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The Case for Being Radical

Date: June 2, 2022

Mary Coleman

Fellowship Program Manager, Voqal

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This is the fifth and final post in a series contributed by the Feedback Incentives Learning Group, a group of funders convened by Feedback Labs that are dedicated to encouraging peer funders to listen to the people most harmed by the systems and structures they seek to change and to supporting their grantees to listen as well. In this blog series, learning group members share their insight into and experiences with encouraging foundations and nonprofits to listen and respond to the people who are most impacted but often least consulted by philanthropy and nonprofits. The first blog in this series is here, the second blog is here, the third blog is here, and the fourth blog is here. We hope this series provides inspiration and guidance for those looking to listen better and, ultimately, encourages action.

We want our grantees to get to the roots of the problem of their sectors, so why don’t we do the same?

Imagine a tree. A strong, sturdy oak with deep roots and reaching branches. This oak has provided for many generations, but its energy has waned. Pruning a few of the tree’s branches won’t bring it back or make enough room for new, vibrant trees to flourish. For the forest to remain healthy, the oak needs to fall. As it decomposes it will return nutrients to the soil, and leave space for new seeds to sprout, grow, and thrive. Its legacy will be the new, healthy trees that thrive in its place for the next generations.

The longer I’m in the philanthropic sector, the more I see it like this tree. A strong, sturdy institution that has flourished in its traditional form, but is showing signs of rot. Like Edgar Villanueva, Anand Giridharadas, Vu Le, Trista Harris and others, I think the harm that traditional philanthropy perpetuates outweighs the good it does and needs to be addressed. Many of the reforms I hear my peers in philanthropy discuss are useful — reducing grant applications and reports, integrating more participatory grantmaking practices, and investing with a social justice lens are all noble ways to address harm — but they do not go far enough.

Such interventions are not radical, and more importantly they’re not working fast enough. They continue moving resources through traditional forms of philanthropy. Removing these branches may allow for efficiencies in use of resources, but the tree is still standing, rot and all, and crowding out space for something truly new and equitable to flourish. We — those of us who want to help create a more equitable, just world through our grantmaking — are losing. Philanthropy as it currently stands supports wealth concentration and benefits from playing politics, at the expense of community wellbeing. We need to find ways to be more radical in our philanthropy now, and, to me, being radical means addressing fundamental root causes to change systems so they serve everyone.

At Voqal, we’ve always had a radical edge to our philanthropic approach, incorporating as a 501(c)4 organization in order to support advocacy and policy-level efforts aligned with our vision of building a socially just and equitable world. because of our radical edge, we often feel like a pariah in the philanthropic space. We’ve been asked to not participate in funder peer groups and we’re often the only institutional funder for groups we support. I don’t think Voqal itself is as profoundly radical as it can be to change systems that perpetuate harm, yet the reaction to us by other philanthropists shows how hesitant our sector is to embrace needed change.

In the past, Voqal’s grantmaking operated in traditional processes and constraints. For example, we required full application submissions and a board review process even though we only accepted requests from solicited organizations. With a recent shift in leadership, we decided to go to the root of our challenges in aligning values and actions, seeking out the experience of our grantees and other partners. After looking at our entire operations, we realized these self-imposed application steps created restrictions on aligning our grantmaking practices and organizational values. We embarked on a humbling listening tour, leaving behind any preconceived notions of how we wanted to operate to listen to what was really needed on the ground to propel the work we believe in forward.

We didn’t necessarily hear anything that hadn’t been shared before. Our applications and reports were tedious; cash flows were unreliable; goals were focused on our needs as a funder and not community needs; resources for advocacy are limited. But rather than changing our processes around the margins, we realized we needed to make radical changes to address the root causes of the feedback we were hearing. For our work in strengthening democracy, we began to review system-level metrics like national voting trends in order to gauge our progress, rather than asking our partners to report micro-level metrics like the number of voters they had registered. This meant our partners wouldn’t have to spend time reporting program details to us that we weren’t going to meaningfully use. It also helped us let go of near-term definitions of success and view our work through a long-term lens, creating a strategy based on relationships and not annual transactions with our partners. This also required a humbling recognition that we could not claim entire credit for successes, but rather must lean into being one part of its constellation.

For our fellowship program, we shifted from funding innovations in tech or media that supported community organizing to funding individuals who seek radical, disruptive change through systemic transformations. While this was a subtle difference, it represented a decisively more radical way to achieve Voqal’s vision.

