How Philanthropy Gets to Transformation: The Human Experience of Change

Justice Funders
Sep 10 · 8 min read

There is hope in this moment, and NOW is the time.

By Rachel Humphrey and Kimi Mojica, Justice Funders

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Photo credit: KEZI news

Since the uprisings for Black Lives began in earnest in May 2020, following the brutal police killing of George Floyd, the team has been engaged in conversations across our network, on dismantling white supremacy and anti-Blackness in philanthropy. Months later, we are still collectively witnessing, mourning, and protesting the attacks on Black lives, including the recent police shootings of Jacob Blake, Deon Kay and Dijon Kizzee.

In this time of deep racial reckoning in the US, we have shared our long-held assertion that because the modern field of institutional philanthropy was made possible by, and is deeply rooted in, our extractive economic system, it is no surprise that white supremacy and anti-Blackness are baked into the practices of our field. Given this reality, the task at hand can feel daunting at best: how do we transform this confusing and contradictory field of philanthropy to be one that truly embodies and supports justice? In a year as fraught as 2020, with the trifecta of a global pandemic, severe climate disruption (resulting in massive wildfires and hurricanes), and the largest protests this country has seen, even imagining a new vision can feel hard.

“People are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way, but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative. We need a vision that recognizes that we are at one of the great turning points in human history when the survival of our planet and the restoration of our humanity require a great sea change in our ecological, economic, political and spiritual values.”

- Grace Lee Boggs

At Justice Funders, we continue to be guided by the beautiful and compelling vision of a to a regenerative economy, in which our relationships, organizations, and communities operate in ways that demonstrate and support care, cooperation and interdependence. Moments of disruption are the times in which we can best accelerate change towards the world we want. In short, there is hope in this moment, and NOW is the time.

We are reminded that change is inevitable; our actions and strategy are what will determine the direction of that change. In her book Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown observes that “how we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale,” and thus “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.”

If we can imagine the positive future that we are working towards, and then work to build fractals (never-ending patterns) of that future in the here and now, we will have a chance of getting there.

In our work at Justice Funders, we have the honor to witness and support philanthropic peers and institutions as they grapple with the deep work of transformation. This means we have a window into the human experience of change. One of the first things we observe are the common barriers that are preventing institutions from getting to meaningful change:

  • Tinkering/Thinking too small. By starting with a limited focus on policies and practices without reflecting on existing power structures, we run the risk of “tinkering” within a broken system or setting too small of a goal. For example, while commonly referred to as a “journey”, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion efforts are often pursued as an end in and of themselves. Yet to be effective, these journeys need to be seen as one initial step towards achieving justice. By limiting the scope of change to small adaptations rather than looking at comprehensive and radical changes grounded in a power analysis, change efforts don’t actually get to the root of the problem.
  • Staying in our heads. Real change requires much more than information and knowledge. If achieving change was only about information rather than a shift in consciousness, behaviors, and relationships, we would have prevented climate change decades ago!
  • Shaming and Blaming. This is the fastest way to shut down both a person and a process. Neuroscience shows us that human minds react very negatively to shame and blame, so it simply does not work in moving an institution or individual towards justice. In addition, “calling out” replicates some of the most oppressive qualities of white culture including dominance, aggressiveness, and perfectionism. We get much further faster when we call out the systems, and call in the people.
  • Shallow and Short. A one-time workshop without time and support for integration, practice, and reflection won’t result in significant change. Similarly, addressing only one level of change, like focusing on systemic racism without simultaneously addressing authentic personal reflection on internalized privileges or oppressions (or vice versa!) will also fall short.
  • “Navel Gazing.” It is common, especially in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work, to focus entirely on internal operations and relationships. While this learning and reflection is an important means to an end, without an explicit focus on changing the external work of a foundation, and especially having a goal of moving more resources to Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities and organizations, it will have little impact. (It feels important to note that the opposite approach of focusing only on the external work without attending to the internal processes and values-alignment can be equally ineffective.)

So how do we work to address these barriers? In our consulting engagements at Justice Funders, we have seen the following practices as effective in facilitating transformation.

Willingness to Reflect on and Radically Shift ALL the Work

Justice Funders’ Resonance framework looks at , and sets a vision for regenerative practices in each. In working towards justice, are you willing to look at your governance structures and practices as well as your endowment? Can you imagine not only having communities inform your strategy but actually ceding decision making power to them? These questions need to be on the table, regardless of your starting point and even if it is a very long timeline.

