social Change Film Forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and the advisory board of the Acumen Fund.

Our sincere appreciation goes to Diana for being so generous and candid in her responses.

1. WHAT CAUSE OR ISSUE IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AND WHY?

I remain excited about the power of documentary film and nonfiction storytelling to advance social change and have an impact on some of the world’s most pressing issues. Films, and the important stories they share, are important tools that can lead to greater awareness about complex social problems and solutions as well as increased engagement of individuals and communities in positive social action. They can also strengthen the work of nonprofits and advocates who are working for change and need new tools to strengthen their movements. This doesn’t just happen automatically, of course, it takes thoughtful planning to move audiences from passive viewers to motivated citizens who understand how they can be part of a movement for change and are ready to take action. I suppose this is less a “cause” and more about a particular strategy that can be applied to different causes or issues, from environmental justice to education to human rights, and so many others. 

2. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO LAUNCH A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?

I had been teaching at Harvard University for much of my career. I spent 15 years at the School of Public Health and another eight years at the Harvard Business School. My work focused extensively on complex social problems and the myriad factors that contributed to them. I spent a lot of time looking at the intersection of health care, poverty, and housing, and the role of cross-sector partnerships and social enterprise in addressing those problems. It was fascinating! I loved my time in academia, but I was ready to move on. I saw an opportunity to use my expertise and relatively small grants to seed innovative projects and help them get off the ground. That is what Fledgling is all about – helping projects take flight! I wanted to build an organization that was committed to social justice, responsive to the needs of our grantees, and strategic in its giving.

3. WHAT DO YOU KNOW NOW ABOUT BEING A GRANTMAKER THAT YOU WISH YOU KNEW STARTING OUT?

I may have known this before I started, but Fledgling’s work over the past nine years has underscored the complexity of social change and the difficulty of measuring impact. One grant, even one project, won’t put an end to the big problem that we want to solve unless of course we are incredibly lucky. But a grant, a project, or an initiative can contribute and help move us in the right direction. Real change almost always requires multiple players, and many different variables affect the outcome. While this can be a good thing, particularly when there is real collaboration among organizations, it makes it extremely difficult to determine causality and measure the impact of our individual work. That doesn’t mean we don’t try—we do. We spend a lot of energy defining impact for each project and thinking about how to assess it. But we recognize that it is not always clear, particularly in the short term, what impact an individual project has had.

4. WHAT IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGE YOU FACE IN RUNNING A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?

Given that it is a small foundation, I would have to say resources. Fledgling receives close to 1,000 applications a year for funding. Many of these film projects are amazing and have great potential to move the needle on issues like education, criminal justice, health care, girls’ empowerment, and environmental justice. But like all foundations, we have a limited budget. We are fortunate in that we have some terrific funding partners who work with us, which is great. It really allows us to leverage what we have built and work in a deeper way with more projects, but it is a constant challenge. 

5. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?

I get enormous satisfaction when I watch a terrific film with an audience, can feel the energy in the room, know that people have been moved and are ready to do something, and know that Fledgling will be helping that filmmaker harness the energy and transform it into action. 

But perhaps more importantly, this work is a constant opportunity to learn about new issues and approaches to social change. I have always been passionate about learning, and love getting engaged in projects and helping to think through strategy. At Fledgling, I have the opportunity to do that on multiple levels. I remain involved in the vetting of films and proposals, which is a fascinating process. And then, each year I get deeply involved in one or two projects. A couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time on “The House I Live In”, a film that looks the U.S. Drug War and its effect on communities. More recently, I have been actively involved in, “Death by Design,” a project that focuses on how even the smallest devices have hidden environmental and social costs, starting in China, spreading to Mexico, and to the U.S. The issue is fascinating to me since we know technology is not going away. However, the issue is how do we responsibly understand the overall consequences of this proliferation of gadgets, from their inception to their disposal, with special emphasis on the environmental degradation that occurs around the world? This ranges from the impact on workers, who manufacture the products, to the workers, often children, who help dispose of the product. I am spending a lot of time thinking about how to use the film to highlight and build support for solutions.

6. NAME ONE PHILANTHROPIST, PRESENT OR PAST, WHOM YOU WOULD LIKE TO HAVE COFFEE WITH, AND WHY?

Mary Lasker. She was more than just a philanthropist; she was an activist who played a critical role in advocating for medical research and for cancer research specifically. I find her story so impressive – she not only was incredibly focused, but also used her power and influence incredibly well. She really helped to move the field of cancer research forward; changing the way research was funded, and perhaps more importantly, helping to spur collaboration within that field. I find her a fascinating example of a philanthropist who was remarkably engaged in her work and very successful. I would have loved to hear her tell her own story and wonder how she would define her impact.

7. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR YOUR COMMUNITY OF PHILANTHROPIC PEERS?

We are exploring different partnership models that will allow us to leverage what we have learned, and would love to hear how others have done this.  My question to others in the community is: can you share examples of how you have partnered with other funders on different projects and initiatives?

8. NAME ONE INDIVIDUAL OR ORGANIZATION THAT HAS PARTICULARLY IMPRESSED YOU. WHY?

The Acumen Fund. I sit on Acumen’s advisory board and always come away from their meetings impressed with the work they do and how they do it. In particular, they do an excellent job of listening to what the actual, rather than perceived, needs of the poor are. Once they understand this aspect, they identify innovative and scalable solutions and support them through an equity-financing model. Too often, as philanthropists, we think we know what is needed, and we don’t take enough time to really understand the root causes of poverty in different communities. Acumen is a great example of an organization that focuses on the root causes and building sustainable solutions.  

9. IF YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH ONE THING WITH YOUR PHILANTHROPY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Many filmmakers use their amazing storytelling skills to advance the work of social justice. Many funders and nonprofits are passionate about social justice, but often overlook the role that film and storytelling can play in advancing their programmatic goals. I hope that Fledgling’s work demonstrates the power of film to educate, engage, and activate audiences, and creates an understanding when and how it can be used.

10. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH WE HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?

I wished you had asked about the role of partnerships and collaboration in our work. I think is a critical aspect of the work that philanthropists do, particularly in light of the complexity of the social problems that we face. At Fledgling, this is something we focus on every day in different ways. We help the filmmakers we support to develop partnerships with nonprofits that are working on the issues that their films address. We want to be sure that the film campaigns they develop are driven by the needs of the movements. And, as an organization, we look for opportunities to partner with other organizations and funders to help deepen and maximize our work and the work of our grantees.