JOSIANE SMITH: Opening up spaces for innovation


Josiane Smith is the Key Programmes Lead for the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX).. In this role, Josiane is responsible for the SIX Wayfinder, Funders Node, and Global Council – core programmes that build the field of social innovation within different sectors and countries. Josiane was nominated to be an RSA Fellow in 2014 and became a Fellow of the London College of Political Technologists at Newspeak House in July 2019. Josiane earned a first class honors in Sociology (BSc) at the University of Bristol, and specialised in social innovation, social entrepreneurship, and international development.

How and why did you get involved in philanthropy and community building? How do you see those two connected? And what lies ahead for that relationship?

I started out in community building and worked in social development in the UK and Middle East before joining SIX in London back in 2019. Over the past decade or so, I’ve learned that community is never static and occurs at multiple levels: personalinterpersonal and structural. I hope that philanthropy professionals interrogate and invest in what it really takes to build a thriving and resilient community. That means to nuance and deepen understanding of partners and beneficiaries; to invest in pooled resources, networked ways of working, shared spaces to learn and connect; and to really engage with community building efforts.

I also believe that philanthropy will have to engage more seriously than it has been with the very structures that keep communities under-resourced and fighting for their lives and livelihoods. These structural changes might include for instance: taxes, wealth ceilings, employment pay and benefit, healthcare; divestment and alignment of assets and investments with ESG standards; and addressing historical injustices in the form of reparations (like giving away shares, not just grants), sharing decision making capacity, and lots more.

We usually tend to think of philanthropy as a linear straight line, and oftentimes do not think in terms of innovation. How do you think innovation works in this field and what does it do?

We must be careful in philanthropy not to co opt practices that we think are new and innovative but are in fact already deeply rooted in different traditions and communities. ‘Systems work’ is seen as an academic discipline that has gone for decades by different names – community development, social work, movement building, organising, outreach, social care, etc. This work was not written about in academic papers; it was done door-to-door, on the streets, in holy places, at home, during family gatherings…

You’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog about empathy and solidarity, and I believe that both of these values will change how innovation plays out in philanthropy going forwards. At a global level, we are learning how to recentre many conversations in philanthropy away from the Global North – to change who we’re learning from and what questions we’re asking. We kicked this off at SIX through our 2020 global scan on Philanthropy at a time of Change and Uncertainty, and I learned a lot from this talk by Cocreative on White Supremacy and Systems Change which does this topic a lot of justice. 

If you had one vision to share about the future of philanthropy, what would it be?

The SIX Funders Node was established to address the absence of innovation discussions in existing philanthropic forums; the lack of sharing knowledge and connections between funders; the need for smaller, deeper, peer-led learning opportunities and solution building. This programme is designed to support individuals in philanthropic foundations from around the world to work more effectively and authentically. 

We work with foundations who are ready to have difficult and future-facing conversations, and we recognise that it is individuals who must pursue these agendas and who must navigate the sector’s limitations. So we create a safe space for individuals to step away from their day to day operations and interactions (including traditional philanthropy networks); connect with their global peers; and think critically about topics beyond the buzzwords.

We believe that philanthropy can play an important role in ambitious social change – we strive for the Funders Node to be a pioneering demonstration of how philanthropy should engage, to be challenged and to challenge, and in the process of learning together, we hope to accelerate and amplify ways to address the complex and urgent challenges our societies and planet face today.

Feel free to get in touch with me, I’m @JosianeSmith on Twitter, or

Interview by Djurdja Trajković.