Blog: Amplify

Career Pathways: The Transformative Power of Philanthropy

I initially became interested in philanthropy while serving as artistic director of The Harmony Theatre Company, which I cofounded while an undergraduate at Columbia University. Navigating the funding landscape was a nigh-constant challenge, and it was clear that I would need to ascertain quite a bit more if Harmony were to be an artistically successful and financially viable endeavor. 

In fairly short order, learning about the structure and processes of grantmaking became as fascinating to me as producing and developing shows. I was inspired by the ways grantmakers could identify a problem—for instance, the lack of diversity in the ranks of presenting organizations’ leadership—and strategize around both immediate redress and longer term, more intricately designed, and sustainable solutions. I started to get a sense of the transformative power of philanthropy. 

Subsequent to my time in New York theatre, I spent a year working in development at a university in Hong Kong. For me, this experience was a major education on what organizations could do for themselves with the intentional investment and partnership of funders. I became eager to participate in conversations around who gets funded and why. 

Inspiration in the Field

Acknowledging my own personal biases for the work we’re doing at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I’m excited about the leadership of our new president, Elizabeth Alexander, who has brought a new engagement with challenging social issues and a critical centering of the narratives of underserved communities within those efforts. It’s a thrilling time to be part of the philanthropic community. 

That said, there is a lot of meaningful work being conducted right now in philanthropy. The Ford Foundation’s work in disability justice, the support provided to socially engaged arts organizations by New York Community Trust, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s programs promoting transparent, inclusive governmental practices are just a few of examples of thoughtful grantmaking that is managing to keep pace with the change experienced by communities internationally.

Opportunities to Improve Philanthropy

As much as we are encouraging our grantees to consider the importance of the demographics of their leadership structures and boards paralleling the constituencies they support, the lesson is one that has real resonance for philanthropic organizations as well. Diversity is not just a good thing to do; it is a critical part of ensuring the success of our endeavors. This is not simply about adding more bodies of color to boardrooms and c-suites, although that certainly is part of it. Organizations of all types need to be thinking critically about the composition and interests of community partners and stakeholders, in addition to what real engagement looks like in those contexts. 

As philanthropic leaders, we need to ask ourselves an important question: Where are all the places in our organizations where the presence of community partners and stakeholders could improve our work? We have to be more cognizant of questions like these, and then work harder to achieve equitable, inclusive practices.

The Future of Philanthropy and Philanthropic Giving

Intersectionality is becoming a powerful force in the work we do; it’s providing new frameworks for understanding the communities we serve. It’s easy to get ensnarled in morass of demographics and data, and then miss those details that allow us to see the human narratives therein. The more we can complicate our image of the Latinx student or an Asian American theatre company or a transgender homeless teen, the more sensitive and precise our grantmaking can be. Given America’s increasing cultural diversity and social complexity, listening has to be at the fundaments of everything funders do going forward.

Why the Career Pathways Program

For me, the Career Pathways program accords an opportunity to inventory and deploy my personal and professional resources towards a goal of making intentional and informed decisions about my career trajectory. It provides a sandbox in which new possibilities can be explored in carefully curated, supportive environments. Traditionally, this sort of considered, calibrated, purposeful approach to career planning and development has been limited to occupations with established vocational and pre-professional routes. Career Pathways has been organized such that philanthropic professionals who have different responsibilities and functions, training, and objectives learn from each other in ways that maximize their leadership potential and grantmaking philosophies. I thoroughly am enjoying learning from this cohort of brilliant, diverse minds; my perspectives on the work I’m doing are broadening in unanticipated, yet propitious ways.

Books/Movies/Shows That Are Having an Impact

There are two 2018 films that have given me great hope for America’s future: Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. The films serve as powerful reminders of our own diversity, especially in this political moment, when simultaneously the numbers of people of color are increasing, yet our rights are under siege, our access to educational opportunities are being limited, and our very identities as Americans are being put in doubt. Even if I weren’t a lifelong reader of the comic book, I think I would have been enamored just as much with Black Panther, in particular. The film’s whole narrative trajectory and visual and aural aesthetic speak to the contemporary possibilities presented by engagement with diverse populations. Moreover, the success of both films with audiences across demographic groups here in the United States evinces that diversity no longer can be a mere afterthought; it’s actually the reason for the work itself.


About the Author
Lee Bynum serves as Program Associate and Associate Director of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program. Prior to assuming this role, he served as Program Associate for Scholarly Communications at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Before joining the Foundation in 2011, Mr. Bynum served as the Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, where he was responsible for the administration of the Latino/a, Asian American, Native American, and comparative ethnic studies programs.  

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