Now Or Never: What is Philanthropy’s Point of No Return?

By Maggie Potapchuk

Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay

The month after Michael Brown was murdered by police in August 2014, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity gathered 55 racial justice activists and leaders from foundations in Washington, DC, to discuss how funders and activists could work together to more proactively respond to the deep structural racism that affects too many communities. One of the documents produced for this meeting was a synthesis of themes that emerged across the recommendations, critiques and reflections to philanthropy’s response to six flashpoint events that occurred between 1992–2012. This Flashpoint report was specifically focused on the implications for philanthropy to advance a racial equity agenda.[1]

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, there have been several articles/blogs written about philanthropy’s response and what philanthropy’s response should be. Some thought pieces focus on the need for the sector to center racial equity and systemic change, many provide a call to action, and a few offer innovative ideas for this time. [2]

The recommendations from this Flashpoint report are not new; they have been discussed at philanthropic meetings and conferences, and in blogs, books, etc. But it is the ever-present sector gap in owning and implementing the repeated Flashpoint report recommendations which remind us just how painful, deadly, and tragic philanthropy’s collective inaction can be. Critiques and lessons from past horrific flashpoints bear repeating for a few reasons:

We need to know our history and the patterns of harm that continue to be replicated by the philanthropic sector. Foundations, due in part by the work of progressive philanthropy and affinity groups, have been coming together recently to discuss, pledge, and share their plans to address this pandemic, some using a racial equity lens. And though urgent responses are necessary,

  • the philanthropic sector does not have a track record to work collaboratively on a large scale.

Though progressive members of the philanthropic sector have increased their use of language and analysis of racial equity, and a small group of foundations are working steadily to operationalize racial equity/justice internally, in their grantmaking and in their relationship in communities, there is a lack of accountability practices within the sector. How is progressive philanthropy holding other foundations accountable, calling each other in/out, and working collectively to advocate for needed changes to inequitable and harmful policies and practices? When is the last time your foundation had a conversation with your trustees about these themes noted in the Flashpoint report?

Community organizing is foundational to racial justice movement-building, and yet deep, long-term investments in work that centers organizing have not been made by the sector. We now see mutual aid groups multiply, many created based on the strength of community organizing, past, and present, in communities across the country. How do the philanthropic sector’s own practices limit their response to support these different formations during this crisis?[3] Communities building power has been one of the consistent calls in each of these flashpoint reports, and now we are at the critical five-alarm point in time when established patriarchal and transactional approaches continue to be privileged.

As much as we need to call Philanthropy in and ensure COVID-19 is the sector’s point of no return, racial justice organizations also need to consider our relationship and accountability with philanthropy. This is the one sector in which we do not use our organizing strategies. As racial justice activists, we need to address how we center philanthropy’s power and white supremacy culture, by reinforcing resource scarcity and competition rather than organizing to address the perpetuation of these harmful practices of resource distribution. This is the time for large racial justice institutions to use their collective voice and power as well as broad shoulders to organize within the philanthropic sector. We cannot significantly move the needle for racial justice if we are unwilling to challenge how resources are distributed. We need to stand in solidarity.

We know there will be more flashpoints. We minimally must discuss how — progressive philanthropy and racial justice activists — work collectively to ensure these persisting issues are finally addressed. Here are excerpted themes and reflections from the Race, Power and Democracy: Synthesis of Select Philanthropic Efforts following Flashpoints report in the belief that learning from the past is desperately needed so we reimagine and shape our collective future.

Truly Investing in Justice Work Demands Increased Risk-Taking: To address the complexities and history of structural racism, foundations need to support creativity, experimentation, and bold acts. Philanthropy is primed for an infusion of courage so collectively it can embrace and endure risk in its commitment to racial justice, given that progress toward racial justice has never come without struggle, setbacks, and danger.

Engaging the Community to Support Building Power Rather than Solely Data Gathering Expeditions: With community engagement activities, some of the questions that arose were: Who is defining community? Is the community’s input, insight, and lived experience being used to further the foundation’s goals or the community’s goals, needs, and leadership? Is the community engagement part of a process to invest in building power of the community, or just an exercise in data collection?