Supporting Individuals in Personal Reflection, Healing and Learning

Without inclusion of personal reflection, any efforts to address white supremacy culture and to shift an organization’s culture, practice, and vision will be limited to an academic exercise.

It is not enough to understand white supremacy culture theoretically: in order to truly unlock change, we each must do the deep introspection of how white supremacy culture has shaped, harmed, and benefited us, and how that unconsciously drives our interactions and decisions.

Questions we see as essential for the individuals within an organizational change process to explore include:

  • How do I benefit from and inadvertently reinforce white supremacy culture?
  • How do I need to heal from white supremacy culture or experiences of privilege and oppression?
  • Who do I need to BE to move toward a vision of caring, sacredness, cooperation and interdependence?
  • How do my colleagues need me to show up for this time of change?
  • What do I need to learn and understand about systemic oppression and our current economic system?

Building Conflict Literacy to Collectively Navigate Change

As a rule, humans do not do particularly well with change, and navigating change across differences is particularly challenging.

We have come to understand that change in and of itself is a conflict — a conflict between what is and what is desired. Thus becoming comfortable with navigating through conflict collectively is absolutely essential.

Conflict literacy allows us to heal, be accountable, and stay resilient through change individually and organizationally. At Justice Funders, we are learning from the thought leadership and practices of healing, restorative, and transformative justice from partners like , and . These practices are essential tools in creating a world of caring, cooperation and interdependence in real time. Questions we ask include:

  • How do we collectively practice caring, cooperation and interdependence within our working relationships, especially in a time of stress, anxiety, and “cancel culture?”
  • How do we center relationships and care for one another’s dignity, safety and belonging, even when we disagree?
  • Does our organization support “psychological safety” for everyone, especially those with marginalized identities? If not, how can we create it?

Systems Approach with Comprehensive Action Planning

None of the visioning or personal and interpersonal work matters for the communities we are working to impact if the internal and external practices of philanthropic institutions are not actively changed.

Doing so requires dedicating considerable time and resources to a thorough planning and implementation process through which an organization assesses and shifts all of its ways of working. This includes: designing and committing to a multiyear process that addresses personal, interpersonal and organizational transformation; bringing in the right team to support the effort; and creating realistic work plans that enable staff and board members to have the time and mental capacity to engage fully in the process. We’ve seen team-based inquiry processes enable institutions to get into authentic experimentation and practice of new ways of working, starting by asking questions such as these:

  • How does white supremacy and anti-Blackness show up in our processes, strategies and decisions, internally and externally?
  • How can we embed anti-racist practices in every functional area of our organization?
  • Where and when can we cede decision making power and redistribute resources to BIPOC communities?

Eyes on the Prize

Internal work is in the service of the external work of redistributing philanthropic resources to communities most impacted by injustice. It can be wise to start a change process with a focus on the internal, but it is essential to move toward tangible external changes including grantmaking and investment strategies. In our multiyear processes with clients, we begin with foundational skills of conflict literacy, decision making and communication as well as trainings on the context and systems that have created and support anti-Blackness and white supremacy in philanthropy. With that critical foundation set, we then shift to supporting team-based inquiries that are about meaningful action to redistribute wealth and power to BIPOC communities in ways that support their self-determination.

The future we want is not guaranteed, and the work of change is challenging. We must stay focused on the vision of a future that truly works for all of us to have a chance of getting there. By staying connected to our vision, and finding the many ways of creating the fractals of that future NOW, we can help to move in the right direction. These times of large-scale disruption make this both harder AND more possible.

By co-creating imaginative, generative spaces for visioning, learning and planning, and finding ways to move together toward an inspiring vision, we can harness our organizations to make the changes this moment is calling for. We can stand in a bold vision and move forward toward it with care, connection and sacredness. For some inspiration, we bring in the wise words of Mia Birdsong, who wrote in her recent book “How We Show Up”:

“We don’t get to the future we want by following a linear path plotted out from point A to B to C. The future we want is a spark inside of us that says yes to joy and laughter and pleasure. It says yes to creativity and art and music. It says yes to transformative healing and care, and I am because we are. It says yes to vulnerability and our collective well-being and love. The more we fan and feed it the more it sustains and grows. It lives in us and then we live in it and💥 the future is here. We get to the future we want by practicing it now.”


Justice Funders

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