Asha Curran: “Create Truly Open Networks”

Create Truly Open Networks: By creating open and expansive networks, we open up a greater opportunity for collaboration, innovation, and scalability. Even if our work is hyper-local, we should challenge ourselves to think about how broadly we can share ideas that might benefit others. GivingTuesday’s global network of leaders share best practices year-round, and by […]

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Create Truly Open Networks: By creating open and expansive networks, we open up a greater opportunity for collaboration, innovation, and scalability. Even if our work is hyper-local, we should challenge ourselves to think about how broadly we can share ideas that might benefit others. GivingTuesday’s global network of leaders share best practices year-round, and by doing so, we see at scale the uptake of ideas and experiments spreading through different regions.


As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Asha Curran.

Asha Curran is CEO of GivingTuesday, and co-founder of the global generosity movement. She was formerly Chief Innovation Officer and director of the Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact at 92nd Street Y, where GivingTuesday was founded. Asha serves as Chair of the board of directors of Guardian.org. She is a Fellow at Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab within the Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in New York, on the Lower East Side. My mother was a public school teacher, my father an avant-garde musician. I was independent at an early age, like many of us Gen Xers. I graduated from Mount Holyoke College and from there my path has been very non-linear. I worked briefly in book publishing, then in marketing, then I became a childbirth and parenting educator. After several years of teaching, I started working at the 92nd Street Y, a cultural center in New York with a long and prestigious history. In partnership with Henry Timms, 92Y’s CEO, I began to do some experimental work there that led to the founding of the institution’s first innovation lab, the Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact. Our mission was to reimagine the role of a community center for a global and digital age. In 2012, as part of that work, we launched GivingTuesday, which has since grown into a global generosity movement, mobilizing millions of people around the world to give in the ways that are most meaningful for them. Over the past several years, my focus has been all about the amazing leadership network around the world that keeps this generosity movement growing and spreading. And for the past two years, GivingTuesday has been an independent nonprofit organization, having spun out of the 92nd St Y.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One that comes to mind is “Thing Explainer” by Randall Munroe. It’s a wonderful reminder that we often over-complicate how we communicate and keeping things simple is an approach that fosters inclusiveness and understanding. I felt validated in my career-long loathing of unnecessary jargon. Language can be uniting or it can be alienating; we choose. But the truth is that I read almost exclusively fiction, because that’s what resonates with me. Nothing can increase one’s ability to empathize like feeling immersed in the life and mind of someone that you might feel no affinity with in real life.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

The quote I read recently that I found most recently was from Arundhati Roy, who wrote that “the pandemic is a portal.” She talks about how pandemics throughout history have been followed by massive social and structural changes. This is very much how we at GivingTuesday are viewing this moment. It is traumatic and tragic, and the question is how we approach the future — in a rush to get back to the way things were, or as an opportunity to build from the bottom up with a foundation of generosity and solidarity?

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I try not to define leadership, as it can take so many forms and we have been trained to have such a narrow definition of what “leadership” looks like. I prefer to learn what leadership is, day by day, by watching others and through my own experience. The leaders within the GivingTuesday community live and work in a vast spectrum of circumstances all over the world, but they share some key characteristics — they orient toward entrepreneurialism, collaboration, transparency, mutual support, coalition-building. They care deeply about their regions and know best how generosity should manifest in them, but they also very much have a global lens and constantly absorb learnings from other places and other leaders. We need to reinvent the stale brand of top-down, command-and-control leadership, and at the same time, the signals sent by those with the most power truly matter — I think the pandemic has revealed how important leadership actually is and what it feels like when there is a void of it.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I read, watch, or do something that makes me laugh. I have a very immature sense of humor and it’s hard to laugh and feel stressed at the same time. Best to not take ourselves too seriously.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

For far too long, our society has defended and invested in systems that allowed — and in many ways encouraged — injustice, racism and misogyny to build for hundreds of years. As we now work to stem the effects of the global pandemic and the resulting social and economic crisis, we also must face the terrible realities of these deep social inequities. People are suffering, and a laying bare of inequities and human rights abuses that are being brought forth through systems that are irrevocably broken. At the same time, there is opportunity, and there is hope. We must now fuel the radical systems change required to solve such long-standing and deeply entrenched issues.Philanthropy is reckoning with this issue and will continue to for a long time to come.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Leaders in their communities know best what those communities need. GivingTuesday is made up of an existing network of local leaders who each sit in proximity to, and with deep knowledge of, their own ecosystems of organizations and individuals doing grassroots work. We have always believed and championed this, not pivoted to it as a reaction. Our organization works to recognize, support, and uplift the extraordinary leadership arising from within communities to meet needs and provide healing, leadership that is often underrecognized and undersupported.

