Moving Philanthropy Beyond Crisis Response to Structural Change

Anna Fink

This year, the philanthropic sector has had to grapple with four central crises converging at once: natural disasters sparked by climate change; the public health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; outrage over racist violence and injustice perpetuated by law enforcement; and a tumultuous election cycle that has challenged the core of our democratic institutions. As CEP’s Foundations Respond to Crisis: A Moment of Transformation? report outlines, the magnitude of the converging crises of 2020 has created a moment to challenge norms and disrupt status quo operating principles in philanthropy.

Ultimately, the question will come down to philanthropy’s ability to go beyond acting with the urgency to address immediate needs and toward seizing the opportunity to move the needle on long-term, structural change.

The Amalgamated Foundation, where I serve as executive director, found itself in a unique position to respond to these interlocking crises in ways that leveraged our unique role as both a corporate foundation and public charity that houses pooled funds and donor-advised funds (DAFs) alike. As a relatively new foundation built on the legacy of sweatshop workers who came together to use their collective power to form a union, then a bank, we felt a particular sense of responsibility to take action this year. As my colleagues and I reflect on the lessons we’ve learned from this year, I want to underscore two opportunities in particular for ongoing transformation in our work, and for the sector more broadly: 1) leveraging technology and 2) deepening collaboration.

Technology

One key to consolidating the shifts that have taken place in this moment of crisis is the ability to leverage technology for longer-term structural change. In short, technology can support structural changes in how funders do our grantmaking. As a first and fundamental step, at Amalgamated Foundation, we rewired our grantmaking processes to enable all grant payments to be made electronically. As organizations struggled to operate remotely and the urgent need for funding increased, this was a simple, yet crucial adaptation.

In coordination with our technology partner at JustFund, we have also worked with rapid-response efforts to simplify the grantmaking process and free up Fund managers and staff to do their jobs in ways consistent with principles of transparency, accountability, collaboration, and equity. Easing the burden on grantees and facilitating knowledge sharing among funders have been particularly valuable in guiding more nimble and collaborative funder responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate disasters, and voter participation and organizing. Among the funds Amalgamated Foundation houses, for example, this has allowed the Emergent Fund to rapidly scale and drive resources to BIPOC grassroots organizations, it has enabled Return to the Heart to drive resources to Native American communities hit particularly hard by COVID-19, and it has enabled Way to Rise to marshal resources that encouraged record voter engagement and turnout.

Collaboration

As we move forward, deepening opportunities for collaboration — both among funders and between funders and grantees — is critical to unlocking new resources and democratizing decision-making. From funding for frontline workers to the reckoning on racial justice to efforts to protect voting rights, the response to 2020’s crises has been spearheaded by a diverse range of players: large philanthropic institutions; individual donors; nonprofit organizations (including c3s and c4s); and corporations and consulting firms. As funders work across organizations, across sectors, and across the power divide between us and the organizations we support, collaboration needs to be a core operating principle.

In 2020, we saw several innovative collaborative funding vehicles emerge. For example, the Families and Workers Fund, the first fund to center essential workers and build toward an equitable pandemic recovery, brought together an unusual set of partners spanning corporate philanthropy, tech donors, and social justice funders. Initiated by partners including Ford Foundation, Schmidt Futures Project, Open Society Foundations, and Amalgamated, the Fund drew on deep relationships and programmatic expertise in workers’ rights and the economy, yet also opened the door to welcome in newer funders in the field with an interest in providing direct relief.

We also saw an increase in strategies that broaden decision-making from the ground up, such as the aforementioned Emergent Fund and the Amplify Fund. These funds were able to increase resources and make decisions about shifting funding strategies by drawing on structures that put the perspectives of community leaders at the forefront to determine critical needs in a crisis moment.

As we look forward to the many changes the new year will bring, one thing is clear: philanthropy as a sector needs to make structural changes of our own to maximize our support for long-lasting social change. Our funding must be guided by the needs of impacted communities, and not by rigid funding priorities and processes. By redoubling a commitment to moving resources nimbly and efficiently beyond 2020, we can free ourselves up to deepen relationships and embed structures that build trust and accountability.

Anna Fink is executive director of Amalgamated Foundation. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at @Amalgamated_Fdn.

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