Using Our Power

by Vanessa Daniel

This post is part of “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.

Vanessa Daniel, Executive Director speaks at 2018 United States of Women Summit

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

– Alice Walker

One of the great ironies of philanthropy, a field with tremendous positional power, is that so many people working within it are convinced that they have no power at all.

It is practically tradition for new people coming into philanthropy to be given a litany of reasons — usually by well-meaning colleagues — why power is beyond their grasp; particularly the power to advance racial and gender equity or funding for grassroots organizing.

Here are the top three:

1) You can’t organize in philanthropy (or, as I like to call this, the “Gravity doesn’t apply to people who work in philanthropy” argument): While workers, students, immigrants and practically anyone else on the planet can organize and use their collective power to effect change, people working in philanthropy cannot because the sector is governed by a different set of rules and has no real levers of accountability. Therefore, none of the organizing tactics that work in every other sector — including mapping where power sits and who influences those who wield it — will work in the funding world.

2) You are too low on the food chain to make change (or, the “who do you think you are?” argument): Hierarchies are impenetrable and if only you were higher up, you might be able to influence change. If you are a Program Associate you might have power once you are a Program Officer. But then again if you are a Program Officer you might only have power once you are a Director. But wait, if you are a Director you can’t expect much power until you are an Executive. And if you are an Executive you’re SO close! but not there yet — maybe where you’re a donor or trustee. And if you are a donor or trustee, you’ll have power for sure if you are a cis white male over 65…but if you are not, no worries girlfriend! There’s always next lifetime!

3) Conversations about race and gender alienate donors & get you fired (or, the “why rock the boat? you’ll only tip it over!” argument): It’s better to either abandon racial and gender justice grantmaking strategies or disguise them behind more neutral language like “funding state-level work,” than to risk your job. Avoid awkward or uncomfortable conversations at all costs!

To be fair, there are some kernels of truth in these: it is hard to organize in philanthropy, hierarchies can be really tough, and some donors do react poorly to tough conversations. However, I have not found these statements, taken whole, to be true.

They are, quite simply, myths that have been told and retold until they seemed like facts. The program team members at Groundswell Fund — all of us women of color who came into philanthropy directly from labor or community organizing — have shattered all three.

Last year, the Groundswell team talked in-person to three thousand individual donors and foundation staff people about expanding their giving to reproductive justice, grassroots organizing and racial and gender justice. Did some walk away? Absolutely! Most out of fear that increasing the share of resources they are moving to women and people of color would take something away from, rather than add value to, the male and/or white-led work they had funded for years. But far more donors leaned in to learn more, and many took action.

Many donors and foundation colleagues are sick and tired of being pandered to by people trying to “keep them happy,” and actually welcome an authentic conversation centered on values and strategies to help them do the greatest good.

Far from being offended, we have found donors to be curious and relieved to be presented with new models and ideas — and even delighted to engage in a respectful debate that pushes their thinking. Some of these donors have gone on to be major organizers within the largest donor networks in the country, mobilizing millions of new dollars to women of color-led work at the grassroots.

Lowest common denominator messages that avoid the truth in order to play it safe and create the largest possible tent ultimately mobilize fewer resources than bold and courageous ones that energize people. That holds true in almost everything — from politics to business to philanthropy.

Through integrating tried and true organizing tactics used in union and community organizing campaigns into philanthropy, we have supported dozens of foundations to increase their giving to women of color-led organizing work exponentially.

In addition to new direct giving to women, women of color and transgender-led grassroots organizations through their own portfolios, thirty of these foundations have teamed with us over the past decade to successfully move over $40M to reproductive justice organizations across the U.S. through Groundswell Fund.

We have accomplished this as young women of color without much positional power in the field or the status of a wealthy private foundation that might enable us to talk “peer to peer” with the largest institutions in the sector. We have not let this stop us. We don’t always need to be the ones organizing the largest institutions — we can also organize and support our allies at large private philanthropies to do this peer to peer organizing themselves.

Years ago, a large private foundation was hesitant to meet with us, so we asked a white ally colleague from another large private foundation to organize and host a joint call and make a clear peer to peer ask to support racial equity. The hesitant foundation ended up tripling their giving to women of color-led organizing work, and our ally colleague gained organizing skills that they then used to open more doors to other foundations for women of color.

The boldest organizing (from janitors, to farmworkers, to foundation program staff) often happens from the ground up, not the top down.

At Groundswell, we haven’t always broken through. But we often have. And the more we stood up, the easier it was to find phenomenal, like-minded colleagues to work shoulder to shoulder with and achieve bigger breakthroughs together than any of us could have working alone in our institutions.

The truth is that gravity applies to everybody — rich or poor, white or of color, farmworker or wealthy donor, janitor or foundation staffer.

Any system or institution run by human beings can be organized. There is absolutely nothing exceptional about philanthropy in this regard.

Organizing — i.e. building and utilizing relationships and collective action to motivate human beings to move in a new direction — is possible within specific philanthropic institutions and more broadly in the sector.

At the end of the day, no matter what our positional power, doing the right thing and bringing about change often requires individuals to take risks. It always requires individuals to realize that they have power. And in philanthropy, as in every other corner of society, standing up and organizing for what is right offers far more value than a job or positional power: a deep connection to our humanity and to a life purpose that goes beyond protecting our position and status, to being a part of transformation and liberation.

It’s worth noting here, that this post is about being — as the powerhouse grassroots leader Mary Hooks puts it — “On assignment (for the movement) in philanthropy.”

It is about having the humility to listen to what the trusted leaders and organizers within the most impacted communities say they need from philanthropy, and those of us within it stepping into our power to move resources in that direction.

It’s not about empowering ourselves as donors or foundations staffers to decide what is best for these communities and engineering solutions from on high. As one of my mentors Cathy Lerza accurately notes, “There are lots of super smart mostly white mostly guys who are more than willing to tell donors and boards how to “fix” climate or the economy or women’s health or whatever with ideas that came straight from their brilliant brains — because they believe they are so much smarter than the rest of us, especially the people most affected by problems and policy. Those guys are not afraid of their power at all — they think it’s their birth right.”

Groundswell is thrilled and relieved that we are by no means the first, or only institution to organize in philanthropy. We are inspired to watch donors like Leah Hunt Hendrix and Caitlin Heising blazing a trail with courage and heart in the individual donor community. We are lifted witnessing brilliant foundation colleagues like Lateefah Simon, Pamela Shifman, Rajasvini Bhansali, Teresa Younger, and Rye Young lead their institutions and sectors in exciting new directions.

Together, we are liberating philanthropy from the tired idea that you can’t change it from within.

The point is that change is possible and, sometimes, it is shockingly easy. The more those of us working within it realize and exercise our power to organize for change, the more rapid and transformative that change will be.

Vanessa Daniel is the founder and Executive Director of Groundswell Fund, the largest funder of the U.S. reproductive justice movement and of Groundswell Action Fund, the largest fund in the country centering giving to women of color-led 501c4 organizations. Under her leadership, Groundswell has moved over $40 million to the field, with a focus on grassroots organizing led by women of color, low income women and transgender people, and ninety percent of its total giving going to work led by women of color.