Mitigating Consequences of Unequal Privilege and Power among Communities and Foundations: The consistent call is for foundations to address power dynamics by integrating accountability measures focused on: developing relationships with grantees, practicing transparency in their decision-making practices, and institutionalizing equitable policies. Create an evaluation in which the funder’s work is the unit of analysis and is being assessed by the community, in terms of its effectiveness in addressing what the community deems a priority.[4]

Clarity of Role in Supporting Investments in Community Change: Also noted, in many cases, there is a challenge of having differing theories of change between funders and grantees. It is important for foundations to have respectful relationships with the movement activists and be taking cues, rather than defining and advocating through grantmaking policies, a particular strategy.[5]

Supporting Movements means Increasing Grants for Operating Funds: The observations and feedback shared about operating fund grants was their usefulness for grantees to build capacity, to be more responsive to communities, and pivot for movement-building activities. Also, the critique to foundations is greater understanding about the potential consequences for promoting a particular trend within a community, without the context of systems thinking.

Investing in Addressing Underlying Causes and Reduction of Structural and Systemic Racism: Too often investments made after flashpoints continue to be based on paternalistic grantmaking with limited community involvement and leadership. Other critical roles foundations can help provide are political cover for grantees to get things done in the short-term, or act as conveners to bring disparate parties together, or use their bully pulpit to name structural racism.

Realistic and Strategic Assessment of Defining Success: To invest primarily in evidence-based work, raises questions about whether this may be unrealistic if foundations are truly working toward systemic transformative change. Structures are complex and relational, and therefore grantees need to invest grant dollars in creating strategies that are nimble and innovative, so they can respond well to changing conditions and the evolving nature of structural racism.

The Need for ‘Collective Branding’ Community Change: It is important to note that there is a history of foundations coming together to create joint funding initiatives for all of the flashpoints. There is also track record of foundations, large and small, who “hyper-brand” their investments, which impede these collaborative funding opportunities. A foundation creates an initiative logo and communication templates or descriptions for grantees to use whenever they talk about this particular grant. This type of branding centers the foundation and its investments rather than focus on the community and systemic change to advance racial justice. The impact of foundation’s “hyper-branding” also results in limited communication, coordination, and leveraging of investments with other foundations. Grantees are left with navigating political waters between foundations, working to fulfill funders’ programmatic goals, and to provide evidence of progress. Hyper-branding runs counter to the principles and practices of movement building.

Progressive Philanthropy needs to Organize Within Philanthropy: In communities where flashpoints occur there is not always a strong philanthropic infrastructure and/or track record of funding with a racial equity analysis. The concern is after a flashpoint occurs, if philanthropic organizations do not have credibility or relationships with grassroots organizations or remain focused on funding within their established portfolios rather than responsive to community needs, grassroots organizations’ work may be impeded, stalled, and/or diminished. Progressive philanthropists need to step up to support their peers in flashpoint communities, not just through funding, but also by building the capacity to use a racial equity analysis and respond to the needs of the community, with the community, with communities of color leading.

In The Foundation Center’s September 11th The Philanthropic Response shared, “Inevitably, delays and inequities occurred: many people fell through the slats, while others benefited from multiple sources of support. What is more, misunderstandings arose between donors and nonprofit groups over how contributions were to be used, and these misunderstandings tarnished the reputation of the philanthropic effort in ways that are still being felt. … Regrettably, however, despite extensive interaction between government and nonprofit groups, our systems for achieving such effective partnerships remain under-developed at best. This certainly was the case in the 9/11 response, which suffered from the start from inadequate coordination between public and private authorities, and among private ones themselves.”[6]

In Building the New Orleans: Foundation and NGO Power, by Darwin BondGraham, shared, “National foundations have channeled funds through a relatively small number of favored regional foundations controlled by local elites who in turn have granted out tens of millions to specific political and economic projects serving the interests of particular parties, harming others. … By their design and implementation, foundation commitments have been about shaping state policies and facilitating new forms of capitalist accumulation around newly enclosed land, both by generating higher rents and drawing in desired industries; by privatizing housing, and previously public spheres such as education; and creating private-parallel governance methods to serve business interests. …foundations and NGOs have been to emphasize abstract concepts like “choice,” “information,” “flexibility,” “quality,” “asset building,” and above all the leitmotifs of “opportunity and equity”… While this sound all right and good in the abstract, the actual reconstituted political-economy and the policies guiding it so far have created very real results with winners and losers.”[7]

Reflection Questions

The following reflection questions can be used to generate discussion on the history of racism and resistance, and racial justice funding. These questions from the Timeline of Race, Racism and Resistance in PRE’s Critical Issues Forum can be used for a strategic discussion about the philanthropic field’s action and strategies for the future.

  1. “How did particular moments contribute to an understanding of race and racial justice? How did foundations learn and shift? How did they communicate that learning and shifting? How did foundations’ responses make grantees more able or less able to respond to critical crisis and opportunity?

