When I formally entered the field of philanthropy, I was certain of my commitment to improving the overall quality of life for children and families. But to be frank, what I was not certain of was the full scope of the vast and unique role philanthropy could play in facilitating such change. As a former program director for Big Brothers Big Sisters, I brought with me deep experience on the “dance floor.” I have since learned the importance of “going to the balcony” to bring about change on individual and enterprise levels.
As Leticia Peguero, Vice President of Programs at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, observed in the Leading Together 2021 session “Designing Women: Why Women of Color Hold the Key to True Equity,” “We need to change for change to happen.” This change that I seek, that we all seek, is only realized when unusual suspects and unlikely allies not only come together but stay together to work toward a common goal and a shared future.
Leading Together 2021 offered a blueprint of sorts for what it takes to seek - and achieve - common ground. Further, conference speakers challenged us to embrace the beautiful struggle that comes with not simply setting tables of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but expanding the table to include all relevant voices.
Having navigated concentrated poverty, I sometimes reflect on how philanthropy is the tie that binds communities together. From city to city, state to state, country to country, the majority of us benefit from or participate in philanthropy.
The true power of philanthropy lives deeply beyond the art and form of grantmaking and lends itself towards the ability – and responsibility – to equip and empower communities to move forward. National Crittenton President Jeanetta Pai-Espinosa said in the Designing Women session that realizing philanthropy’s power requires “radical responsibility and conscious compassion.” She and other presenters throughout the conference reminded us that action must be taken with communities, not to them or for them.
As philanthropic professionals, our role and our way of working are very distinct. Philanthropy provides balance and support. Neither business nor government can do the work required to improve communities and systems alone. If there is no profit involved, the private sector tends to stick to the status quo. If consensus isn’t built, government often operates with its hands tied. Business and government function best when the community is involved through civic leadership and authentic engagement. We – the people powering foundations – can facilitate and promote these conversations and connections.
Beyond our elaborate mission statements, logic models, and theories of change, at the core of our sector is improving the people and places around us. “Professional experience must be combined with lived experience,” said Ada Williams Price, Program Strategy Lead at Pivotal Ventures, in “Designing Women.”
We haven’t always gotten this right, but it is never too late to start. If we need a reminder, let us look no further than COVID-19. As this virus devastated communities, we have recently begun to see pockets of promise. In nontraditional ways, communities have come together to fight against COVID-19, innovating and creating new approaches to meet the needs of residents and the organizations that serve them. Over the past 18 months, we have achieved things that 5 or 10 years ago would have been viewed as too hard, too big, or too ill-timed. Further, over the next 18 months, we are likely to experience accelerated growth. It is up to us to determine which way we grow - forward or backward.
“We often act like the people are the problem, not the injustice,” observed Yvonne L. Moore, President of Moore Impact and Managing Director of Moore Philanthropy.
We have a unique opportunity at this moment to try and change ourselves and make things right. So each of us, individuals and institutions, must commit to asking ourselves three critical questions:
- What can I spark - generating bold ideas that facilitate and create conditions for impact?
- What can I ignite - turning these great ideas into programs, practices, and policies?
- Where can I burn - keeping positivity and collaboration percolating around me?
The time has come for us to answer the call.