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What Will It Take for Philanthropy to Trust?

Date: October 14, 2020

Lisa Jackson

Former Managing Partner, Imago Dei Fund

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Right now — in a moment that none of us could have predicted, yet should not be surprised by — a lot is being asked of philanthropy. Just read a few of the many demands:

Increase investments in Black-led organizations that connect individuals and families to a wide array of resources and build power in our communities to lead substantive change.

Commit to staying in this fight for years, not months.

Embrace your inner disaster philanthropist.

Fundamentally rethink and redesign the way systems change approaches are being supported.

Step up to help your grantees survive.

The world needs funders to be supporting systems change, fighting for racial equity and an end to racism, optimizing and leveraging their funding, being responsive to disasters, decolonizing their wealth, removing barriers and increasing access to capital for BIPOC-led organizations — and the list goes on.

While I too would like philanthropy to live up to this improved version of itself, this version remains out of reach as long as philanthropy and philanthropists are, at a very basic level, unable to trust. What do I mean by that? For those of you who use this language, the “donors” don’t trust the “doers” — especially if the “doers” are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). If BIPOC and from places like Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, or Ghana, then the level of trust is even lower.

Last week, I was on (yet another) webinar listening to people urge, plead, and beg philanthropy to trust more. To trust the people closest to the problems. To trust the people doing the work to make decisions about how to spend the money that has the greatest impact in their community. To trust that letting go of just a small amount of power over resources will have a differential impact on the success of organizations and movements led by BIPOC.

We’ve been hearing these calls for quite some time, but the needle hasn’t moved significantly. According to Echoing Green and Bridgespan, the holy grail of trust in philanthropy is an unrestricted grant, but Black-led organizations are not receiving this type of support:

The unrestricted net assets of the Black-led organizations are 76 percent smaller than their white-led counterparts. The stark disparity in unrestricted assets is particularly startling as such funding often represents a proxy for trust.

As Kennedy Odede, co-founder and CEO of SHOFCO, recently reflected:

It seems Black leaders are not “pedigreed” enough, not networked enough, to show up on funders’ radars. Even when we do fit the “profile” with advanced degrees or accolades, we’re held under a magnifying glass and scrutinised in ways that white counterparts are not. And when we do succeed, our funding is often restricted or smaller.

Seriously, what is it going to take for philanthropy to embrace the levels of trust necessary to overcome these shortcomings?

Many in philanthropy right now are calling for foundations to “diversify” their staff, the logic being that if a foundation has more BIPOC staff, the more likely they are to be able to address racial equity, upend racism, remove all their blind spots, decolonize their wealth, etc.

As an African-American woman in philanthropy who has very few peers who look like me, I am all for philanthropy hiring more BIPOC. But the essential question that funders should be asking themselves right now is why hasn’t philanthropy hired BIPOC in greater numbers? Why don’t white people in philanthropy trust BIPOC enough to hire them, let alone fund them? What is that about? And please don’t answer, “We don’t know where to find qualified BIPOC to hire.” If we aren’t past this pathetic excuse, we should throw in the towel here and now.

The cry for trust in philanthropy is not new. In the span of my 25-year career, this is at least the second formal reckoning I’ve experienced. Anyone remember D5? Launched in 2010, D5 was a five-year coalition effort funded and led by several large foundations to address the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field. As D5’s mission stated, “As our constituencies become increasingly diverse, we need to understand and reflect their rich variety of perspectives in order to achieve greater impact.”

That was 10 years ago. A whole lot of money and time was put into D5, and yet the call for the amount of work left to be done (published in its cumulative 2016 report) has largely gone unheard. The report identified the need for philanthropy to hire more BIPOC, to use data in decision-making, to learn from best practices, and to be transparent about grantmaking. If this low bar for philanthropic effectiveness had been met in the past decade, philanthropy might actually be able to clear the new higher bar exemplified in the pressing list of demands funders are facing right now.

Alas, that bar remains uncleared.

In another piece I wrote earlier this year, I focus on the importance of truth telling in getting to meaningful change. The truth is that philanthropy doesn’t trust. To trust is to relinquish control and power. It is to deeply believe in the mutuality of humans everywhere.

We in philanthropy really need to sit with and deeply understand our lack of trust in those with whom we seek to partner to change the world. We need to do absolutely all we can to build trust — not just so that we trust others, but so that others can trust us. Until then, no change will come.

Lisa Jackson, Ph.D., is the managing partner for the Imago Dei Fund. Follow her on Twitter at @ldrjackson.

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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