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A Sector in Need of Rebirth, Part One: On the Precipice of Change

Date: October 3, 2023

Gabriela Alcalde

Executive Director, Elmina B. Sewall Foundation

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“For we have, built into all of us, old blueprints of expectations and response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures.” – Audre Lorde

I was recently on vacation with family, and we were contrasting the ease with which we gathered this summer to the difficult years during the pandemic when we were unable to travel across state and international lines to be with each other. As we’ve passed the midpoint of the year 2023, 2020 really seems like a lifetime ago. I look back now and remember how, in 2020, amidst the pain and uncertainty, philanthropy seemed to be getting unstuck from and stretching beyond harmful and paternalistic sector-wide practices: increasing payout above the paltry (and frankly unethical) five percent floor; relaxing restrictions and waiving onerous reporting requirements; and making public commitments to racial equity and justice and funding of Black-led, Indigenous-led, and people of color-led efforts and organizations. Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) president, Phil Buchanan, noted that 2020 and 2021 saw “more change in foundation practices and approaches in two years than we had in the previous two decades.

Sadly, some of these changes and commitments turned out to be hollow, as Lori Villarosa noted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, shedding light on the misinformation (the nicest way to portray this) about funding commitments to racial justice and the real harm such misrepresentation of the facts causes. In too many instances, the appearance of solidarity was, sadly, if predictably, just an appearance; or as Anastasia Reesa Tomkin states, in her aptly titled NPQ article, “Philanthropic Pledges for Racial Justice Found to Be Superficial.”

There is evidence that funders have indeed changed some of their practices in a positive manner, though, with more general operating support and less reporting, since 2020. In addition to findings from the recent CEP report, Before and After 2020, the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project conducted a survey of grantmakers that showed that the majority of respondents made and sustained trust-based practice changes between 2020 and early 2023. While changing grantmaking practices is an important and positive shift, changing practices alone is not sufficient to shift power so that resources, opportunities, and power are equitably shared by all people and communities, and our planetary home is treated with care.

The Need for an Explicit Racial Equity Commitment

Even at the peak of the pandemic and racial justice uprisings, not all philanthropic entities were copacetic with centering, or even acknowledging, racial equity as a necessary lens for foundations. CEP’s Buchanan offered a rebuffing commentary to the Philanthropy Roundtable’s op-ed criticizing philanthropy’s focus on racial equity and advocating for a continued charity model for philanthropy, eschewing anything that could be perceived as political or informed by historical or current socio-economic context. Despite what we all lived through and witnessed since 2020, despite the last 400 years, there are outrageously many that still don’t accept that racism is a problem for ALL of us.

I believe understanding how racism affects all of us is requisite to finding a shared path towards a sustainable future. So, we must understand that racial justice is a pragmatic framework that engages with the origins of current injustices and suffering; it is about improving society for everyone, about addressing unjust supremacist systems that harm all living things, benefit few, and kick you especially hard when you’re down.

With anti-Blackness as a central and pervasive undercurrent in racism, racial justice is a call to pull our heads out from where they have been and work within the real context and circumstances that our unfiltered history has created. Let us be direct about this: In a country with such marked and consistently predictable and preventable racial disparities, race-neutrality is not only a farce, it is violence.

Importance of Context

As with all things, understanding where we come from is essential to informing where we’re going. To better understand philanthropy, its relationship with nonprofits, and its troubling history, read Megan Ming Francis’ work on movements and the role of philanthropy. The work of Erica Kohl-Arenas is also very instructive in learning about the repeated instances in which philanthropy coopted, undermined, coerced, and otherwise “distorted social movements for racial justice.” Start with “The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty.” If you haven’t already, you should read Edgar Villanueva’s “Decolonizing Wealth” for an alternate view of philanthropy and an aspiration for what it can become.

Philanthropy, as traditionally and primarily structured and practiced today, is a threat to participatory democracy. The power structure of philanthropy is not aligned with or conducive to participatory democracy. Philanthropy, in fact, offers a clear path for those with the most wealth to have greater political and social power (while protecting their wealth from being taxed and contributing to our social contract) than a true democracy would dictate. That does not mean philanthropy should be eliminated (at least not yet), but it does mean that we must reimagine philanthropy as a resource for participatory and democratic values, for more just sharing of power and resources, and for solidarity and love translated into action. The philanthropic sector and those who work in its service, must ask ourselves:

  • What is the cost of concentrated power vis a vis concentrated wealth and lack of accountability of how those tax-protected resources are used?
  • What impact does the white saviorship inherent in so much philanthropy have on community self-determination and agency?
  • How much (direct and indirect) influence by a few individuals with outlier levels of wealth and an extremely narrow set of identities and experiences can a democracy bear before it collapses or morphs into an illusionary veil for plutocracy?
  • What is at play when philanthropic wealth perpetuates the continued amassing of wealth in a few hands?

On the one hand, philanthropy has too much power through its wealth and the influence of that wealth in political, economic, and social systems; at the same time, significant power is left on the table because of the philanthropic sector’s fear of being perceived as political, controversial, or radical, and limited funding of community-led advocacy and policy change work.

Philanthropy has the potential to serve a truly catalytic role in supporting social change, but the sector must work with radical self-awareness to change its deeply resilient culture of entitlement, paternalism, wealth accumulation focus, and hoarding of power and control. Philanthropy started from the concept of charity, which is vastly different from the concept of justice, liberation, or self-determination. To shift to a new paradigm of philanthropy as a model rooted in love, the sector will need to move away from the arms-length approach of charity and collectively imagine — dream! — what love looks like in the public sphere, at the institutional, societal, and cultural levels.

In the second installment of this blog post, I expand on the outdated mindset that leads philanthropy to continue to operate in harmful ways and offer a vision of a new way forward.

Gabriela Alcalde is executive director at the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation. Find her and the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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