Justice Funders
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Justice Funders

Invitation to Liberate Philanthropy: Kodomo no tame ni (for the sake of our children)

This post kicks off “Liberate Philanthropy,” a new blog series curated by Justice Funders to reimagine philanthropy free of its current constraints — the accumulation and privatization of wealth, and the centralization of power and control — to one that redistributes wealth, democratizes power and shifts economic control to communities. Over the next few months, we will be sharing stories from some of our most forward thinking, transformational leaders in philanthropy about how they are facilitating a Just Transition for philanthropy.

Seventy-six years ago, United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, a piece of legislation, among many historically, that criminalized an ethnic minority. As a result, my entire paternal family was incarcerated without due process. My father was born behind barbed wire on U.S. soil. In so many ways, this history has shaped my future.

Once I came into consciousness about my history, my Japanese-American elders would often say to me, “Never Forget!” It was their way of simultaneously acknowledging cyclical patterns in history, while reminding me of “my history.” The impact of having my elders entrust me with their stories as a middle school student was akin to that moment in Spiderman when Peter Parker’s grandfather says to him, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I began to understand that knowing my history meant making conscious choices about what to do with that knowledge in the future, as well as the sense that “history” isn’t relegated to the past, it is actually still unfolding.

Fast-forward thirty years: In the context of my work in philanthropy, I want to make sense of philanthropy’s history so as to understand how to create a more just future. At Justice Funders, where I serve as Executive Director, we’ve been asking ourselves, If our field is a manifestation of our previous actions, how might we do our philanthropy differently to shape its future?” This exercise to document key moments in philanthropy illuminated how the field has largely been constructed by laws that have created a tax shelter for the wealthy. In fact, our latest research, “Stifled Generosity: How philanthropy has fueled to the accumulation and privatization of wealth,” illustrates how institutional philanthropy drives greater inequity through its extractive practices, despite its stated and real aims to the contrary.

The word “philanthropy” literally means love of humanity. In the United States, philanthropy was first envisioned in the late 1800s as a vehicle for private citizens to provide financial support to help others in society, such as the poor, where government fell short. When charitable deductions became tax deductible in the early 1900s, wealthy individuals began having a financial incentive to give, in addition to advancing public good. Over a century later, about $380 billion is given through philanthropic vehicles annually. Despite this astronomical figure, across multiple indexes conditions appear to be getting worse: we are collectively experiencing increasing wealth inequality, extreme climate disasters, decreasing access to clean drinking water, and greater incidents of gun violence. What is holding philanthropy back from impacting these crises?

One way in which “Stifled Generosity” illuminated some of the contradictions for us is that we’ve allowed tax laws to become the governing practice of our field — i.e. the status quo — instead of the minimally accepted practice of any philanthropic organization. For example, most foundations today do not seriously consider granting more than the required 5% payout, despite that being the minimum requirement, not a maximum. Further, as our national population and economy has grown, federal regulations for philanthropy have not been sufficiently updated.

Given this, where do we go from here? One option would be to try to update our national tax laws. But given the state of our national leadership, this may not be the most expedient course of action. Another option that I want to propose to my colleagues in philanthropy is: We must fundamentally change how we think about and do our work.

Drawing inspiration from the vibrant movements taking place across the country, we are guided by the framework developed by the Climate Justice Alliance and Movement Generation calling for a Just Transition — a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. Key features of an extractive economy are: “an economy based on the removal of wealth from communities through the depletion and degradation of natural resources, the exploitation of human labor (a particularly precious natural resource) and the accumulation of wealth by interests outside the community (i.e. big banks, big oil and big box stores).” Whereas, key features of a regenerative economy are: “an economy based on reflective, responsive, reciprocal relationships of interdependence between human communities and the living world upon which we depend.”

If we apply this thinking to our work in philanthropy, we can quickly see tangible, practical shifts we can make in our practices to better align with a regenerative economy. Rather than viewing tax law as the standard that limits our foundations’ annual pay-out to 5% of our endowment, what if we asked ourselves what payout is necessary to beget the change we need? What if we thought of “legacy” as the full expression of our values in the participation of creating a regenerative economy, versus accumulating wealth that continues to exacerbate an extractive economy? What if we looked at “investment” as building our local community’s infrastructure versus participating in Wall Street speculation?

In asking these questions, Justice Funders has been speaking with leaders thinking about — and doing — philanthropy in new ways. We were inspired to curate this blog series, “Liberate Philanthropy,” to share the stories of those who are already creating new philanthropic practices that are: redistributing all aspects of well-being, democratizing power, and shifting economic control to communities. We invite you to follow along the next few months as we post reflections from practitioners who are already transforming the field.

For example, our colleagues at Thousand Currents, with their partners in the Global South, have launched the Buen Vivir Fund as a mechanism to practice regenerative finance. In doing so, they have offered a vision and opportunity for those of us in philanthropy to re-imagine what “investment” means. In addition, a growing number of private foundations are re-thinking the role of endowments in a moment when those accrued resources could support “local, living, loving” communities, as described by Jennifer Near in her work with Shake the Foundations.

At a time when our national dialogue is reminiscent of World War II, and there seems to be a daily contestation for dignity and rights, each of us has a choice about what we do with the privileges that we have. Because while 2018 marks the 76th anniversary of the passage of Executive Order 9066, it also marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the American Civil Liberties Act, which authorized reparations to those that were interned during World War II. One of the lessons I have drawn from studying my own history is that I can either keep giving energy to the conditions that have oppressed us, or I can give my energy to imagining, building, and growing the practices, organizations, networks, and communities who share a vision for a thriving and just world.

The future I want for my children and yours is one in which their full humanity will be recognized, one where they will have access to the resources they need and the ability to be free. It is up to us to take responsibility for creating this legacy from whatever perch we sit. Justice Funders and I are choosing to support and amplify those who are powering philanthropic transformation. We are clear that transformation will take a critical mass of us in the field to channel our collective resources to shift what seems like an indomitable system that perpetuates depletion, degradation and extraction. The moment is NOW to “get right” with all of our relationships — to each other, to mother Earth, to the resources in our stewardship. For the sake of all of our children, I ask my colleagues in philanthropy who are stewards of immense resources: How can YOU be a part of facilitating the Just Transition for philanthropy? How can YOU liberate philanthropy from its current constraints to build the world we need?



Stories and analysis to inspire philanthropic transformation.

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Dana Kawaoka-Chen

A facilitator, funder organizer, & resource mobilizer for social justice movements. Working for a Just Transition in philanthropy @justicefunders