High Stakes and High Rewards: philanthropy’s moment to shine
Philanthropy has both the opportunity to chart the course to a new day of investment and follow the voice of communities’ wisest leaders.
At this moment of both great inequality and the unprecedented strength of populist movements, the inertia of these two forces are coming to an inevitable clash. Philanthropy stands on the edge, holding the status quo for its own perpetuity while being tempted to jump in the rushing creek of social change. The excess of inequality has created philanthropy, yet it has been historically tasked to serve the greater good. The same gears of capitalism that turn out profit and philanthropic resources are the same gears that hold an ever growing population of Americans back, particularly those of color, those identifying as queer, and those without access to opportunity.
Now with younger donors, growing technology that expands knowledge, and the emergence of new structures for giving, the time is right to turn philanthropic dollars into civil society’s risk capital — capital that is designed to seed a just quality of life for all, an economic system that rejuvenates people, and ensure a sustainable planet for centuries to come.
This is not our weakest moment, it’s our opportunity to reach new heights of humanity’s potential.
The key pillar in a new Gospel of Wealth that addresses society’s deep inequality, including the creation of philanthropy, is investing those excess financial resources in new, creative ways. No longer can philanthropies be disconnected from the system of which it is created and only support the next food pantry, art museum, and local park. Instead they must address the root causes of the economic system that divides us. Philanthropies must braid the dollars of charitable and private capital, weaving a beautiful quilt harmoniously applying the fullest capacity of foundation assets towards social good. Let’s use the capital to help start small enterprises, spark new markets, and support powerful voices as they fight for improvements in their communities. In many ways we are fortunate to have such a collection of resources to support human ingenuity, equity, and the capacity to tackle the most complex issues of our time.
This gift, a set of capital that can be risk interested instead of risk averse, requires us to lean into those complexities and unlock the potential in us all.
Additionally, access to resources must expand and be focused on those most vulnerable to changes ahead. For far too long philanthropy has viewed itself as the gatekeeper instead of the store greeter. Philanthropies must welcome civil society into the resources for which they have paid (through tax shelters) and work in partnership to ensure their thoughtful investments are rooted in community change. The sector could explore ways to support greater democracy in the giving process, be clear with grantees about where they stand with funders, and allow frontline communities to direct or more directly influence the grantmaking strategy. Philanthropy has both the opportunity to chart the course to a new day of investment and follow the voice of communities’ wisest leaders. Following those leaders will keep philanthropy grounded in a system that acknowledges its opportunity and place in the world.
A new Gospel of Wealth holds risk and fosters innovation. It expands access and options to use financial resources differently, leading to more impact. It is directed by those communities most affected by inequality. It leverages what’s possible in government with the benefits of a thriving private sector. It is the bridge, spark, and space for creating a just and equitable society that benefits us all.
Tyler Nickerson is a philanthropist, entrepreneur, and Director of Investments and State Strategy The Solutions Project, which is a cultural campaigning, grantmaking, and big thinking initiative accelerating the transition towards 100% clean energy for all people.