How to Fix Philanthropy
We need to get hungrier, partner with the public sector, and have uncomfortable conversations about race and class.
Should philanthropy address its existential crisis: the fact that the wealth it relies on comes from the same system that perpetuates the problems it aims to solve? Yes. Can we do this alone? No.
With 1.3 million people too poor to make ends meet in the Bay Area alone, the need for philanthropy — and accountability — is urgent. We must act now, but we must also be willing to examine ourselves and our practices, to reflect on root causes and ask if fundamental change is needed. As Peter Buffett wrote a few years ago, “It’s time for a new operating system [in philanthropy]. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.”
At Tipping Point Community, we have no endowment; we start from zero every year. This is an intentionally hungry model with a quick and complete return to the community. At the same time, our closest supporters bring the experience and connections necessary to convene diverse stakeholders. We can borrow best practices from venture-capital firms to unleash research and development dollars that allow nonprofits to learn and create. We can unite competitors like Google and Microsoft by asking them to invest in the same cause.
Partnership with the public sector is also needed now more than ever. There are ways that local governments can maneuver — thanks to their sheer size and tax revenues alone — that others in the business of providing human services simply cannot.
Philanthropy will never have the scale and the infrastructure that the public sector has. But philanthropic dollars are nimble; they can be used to try and to inform new things.
However, in the absence of ongoing education and candid conversation, even the most progressive philanthropy will be limited in its effect. Above all, we must be willing to have open and uncomfortable dialogue about issues like race and class. For decades in this country, black people were not allowed to purchase homes — the ultimate symbol of wealth, prosperity, and the American dream. Today in the Bay Area, one out of every two Latinos and African Americans lives in poverty.
We have entrenched histories and systems of oppression in this country that we must acknowledge before we can begin to heal, and before real change can take place. As Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative has argued, we need to change the narrative about how we came to be where we are.
Raising millions of dollars from wealthy individuals will not in and of itself fix the multigenerational poverty we see in America today — but to reimagine our whole system feels daunting. It’s hard to know where to start.
The most important thing is that we start somewhere. We must commit to honest communication, leverage public-private partnerships, and the type of willful optimism that can feel scarce in times of great inequality. We must ask questions of those who have lived lives unlike our own. And we must truly listen to their answers.
This forum first appeared at the Nation magazine. // The Development Set is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We retain editorial independence.
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