GivingTuesday’s Starling Collective is a learning lab for grassroots leaders, activists, organizers, and artists all over the world to help them build their leadership capacity. Our most recent cohort included 50 fellows from 29 countries, speaking 33 languages and ranging in age from 11 to 71 — they learned from our team, our global leadership network, and from each other, sharing experiences and new ideas. It’s amazing to see the powerful connections formed by combining their different perspectives as well as their shared experiences. Finding new ideas and common threads, these leaders can build stronger networks and lead with greater confidence, empathy, and understanding.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Executive team, full team, broader community and constituencies — it’s all important. Anyone’s work will benefit from a broad spectrum of voices and perspectives. For GivingTuesday specifically, as a global movement, we have voices and perspectives from 75 countries, from a huge range of ages, religions, ethnicities, languages, lived experiences. In a more traditional organization, and is ours as well, challenging yourself on inclusion is ongoing work. When a position is open, are you searching to fill it entirely within your existing networks? Do you already have a picture of what the right hire will bring to the role, or are you open, as long as the obvious skill sets are there for what the job requires? Are you creating a sense of not just diversity but belongingness in your team, your organizations’ culture, and in turn, your work and how it impacts your clients, constituents and who you serve? When we limit who we invite in we are only limiting our collective strength, creativity, and impact.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

This is a huge topic that requires each of us to step outside of ourselves and realize how interconnected we are and how each person’s health and success is inextricably tied to others in our communities. I’m eager to read others’ responses to this question, as it will take new approaches from all sectors, regions and disciplines. When we think about this question at GivingTuesday, there are a few core principles that we believe bring forth an inclusive, representative, and equitable global society:

· Embrace Radical Generosity: What we need is not incremental but radical generosity — to reimagine our world from the ground up as a place where we don’t just work harder to alleviate all these harms but one where we don’t tolerate them in the first place.

GivingTuesday is a space to collectively imagine that world, our global community is both imagining and building a world driven by generosity and all the things that it leads to — increased pro-social and altruistic behaviors, strengthened communities and interpersonal bonds, greater civic participation, and individual agency. And, finally, a more just world.

· Rethink What it Means to Give: Too often, we focus on “giving” as a financial transaction instead of a transformative act that can take a multitude of forms — volunteering, gifts of time, skill, or voice, acts of kindness, listening, showing gratitude. We must challenge ourselves to think about generosity in a much more expansive and inclusive way.

· Uplift Grassroots Leaders: Proximate leadership — leaders who are close in proximity to a community or issue — are the organizers who best understand the root of an issue and how best to solve it in ways that truly work for a community. We must invest more in empowering and uplifting grassroots leaders from within communities to create a representative network of leaders driving systems change.

· Create Truly Open Networks: By creating open and expansive networks, we open up a greater opportunity for collaboration, innovation, and scalability. Even if our work is hyper-local, we should challenge ourselves to think about how broadly we can share ideas that might benefit others. GivingTuesday’s global network of leaders share best practices year-round, and by doing so, we see at scale the uptake of ideas and experiments spreading through different regions.

· Commit to Co-Ownership: One of the reasons that the GivingTuesday movement has grown so rapidly around the world is that it’s intentionally an “unbranded” idea. It’s a movement that can be adapted and co-owned by diverse communities, organizations, or individuals, and changed to reflect diverse identities. This idea of co-ownership is key to its growth; it is made by many, governed by many, and changed by many.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I wouldn’t be so passionate about the work we do through GivingTuesday if I weren’t optimistic about our collective ability to drive change. This past year has been such a difficult time for so many and it is often challenging to imagine not just surviving it but building something better as a result. But I do imagine it because I see the work being done every day. I believe we are experiencing an incredible opportunity to clearly see our broken systems and our ability to question their purpose and tear them down to rebuild. In these moments of crisis and seeming powerlessness, human ingenuity continues to shine through. It is when everything seems to be falling apart that we have an opportunity: to get through it together, and to put our world back together the way we want it to be, not the way it was.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

After a year of social distancing, a real-life glass of wine with my best friends and my close family would feel more rewarding than a private breakfast with any influencer or power broker I can think of.

How can our readers follow you online?

Visit www.givingtuesday.org or follow GivingTuesday on social media @GivingTuesday for ideas on ways to give back and connect with others who share your passion for a community, culture, or cause. You can connect also with me on Twitter, @RadioFreeAsha.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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