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Building a Movement for Courageous Practice Change in Philanthropy

Date: February 9, 2021

Melissa Sines

Programs and Knowledge Director, PEAK Grantmaking

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This rally call is used when a beleaguered force, sure in its moral authority but overwhelmed by opposing forces, is determined not to lose the ground it has gained. When PEAK Grantmaking’s President and CEO Satonya Fair calls for all of us in the philanthropic sector to “hold the line” on practice change — change toward equitable grantmaking practices that truly support the goals of democracy — there is hope that this call reaches those who deny the gravity of sticking to the status quo.

Across the past year’s multiple crises, there have been a number of changes — documented by PEAK members, collated in our joint report with Exponent Philanthropy, and echoed in the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s research findings — that have demonstrated grantmakers have become more responsive to the moment. Many positive changes, like loosening grant restrictions and reducing requirements, were implemented swiftly and effectively.

As the CEP report Foundations Respond to Crisis: Toward Greater Flexibility and Responsiveness finds:

Interviewees said they are now more attuned to the administrative burden of their processes. They said that they are more focused on building trust throughout their processes, and they are modifying elements of the application process to center equity and ensure access to applicants that otherwise might not have been eligible for grant support. They said they will maintain practices like simpler, shorter processes, reporting processes that are more commensurate with grant size, and less bureaucracy.

Those of you who have known PEAK since our “Project Streamline” days know that we did a big happy dance upon reading these findings. But when we continued reading, we were disappointed to learn that many more foundation leaders will not commit to keeping these new practices in place for the long term.

The way funders show up for their communities is through their grantmaking practices. Application processes, decision-making frameworks, grant structures and agreements, evaluation and monitoring practices, reporting requirements — these are the true, real-world manifestations of each funder’s values.

Last year, when shutdowns, closed schools, and an emerging threat to public health engulfed us all, and the lack of a coordinated national response failed us, many funders stepped up to support their communities, working as quickly as possible to get money out the door. The values on display in these efforts? Honor. Collaboration. Responsiveness. Trustworthiness. Dependability.

What did we see when, in the summer of 2020, police violence against Black people again entered mainstream awareness? Many funders pledged to provide more support to Black communities, to center racial equity, and to find and fund Black leaders. The values on display here? Equity. Awareness. Commitment. Justice. And, again, responsiveness.

Right now — as the deaths from the pandemic continue to grow, and as we reel from a majority-white mob invading the Capitol (and facing little resistance) with the goal of disrupting our democratic process — now is not the time for philanthropy to retreat from the commitments we’ve made, whether implicitly or explicitly, to enshrine our highest values in practice.

Are we going to be able to hold the line on the changes we’ve made to adopt more responsive and equitable practices? Are we going to be able to dedicate ourselves to continuous improvement? Or will grantmakers slide back into the complacency of the “normal,” even as outcomes for marginalized and oppressed communities continue to lag?

If philanthropy leaves this moment without searching its soul and coming out better on the other side, we’ll be turning our back on the communities we serve and the values we claim to stand for.

What actions can you take now?

In our latest edition of the PEAK Grantmaking Journal, “Reimagining Philanthropy,” our members share stories about confronting the past year’s crises and transforming the way they operate. Here are some of the top-line lessons from their contributions:

Check and live your values.

  • Get explicit about risk. Does the risk of a bad grant outweigh the risks that marginalized communities face each day?
  • Understand the power of process. We live our values through process; by changing the process, we can shift the power.
  • Lean in with your community. Ensure that equity isn’t just something that you expect of your grantees and partners, but something you demand of your own organization as well.

Use your voice.

  • Focus on long-term systems and policy change. By using your voice and influence to shift national, state, and local policy, you can help far more people than funders could ever reach through grant dollars alone.
  • Use your influence to change philanthropy. Speak out about the changes you’re making to your grantmaking practice, why you’re making them, the challenges inherent in that change, and what’s working.

Build trust.

  • Be a trustworthy partner. Transparency and values alignment are key components of building trust, so follow through on your pledges.
  • Offer flexible, unrestricted support. Nonprofits are on the frontlines of today’s continuing crises. Time spent on applications and reports could be better used addressing real-world needs.
  • Do your own homework. Use your own resources to find mission-aligned nonprofits doing great work and use information in the public domain whenever possible to support your decisions. (And if you do need additional information for decision-making, try to reduce the requirements for unique or customized formats.)
  • Democratize decision-making power. Share decision-making power and include more voices in the process, from both inside your organization and within your communities. When using invite-only grantmaking strategies, ensure equity is baked into your processes.

Rethink the 95 percent.

  • Increase payouts. By any honest measure, this is very likely the “rainy day” we’ve all been saving for. Give beyond the 5 percent payout requirement in a time when your support is needed most.
  • Make your investments matter. Explore strategies for investments that support your mission-based work and values.
  • Spend down. Consider what can be accomplished with a real transfer of wealth from foundation coffers to community-based leaders.

Grantmaking professionals, hear that rally cry! Join the movement for courageous practice change in philanthropy. HOLD THE LINE!

Melissa Sines is the programs and knowledge director at PEAK Grantmaking.

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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