We needed to help our board buy in to this new approach. To do so, we presented the work these amazing individuals were doing to nurture community relationships and made the case to our board that this would realize Voqal’s vision much sooner than our previous approach that focused on fulfilling large numbers of transactions.

“When we saw the collective visions and approaches of the future fellows aligned with Voqal’s overarching mission to build a socially equitable democracy, the board realized we could not pass the opportunity to invest in and cultivate a new way of thinking about how we organize our communities,” says Cec Ortiz, a Voqal board member.

It was intimidating to take on these radical changes in the way we work. I think that’s true for a lot of us working in philanthropy — we feel like we don’t have the agency or ability to make radical changes in who and how we fund. I get it. I know that for the vast majority of you reading this blog, you don’t feel like you can go out tomorrow and change how your board fundamentally views your work, let alone fund

But what if I told you that it was possible — and more straightforward than you think — to take steps to being more radical in your grantmaking? Not when your institution’s strategy changes, not when the stars align, not in a year, but right now? I see this happening in incremental and sweeping ways, where rather than cutting branches, we’re getting at roots.

Some incremental ways to move toward more radical grantmaking include:

  • Shift the questions you ask your grantees. Instead of asking what the organization is doing repeatedly, ask what the organization wants to do but can’t find funds for — and plan how you’ll act on what you hear.
  • Remove applications altogether and research organizations working in your funding space, whether through a solicited or unsolicited process. This puts the onus of due diligence on grantmaking staff to determine alignment and not on an organization to prove its value.
  • Focus on evaluation metrics at the level of the system you’re trying to change. Stop asking grantees to report on the minutiae of their programs and look at county, state, or federal trends as discussed earlier.
  • Fund advocacy. Consider how it can be a way to live your grantmaking values out loud and support positive community impacts, rather than seeing it as tied to a specific political candidate or platform.

Some sweeping ways to embrace more radical grantmaking include:

  • Fund grassroots organizers directly, specifically, those connected most to the community to drive strategy and action. Be thoughtful about what it takes to build trusting, non-transactional relationships with organizers, for example by considering the insights and experiences of grassroots activists involved in initiatives like Grassroots Solidarity Revolution.
  • Examine the systems at work within your funding area and what actually needs to change to make them work for everyone. As you do that, prioritize listening to people who are the most deeply connected to, and affected by, those systems.
  • While you’re in listening mode, look for ways to extend the timeline on which you’re thinking about the impact of your grantmaking. Incorporating a youth board with a real say in your grantmaking could be one way to do that, while also bringing voices that are often unheard in philanthropy to the forefront.
  • Get comfortable with being fundamentally challenged in the ways you currently work, such as finding ways to combine monetary power across the sector. Could we decide across organizations to combine endowments, donor-advised funds, and family fortunes to sunset in 20 years, with a future-focused strategic plan? What is our moonshot in securing an equitable, vibrant future for generations to come?
  • If the above ideas provoke discomfort for you, dig into why.

On a personal level, don’t be afraid to pay attention to your gut. I’ve learned to focus on what makes my eyes light up (rather than glaze over) in my daily work. If what gets you excited is not making other peoples’ eyes light up, think about how you can present the work in a more compelling way. I’ve found people change when they’re challenged, so I look for internal and external ways to bring connections to social justice to my role. You can be the catalyst that helps others see their work and the world in another light.

In a recent conversation with Katrina Adams of the Omaha Community Foundation, she reminded the Feedback Incentives Learning Group that we need to move beyond what traditional philanthropy says we should do if we want to see real change. “We need to shift the role of funders to relationship builders, to connect to our partners on a human level and leverage social capital as a resource alongside financial capital,” she said.

This is not to say that Voqal has it all figured out. We’re still learning, and we know we have most likely perpetuated harm through our outdated philanthropic practices and models. Now, though, we’re trying to ensure our future impacts are aligned with our values by radically changing the roots of our giving tree. I hope some of what we’re learning might encourage other philanthropists to consider what more transformational changes could look like in their own practice.

The fundamental nature of philanthropy needs to be disrupted, and radical moves of all sizes are the way to get us there. It’s time to lay new roots. Will you join us?

Mary Coleman is the Fellowship Program Manager @Voqal. Follow Voqal on Twitter @Voqal and find Mary 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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