I’m an accidental employee in the philanthropic sector. I was working for a nonprofit the first time I had even heard of foundations. The main funder of my program decided to go in a different direction; our program was phased out, and my contract was not renewed. I made my way to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for a one-year position, which turned into a 14-year privilege. I’ve chosen to stay in philanthropy every day of this journey and continue working through my relationship to that privilege and how to share and wield the power that comes with the position and access to resources.
But my philanthropic story starts a bit earlier than that.I grew up lower-middle class in rural Illinois, where we qualified for free lunches. As the child of public-school teachers, what mattered to my family was having a growth mindset and how to be in community—what could we learn and what could we do to be of service to others.
I was recently flipping through my tattered book journal, where I’ve recorded the books I’ve read through the years (like any good daughter of a K-6 reading teacher!). I also write down words in those books that I don’t know and need to look up. In college, a new word to me was “philanthropy.” The definition I jotted down was, “love of humanity, goodwill toward all people, and promoting human welfare.” These qualities were and remain values in my family. Finding myself working in the philanthropic sector, I now see in it both my mandate and an invitation from the world to work to transform and build new systems that support a just, thriving world.
I admire foundations that are rooted in the values of integrity and accountability to the communities they are serving. I also appreciate when foundations are led by people who represent impacted communities—from the Board through the staff. Some examples that come to mind include Borealis Philanthropy’s Fund for Trans Generations and the Akonadi Foundation. I also see extraordinary outcomes by foundations who are willing to use their whole asset base in a multitude of ways to make change, including through endowment investments, grant dollars, c4 funds, staff skills, and Board networks.
Other practices that I think produce impacts are when a foundation listens and reflects, co-creates strategy with the community being served, and centers equity in everything it does, like the San Francisco Foundation and the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation. This also means right-sizing support to the problems that they want to solve, and right-sizing any grantmaking process to the scale of the dollars. I also admire foundations who are willing to engage in policy change and view the world with a sense of urgency.
Finally, I value foundations that really take the time to look at what works rather than immediately chasing the shiny object just for the sake of “disrupting the system.” In philanthropy, we need to ask ourselves: Is it about the problem we’re trying to help solve, or is it about the solution that we’re in love with? And based on our assets, partnerships, and skillsets, what is it that the problem is asking us to contribute? And what are the unintended consequences of our actions?
Other organizations that come to the fore for me include the Novo Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, and the Libra Foundation. Other Philanthropy-Serving Organizations like the Justice Funders (check out their Choir Book), Environmental Grantmakers Association, and The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada are working to change culture and support transformation towards a regenerative economy, new systems that are based on racial equity, and the co-creation of wealth that values diversity, deep democracy, and place.
On Improving Philanthropy
U.S. philanthropy faces significant challenges, and the first opportunity here is to acknowledge a few critical truths. These truths might make you uncomfortable, and I share them to invite a recognition that we’re all part of the solution. I’m conscious of the fact that we live in a country built on land theft and slavery. Subsequent colonial and capitalist policies have resulted in years of privileging white people over others, while destroying natural ecosystems. As a creature of tax code, the philanthropic system is a consolidator of wealth, with typically 95% of assets invested in systems that are not working for everyone because of their promotion of structural racism and gender disparities. Philanthropy apologizes for its power and privilege but infrequently engages in real reconciliation or reparation. This culture can contribute to a sense that we in the sector have all the answers.
A good friend and colleague, Keecha Harris, said to me, “Philanthropy can create the weather, for worse or better.” Meaning we have great influence with how we show up. While recognizing that this work is a continuum of effort over time, I see several other opportunities for philanthropy.
- Create, welcome, and experience joy.
Let’s go beyond logic models and grant dockets and find delight in what we do and our shared human experience.
- Culture change starts with one.
Every day, I need to show up to work, listen and learn, be vulnerable, and do the work. I believe culture changes by understanding history, checking my assumptions and biases, using my privilege wisely and in support of those who do not have the same privilege, taking feedback with grace and reflection, and acting for change. It is my head and my heart. If I do this, you can too. And, the power of individual journeys can be amplified when there is a commitment to centering equity by both the philanthropy sector and individual foundations—or the commitment that we will no longer predict advantage or disadvantage based on race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, or ability. We also know that approaches of diversity and inclusion improve teamwork, engagement, communication, and trust, all of which are enablers of impact. If we remove the false dichotomy between our inner work and our institutional and structural work, we can support the systemic changes needed.
- Multi-faceted solutions are best when driven by and in support of the communities we serve.
Because of our world’s complexity, we need integrated solutions, not foundation-created silver bullets. Philanthropy does not have or need to have all the answers. We need to specifically ask ourselves:
- when different kinds of power and assets are needed,
- how to build integrated movements that cross challenges,
- how to screen investments that mitigate structural and racial inequities,
- what it means to be a partner rather than grantor,
- how to listen to understand rather than to respond,
- what biases are present and who is excluded in our approaches,
- how to deepen cross-cultural conversations,
- how to supply resources at multiple leverage points and with minimal burden,
- what it means to learn together, and
- how to be additive rather than unique
We must look at the spectrum from strategic to trust-based philanthropy and find the effective space in between.
Part of this work must involve a more integrated, cross-movement world that breaks the silos, recognizes intersections of people’s lived experiences and brings together environmental conservation, health, economic opportunity, education access, safety, culture, arts, and equity as an underpin.
On Career Pathways
I applied to the Career Pathways program to be in a cohort with others working across the world’s problems and to strengthen both my work in environmental conservation and to create connections to other, seemingly-siloed issues—from immigration and prison reform, to economic injustice and health disparities. To me, the chance to weave these connections together and highlight their mutuality, especially when it comes to equity, is fundamental. In the program, I’m seeking to learn from and broaden my perspectives with committed individuals working in these areas and with different lived experiences.
As well, from our first session together in Houston, it’s clear that the we’re all committed to making strides in this sector and continuing to deconstruct our relationships to money, power and privilege. I’m incredibly grateful to learn from the brilliant individuals in the cohort and appreciate how everyone is already lifting one another up!
On Life-Changing Art
It’s endless! Specifically, with each book I finish, I gain another fiber of empathy in shared human experiences. And it goes back to my childhood days spent watching PBS and LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow. The latest book to change how I view the world is The Break, by Katherene Vermette (as well as Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements; Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race; White Fragility; and Winners Take All). The Break is set in Winnipeg, with multiple narrators around the same series of events. The strength of the indigenous women in the story and the state and individual violence against these women are remarkable. Their voices—urgent, truthful, steadfast—tell the stories of intergenerational trauma and where national and personal histories intersect. They also speak of survival and how to stop the cycle of hurt people hurting people. Rather than telling why connection to place and culture are important for healing, the narrators show it. And throughout the whole book, it becomes clear that there are other ways of knowing and being that are beyond a Western mindset.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Council on Foundations or the author’s employer.