Progressive Philanthropy and Racial Justice organizations and activists need to work collectively to create a different system marked by democratic, equitable, and transformational practices. The last question is, will the COVID-19 pandemic finally be philanthropy’s point of no return?

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My appreciation and gratitude to Allen Frimpong and Simran Noor for your edits and encouragement.

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Maggie Potapchuk founded MP Associates in 2004. It is a national consulting practice that works in partnership with individuals, organizations, and communities, to build capacity to collectively achieve racial justice. Her work includes building the capacity of organizations to operationalize racial equity; working with whites through facilitating caucuses, equity coaching, and developing curricula; conducting research and curating best practices; and building networks and communities of practice for collective action. Maggie developed, with CAPD & World Trust, the Transforming White Privilege: A 21st Century Leadership Capacity curriculum and also they co-created the website, www.racialequitytools.org. Her most recent writing is Operationalizing Racial Justice. For more information, www.mpassociates.us

[1] The report, Race, Power and Democracy: Synthesis of Select Philanthropic Efforts following Flashpoints written by Maggie Potapchuk, provides descriptions of philanthropic responses to a few key events that gained national and international attention over the past 28 years. This report was not a compilation of all that was written; rather it is a targeted literature review, highlighting a few different retrospectives of six key events: Los Angeles ’92, Cincinnati, 9/11, Katrina, Detroit Bankruptcy, and Trayvon Martin’s murder. The review focused on implications for philanthropy and its work to advance a racial equity agenda. Most of the publications and articles were funded and/or written by foundations. Racial justice activists’ points of view were included in some of the reports, though not all.

[2] Funders, this is the rainy day you have been saving up for, Vu Le, Nonprofit AF, March 16, 2020. https://nonprofitaf.com/2020/03/funders-this-is-the-rainy-day-you-have-been-saving-up-for/, Four Criteria for More Justice in COVID-19 Response Funds, Justin Laing, Critical Philanthropy, March 21, 2020. http://hillombo.net/blog/4-criteria-for-more-justice-in-corona-response-funds/ Philanthropy in the time of Covid-19, Carmen Rojas, PhD, Medium.com, March 28, 2020. https://medium.com/@carmen.rojas.phd/philanthropy-in-the-time-of-covid-19-47bcb8ed7f5 Philanthropy, this is our “Matrix” moment . . . what will you choose? Dana Kawaoka-Chen, Medium.com, March 31, 2020. https://medium.com/justice-funders/philanthropy-this-is-our-matrix-moment-what-will-you-choose-283cdff53056 COVID-19: Using a Racial Justice Lens Now to Transform Our Future, Lori Villarosa, Nonprofit Quarterly, March 31, 2020. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/covid-19-using-a-racial-justice-lens-now-to-transform-our-future/ How Can Funders & Donors Respond to COVID-19 in an Equitable and Effective Way? Lisa Ranghelli, NCRP, April 9,2020. https://www.ncrp.org/2020/04/how-can-funders-donors-respond-to-covid-19-in-an-equitable-and-effective-way.html

[3] Later this month, another #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW! Blog will be a piece from Bart Westdijk, New England Grassroots Environment Fund, A Call to Philanthropy: Lived Experience IS Expertise We Need in our Processes.

[4] “Doing Evaluation Differently,” Sally Leiderman and Barbara Major from Flipping the Script: White Privilege and Community Building. Potapchuk, Maggie, Sally Leiderman, Donna Bivens, and Barbara Major. MP Associates and the Center for Assessment and Policy Development, 2005: 91–101. http://www.mpassociates.us/uploads/3/7/1/0/37103967/flippingthescriptmostupdated.pdf

[5] For more information — http://www.ncrp.org/events#FreedomFunders

[6] September 11 The Philanthropic Response, The Foundation Center, 2004. https://foundationcenter.org/gainknowledge/research/pdf/911book3.pdf

[7] BondGraham, D. Building the New New Orleans: Foundation and NGO Power. Rev Black Polit Econ 38, 279–309 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12114-010-9081-z

[8] Timeline of Race, Racism, Resistance and Philanthropy 1992–2014, Larry Raphael Salomon, Julie Quiroz, Maggie Potapchuk and Lori Villarosa. Critical Issues Forum, Vol. 5. Moving Forward on Racial Justice Philanthropy. June 2014.

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Maggie Potapchuk is president of MP Associates and co-founder of www.racialequitytools.org. Learn more about her work at www.mpassociates.us