Philanthropy’s Responsibility to Movements is About More than Moving the Money

Nwamaka Agbo

“Move the money.” Community organizers in social movements have repeated this call to action for philanthropy for years. As a longtime organizer, I used to be the one expressing this refrain. Now, as the CEO of a new family foundation, the Kataly Foundation, I’m on the receiving end of the directive.

While the titles following my name have changed, my values, experiences, and political points of view have remained the same, and, in fact, have deepened.

Now, I see “move the money” as a call to action which by itself lacks intention and purpose, and doesn’t contend with what it truly means to unlock capital and resources for organizations. Questions like “How should we go about moving the money?” and “Who should we move the money to?” emerge. But rather than admit we have created roadblocks that impede our ability to move resources freely, we turn to other philanthropists and their organizations to answer these follow-up questions.

When faced with these complexities, it is tempting to turn to the familiar instead of exploring a different path. But when we are challenged, we do not have to find the answers alone. As part of my practice of engaging grassroots activists and community leaders to help me address a problem’s root causes, I reached out to Sayra Pinto, Ash-lee Woodard Henderson and Gopal Dayaneni, experienced community leaders of grassroots movements, who shared reflections on the power dynamics and self-centering habits of philanthropy. The following offers some of the collective wisdom that I received from these conversations as an offering to racial and social justice philanthropy.

Cultivate Authentic Relationships Beyond Your Circle

Beyond the occasional panel or conference, funders have not cultivated the ability to be in just and right relationship with social movements to answer our questions about the “who, what, and how” of grantmaking. Instead, funders pose these questions in a mirrored echo chamber of other philanthropists that look like us, which ends up producing answers that center our own experiences rather than those of the communities that are directly impacted by the structural racism we seek to address.

Building authentic relationships rooted in reciprocity with social movements allows us to address power dynamics between philanthropy and grassroots organizations. Right now, when funders are out of alignment with social movements, there is no clear mechanism for movements to hold philanthropy accountable, other than a call-out or cancel culture, which is not generative of transformative strategies for change. However, if organizations or community leaders do something that is out of alignment with philanthropy, foundations can punitively stop resourcing that organization. This unilateral accountability highlights the power imbalance between philanthropy and social movements. Bilateral accountability can only come from reciprocal relationships.

Prioritize Trust over Transaction

Another hard truth is recognizing that many community leaders support people who are constantly under attack and are working to meet their immediate needs and live with dignity. Community organizers are focused on addressing these urgent needs, not developing relationships with program officers who want to be connected to them. This does not mean that we should withhold our resources in exchange for that connection — that is extractive and transactional. Instead, we should recognize the even greater importance and urgency of funding these organizations. As funders, we must be mindful of when we might be trying to “buy” social capital in the form of a partnership with an organization or movement leader.

Program Officers Should Function as Organizers

Social and racial justice philanthropy should regard itself as being in service to the social movements, grassroots organizations, and community leaders that they support. More pointedly, program officers should see themselves as organizers, capable of navigating the challenging political dynamics of wealthy people and family members in order to unlock capital in support of these same social movements. Furthermore, these same program officers should also develop the capacity and relationships that help them manage their own need for proximity to power, especially when that need compromises their ability to support their grantees and their communities. Learning to navigate the contradictions between our values and vision for the world with our current reality is essentially the meaning of social change.

Praxis for Philanthropy

Finally, understanding how to manage our values for racial justice and equity alongside the operations of our philanthropic institutions is not something that we can simply study and then apply in our work. While educating ourselves on the issues is important, we must create places and opportunities to actively practice our values and morals, embody new practices, and build the just systems that social movements are calling for.

These practice spaces should be defined by our ability to come together with others across philanthropy and social movements based on our shared values and moral compass. These spaces might include:

  • Internal practice spaces that allow employees to come together across departments to reflect on the internal culture and practices of the foundation and evaluate how successful they are in meeting the foundation’s goals, vision, and mission.
  • External practice spaces that allow us to come together across our different institutions to collectively resource and support grassroots organizations, while creating an opportunity for shared learning, peer-to-peer coaching, and feedback.
  • Outside practice spaces that require us to get outside of our institutional structures altogether and engage in community building and political organizing efforts that are not tied to our paid work. This helps us to keep from conflating our paid work in philanthropy with our work as a change agent so that we don’t move strategies within our institutions that center ourselves instead of the needs of those that are most impacted.

When seeking to engage with these ideas, it is critical to remember that many of these spaces already exist. Let’s resist the urge to create something new that places the focus back on us and concentrates power within our institutions.

Intentional practice space also creates a tangible opportunity for us to dismantle our own oppressive power constructs with a rigorous awareness of how we move through the world, while open and honest conversations about power allow us to hone an awareness of how we show-up and impact certain spaces, particularly those we share with grantees. One useful tool for building our own understanding of our power is Sayra Pinto’s Coalition Politics Framework, in which she invites us to sit with 3 questions:

  1. How do I relate to the power that I have?
  2. How do I relate to those that are in coalition with me?
  3. How do I move and share my power across the coalition?

For Kataly and for myself as a leader, engaging in these practices has led to a commitment to reinvest our assets in community-based projects as a spend-out strategy over the coming years. In addition to our commitment to “move the money” we have articulated a theory of change that specifies who we move the money to (Black and Indigenous communities, and all communities of color); how we move those resources (non-extractive integrated capital investments, relational grantmaking, solidarity philanthropy, etc.); and what we resource (community wealth building projects and strategies; environmental justice campaigns and organizations; and mindfulness and healing justice initiatives).

Ultimately, philanthropy’s responsibility to social movements isn’t just to move money — it is to be specific and measured in moving resources to those that are building power for impacted communities and creating systems rooted in justice, equity, and liberation.

Nwamaka Agbo is the CEO of the Kataly Foundation and the Managing Director of the Restorative Economies Fund. Follow Nwamaka on Twitter at @amakaagbo and on LinkedIn.

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