Blog: Amplify

The Work of Philanthropy in Crisis Conditions—Part I

If there is an epicenter of the decline of a city and its loss of an economic base, the candidates start with Detroit, where the population has plummeted 25 percent in the last decade to 714,000–this for a city whose population was 1.85 million in 1950. The city now has an extraordinarily high poverty rate, massive tracts of vacant land, and empty housing.  Or maybe the epicenter was New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and region, taking a particularly hard toll on the region’s poor.  Or maybe it was Los Angeles two decades ago, convulsed by the “disturbances” in South Central that the community divided by race and ethnicity. 

The plenary session of the Council on Foundations annual conference exploring the work of philanthropy in these three crises would have been riveting even without the array of high-quality speakers and remarkably capable facilitation by Manuel Pastor, professor of Geography and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.  Detroit, New Orleans, and Los Angeles may have been high-publicized crisis environments for nonprofits and foundations, but there are many communities, urban and rural, that deal with the causes and effects racial inequities and concentrated poverty every day–without the national media exposure.  For foundations and their nonprofit partners, these communities are a constant strategic and tactical challenge. They also offer fonts of creativity, because without creativity and innovation, the nonprofits and foundations in these communities might as well give up and try something else for a living.

The nonprofit and foundation leaders on stage on Sunday for the most part shared several characteristics, not simply persistence and optimism in abundance but something of an analytical framework and strategic approach to their work as well:

  • None of them are “go it alone” players. The South Central disturbances led groups like the Community Coalition to “pivot,” as CEO Marqueece Harris-Dawson said, “from (being) a small neighborhood movement to a community-wide movement and, as a result, from an African-American organization to one that had “discovered,” as he said, Latinos. The organization was no less community-based, but the scope and inclusiveness of its sense of community had changed. As Stewart Kwoh of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center noted, there had been a lot of “fragmented” foundation approaches, but after South Central, the foundation community came together by forming the Los Angles Urban Funders collaborative. Community organizations also broadened, with Kwoh noting, for example, that groups that had focused on a particular Asian ethnicity such as Koreans shifted to focusing on Koreatown, serving Koreans, Latinos, and African-Americans alike.
  • They broadened their analytical scope as well. When Karen Bass started the Community Coalition, it was narrowly focused on the problem of liquor stores in South Los Angeles. But the aftermath of the disturbances revealed-or underscored-deep-seated racial and economic gaps that required not just strategies aimed at people’s attitudes but at institutional and structural factors that led to and perpetuated those inequities. In one of his mid-point summaries of the panel, Pastor observed that “widening economic (and social) inequities” got exposed by events such as the civil unrest in Los Angeles, the flooding in New Orleans, or in some way, Detroit’s having hit almost rock bottom after decades of economic decline.
  • In all of these cases, the issues were not simply a natural evolution of conditions. They were, as Flozell Daniels, president of the Foundation for Louisiana said, intimately tied to disinvestment, to public decisions that made problems more likely to happen rather than less likely. (Witness the deteriorated conditions of the levees and the environmental degradation of the wetlands around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.) Saket Soni of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice noted several public decisions that underpinned the conditions that Katrina exposed and noted several more made during the recovery and reconstruction that were also of concern. These included the suspension of prevailing wages and affirmative action, decisions that may have exacerbated social inequities in the region.

Foundations have fostered great progress in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New Orleans, but the social and racial inequities in these communities are long-term conditions, structural problems that are not simply “treated” by grantmaking, even when the grantmaking is collaborative.  Look at Part II for some of the foundations’ and nonprofits’ solutions. 

Rick Cohen is a columnist for NonProfit Quarterly.

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