Change is borne of experience. Lasting change is borne of enlightenment. The divide between the two is often quite significant.
Change is the subject of the recent report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) (Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change?) which asks us all to consider one central question: how enduring are the shifts in foundation practices over the past 20 months? We are seeing signs of hope. The COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice movement brought into focus the absolute and unqualified need for the field of philanthropy to evolve — and many foundations responded in kind. The moment revealed that the field is capable and ready to make a bold shift and transform the status quo.
For the shifts to be lasting, philanthropic individuals, families, and institutions must lead with intention and return to the fundamentals of philanthropic purpose. Strategies, operating models, even mission statements can change, but purpose is what grounds a philanthropy in its approach and dictates leadership decisions. Philanthropy is a deliberate choice, and it is one that you must assert time and time again.
One of the main findings in the report is that nearly half of foundation leaders surveyed said that their boards were the biggest impediment to their organization’s ability to advance racial equity. This is an indication that CEOs and board members must identify what barriers exist and how their decision making and structure perpetuate challenges. What changes in representation and roles must they make to demonstrate racial equity? How do they include communities of color in creating the conditions for these changes to sustain and evolve?
Questions of relevance, equity, and power are taking center stage for philanthropic families — many of whom are grappling with such questions as they seek to make necessary changes for greater impact. The Libra Foundation decided to double its grantmaking and center racial justice prior to the pandemic and protests against police brutality, and the events of the last two years have led the foundation to reflect further on its purpose.
“Leading up to 2020 we were acutely concerned about the connections between wealth accumulation among the few, the racialized nature of that accumulation, the concurrent erosion of representative democracy and this question, can America be a democracy with this kind of wealth inequality?” Regan Pritzker, board chair of The Libra Foundation, shared at the 2021 Trustee Education Institute. “That really raised the temperature on this conversation we were having around philanthropy and the right for it to even exist. What is our permission to operate? Who gives us that permission? How well are we meeting the needs of the people we are in theory serving? And are we the people who feel the most sense of urgency?”
An incredible 97 percent of foundation leaders surveyed by CEP report sustaining some or most of the changes implemented in 2020, with 21 percent reporting they sustained all of them. Now is the time for us to reflect on how we can stay the course. That includes asking a few tough questions, and taking the time to truly consider honest answers:
Why are you doing this work? Revisit the motivations and values that chart your path and guide your decisions. Interrogate your past actions and consider if the work you’ve done and the approaches you’ve taken fully align with your values. Next, affirm your future commitments.
What kind of impact are you striving to make? Clarify your philanthropy’s near- and long-term goals. Is your vision the same, supportive of, or meaningful to the communities and sectors you are striving to help?
How can you be a better partner? Lead with trust and an openness to listen and learn. Recognize your role and resources you bring to the table as a funder and consider with your partner(s) how best to be supportive and complementary. What shifts do you need to make to deepen your relationships and share power?
The profound moments of 2020 spurred an awakening in philanthropy, pushing us to reassess the core of who we are — our motivations, values, and priorities. We have learned from each other and our partners that we must head in a new direction — and with urgency.
Our commitment to pursue philanthropy with purpose, reflecting and correcting along the way, is how we sustain the progress that we have made.