Letting Go
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Letting Go

The Seeds of My Foundation

What does it mean to engage in social good if only a few voices get to define and engage in the work?

This is a lightly adapted excerpt from Brandolon Barnett’s memoir, Dreams Deferred: Recession, Struggle, and the Quest for a Better World.

In 2015 I started a new role for another organization working in the “social good economy”: I would be the Research Manager at the Council on Foundations.

Operating as the national association for philanthropy, the Council conducts research into best philanthropic practices, provides legal advice, and advocates for the thousands of public, operating, corporate, and private foundations that work in communities across the country and around the world.

I’ll never forget the day I received the offer. I was expecting the call, so I took the day off. I tried to occupy myself with Netflix, washing dishes, sweeping the floors over and over. When the call finally came, around midday, I jammed my phone to my ear as the head of HR laid out the terms. Fearing a loss of reception, I moved as close to our window as I could, as if the offer and the joy that came with it might evaporate.

I was too grateful to negotiate. Too fearful that this chance would just disappear. Instead I stood with my hand over my mouth. Silent. They’d offered me almost double my current salary. This was the moment in which I might truly break free of abject poverty. Perhaps it might yet be possible to achieve one of those kinds of freedom.

The job was a revelation. I was able to interact with, provide research to, and take an active part in conversations with almost every organization on my growing map of social good organizations. The Council’s members ranged from local community foundations to large entities like the Gates Foundation, as well as the philanthropic arms of companies like Johnson & Johnson, Blackbaud, and IBM.

As my main project, I led one of the largest studies ever done into how philanthropy is amplifying its social mission through “impact investing.” Impact investing — new to me and just becoming a growing practice — involved organizations using their endowments to invest in companies and funds that did no harm (think divestment from fossil fuels) or actively sought to do good through proactive ESG practices.

I also led the organization’s research into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Philanthropy. And as I dug into the world’s largest and most continuous trove of data on the gender and race of staff within corporate, public, and private foundations — data going back over 30 years — I understood more clearly than ever why I had struggled to gain access to roles within the sector. The data were clear.

I didn’t fit the profile.

Whether through implicit bias or outright discrimination, women (mostly white women) filled the ranks of the Program Officer roles, and white men occupied the leadership positions. According to the data, things had been this way for decades. Worse yet, at the rate of change seen over 10 years of detailed data on staff demographics, it would take decades for women to become as common in leadership roles as they were among the ranks of program officers. Any sense of change was an illusion.

I was struck by the thought of a whole sector of our economy, one charged with investing in a better future, devoid of change. Innovation was changing everything about our world. Yet in every way these organizations were old, sclerotic, slow, and fearful of anything different. They were unwelcoming.

Even in instances where they wanted to change, instances I encountered through interactions with these institutions on phone calls, in meetings, or at various convenings, I began to question how they could even begin to innovate without a full range of perspectives and ideas.

More broadly, what did it even mean to engage in social good if only a few voices defined and got to engage in that work? Whose world would we end up building and reinforcing?

The job of defining a better world should not belong to any one person or category of people. Yet that was what we commonly called philanthropy and social good. To me this meant two things.

First, there was a limited understanding of what philanthropy truly meant. So many people hunger to improve their neighborhoods and communities. So many long to create a better world than what they see all around them every day. So many work hard to help others avoid the hardships they’ve overcome.

The resources they offer are substantial, perhaps even invaluable. Many had helped me on my journey. Yet we apply the label of “philanthropist” to the limited few with the privilege to contribute in very prescribed ways. To my mind what followed from this was the second thing: the simple idea that just as there are people being left out of philanthropy, there were organizations and industries being left out as well. I had to expand my map even further.

I spoke at more and more conferences, received more and more invitations to publish articles and join panels. I realized that traditional philanthropy was not the place for me. In many ways, the typical foundation represented everything I opposed: organizations underpinned by money they wouldn’t have in a world with more equal opportunities; institutions striving to reshape our world into something imagined by a few privileged elites and the limited voices around them, a cacophony of homogenous perspectives.

As much as I’d learned over the years, as much as I’d worked to expand my understanding, I was still the same at my core as when I first felt driven to toil away with nothing but a hope and a prayer that my work mattered. Please don’t misunderstand. Traditional philanthropy is essential. It can and does make a difference and drive positive change. Yet it cannot be the way that we create the worlds I want to help create.

In other words, Jean Luc Picard would not be impressed.

Brandolon Barnett is the author of Dreams Deferred: Recession, Struggle, and the Quest for a Better World, which offers readers a candid and moving account of his personal journey from entering the workforce to establishing himself as a leader in the non-profit arena.

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Letting Go tells the story of the growing movement for participatory grantmaking and investing, which returns decision-making power to people with lived experience.

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Letting Go

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