Beyond Low-Hanging Fruit: Shifting Power, Changing Systems, and Organizing in Our Own Sector

Farhad Ebrahimi

2020 has been the kind of year where even the extremely well-insulated sector of philanthropy has been forced to do a bit of soul searching. With that in mind, I was very interested to read CEP’s new report, Foundations Respond to Crisis: A Moment of Transformation?. It was fascinating to see this snapshot of what’s top of mind in our sector right now, and I’m looking forward to reading parts two and three of the series in the coming weeks.

That said, my reaction to the report’s findings was much the same as my reaction to the anecdotes that preceded those findings. There’s clearly some good news in here, but the overall context continues to be troubling. And so the question remains: why should it take a pandemic to bring out the best in philanthropy? If 2020 has truly been a “wakeup call” for philanthropy, then we must have been hitting the snooze button for years, if not for decades.

I have my own hard-won beliefs about how change can happen within the philanthropic sector (or, more often, why change doesn’t happen). And I’ll be going there! But first, I want to make sure that we’re underlining the right lessons from this moment.

There can be no real equity without shifting power and changing systems.

I was pleased to see that funder-grantee power dynamics were named not once, but several times over the course of CEP’s report. We should embrace this line of inquiry, and we should take it even further, fully exploring the implications for both what we fund as well as how we fund it.

We must fund organizations and efforts that build and shift power for transformative change. And we must prioritize organizations and efforts in communities that have historically had power wielded against them: Black folks, Indigenous Peoples, immigrants and refugees of color, and the working class overall — all with an explicit lens around gender, sexuality, and ability. For philanthropy to truly have a transformative impact, we must make building and shifting power consistent and fundamental criteria in our grantmaking — across all our various missions, visions, and issue areas. If there was one thing that I felt was conspicuously absent from CEP’s report, it was an explicit reminder that the question of what we fund remains as important as ever.

We must also name and address the deep power imbalances that define the philanthropic sector itself. For most of us, this begins with an exploration of how to hold power accountably. But we must also explore how to share power equitably and, ultimately, how to let go of power entirely. We’re all at different points in our own respective journeys — from building trusting relationships with grantees; to making long-term, unrestricted commitments; to co-designing tactics, strategies, and processes with grantees; to building processes and structures for democratized decision-making; to spending down endowments; and, finally, to supporting the creation of alternative infrastructure for resource allocation and investment.

I was pleased to see the question of how we fund receive some much-needed attention in CEP’s initial report, and my hope is that parts two and three will challenge us to take the conversation that much further.

We must both embrace transformative work and seek transformation for ourselves. Shifting power for transformative change means changing systems, and philanthropy is, after all, just another collection of interconnected systems. At Chorus Foundation, which I lead, we believe deeply in the concept of Just Transition as a framework for understanding the intersection of equity, power, and systemic change. And we understand that, if we are to support real transformation at scale, then we must also embrace the concept of a Just Transition for our own sector.

What will it take to transform our sector?

If the above sounds familiar — or, frankly, even a bit rote — then that should come as no surprise. The critiques of the philanthropic sector have been well established, and the lists of best practices should be very familiar by now. However, simply knowing “what we can do differently,” while clearly necessary, remains woefully insufficient. The real question remains: how do we actually bring these practices into being? The multiple, interlocking crises of 2020 appear to have shaken some of the lower-hanging fruit out of the trees, but there is still much more to be done.

To do this work, we must get serious about funder organizing. At Chorus, we use the word “organizing” to describe a process of developing both leadership and relationships to shift power for structural change. The goal of funder organizing, then, is to do much more than simply move the money; it’s to shift structures — and cultures! — within philanthropy itself. And we believe it’s critical that we do this in a way that’s both informed by and accountable to the transformative organizing efforts already happening at the community level.

I want to highlight the importance of leadership development in all this. Good organizers develop the leadership of other organizers. It’s not just about getting things done; it’s about developing and democratizing leadership. That’s how we can really build and shift power. It follows, then, that funder organizing isn’t just about developing better grantmakers; it’s about developing more powerful leaders who are effective funder organizers in their own right.

I also want to highlight the distinction between internal and external organizing. We talk often about “moving the field,” yet rarely do we talk about moving our own organizations. This needs to change. After all, our own organizations can be deeply contested spaces. Knowing “what you can do differently” only gets you so far if your boss or members of your board don’t share your assessment. There can be real risks in pushing for transformative change within one’s organization. People can — and have — lost their jobs over this kind of thing.

Navigating the complexities of transformative funder organizing will require that we take the question of power seriously in every aspect of our work — in funder-grantee relationships, but also squarely within our own sector and within our own organizations. To be clear, this means power mapping our own workplaces, determining the nature and the location of pockets of power, and developing sophisticated strategies to build and shift our own power in response.

If we’re going to do this work, we’ll need to do it together.

None of this work happens in a vacuum, although it can certainly feel that way. Imagining how we might approach this work collectively is a big part of my own growing edge. What would engaging more effectively as a larger funder organizing ecosystem look like? Who should play what role? Who can take which risks? How might our various organizing efforts — both internal and external — exist in more intentional relationship to each other? How can we be more supportive of each other?

The reality is that most practitioners in philanthropy — including many of the ones most aligned with a vision of transformative change — still feel like they’re on the outside of this work. How can we make the larger ecosystem more visible to them? Where can we plug them in? How can we support them in bringing others in?

This work can look scary, and it can get quite messy at times. But none of us needs to face it alone. If we can learn to work together, then we’ll be able to do much more than simply catch the low-hanging fruit during a particularly windy year. Instead, we’ll be the ones climbing higher and higher into the trees themselves — regardless of the weather.

Farhad Ebrahimi is founder and president of the Chorus Foundation. Read more from the Foundation on Medium.

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