Social Justice and a Relevant Philanthropic Sector: Old Paradigms

Miles Wilson

This post is the first in “Social Justice and a Relevant Philanthropic Sector,” a five-part series by Miles Wilson about where philanthropy is stuck in old paradigms — and where there lie opportunities to advance social justice both within the sector and across American society.

When I entered the philanthropic sector nearly 30 years ago, I expected foundations to be on the forefront of social justice and practicing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within their organizations, as well as being fierce advocates in the broader society. Unfortunately, I was largely wrong, and I have seen the evidence of this play out in my own career — as have far too many others like me in organized philanthropy.

The philanthropic sector is stuck in old paradigms, and several common, critical issues are preventing philanthropy from making real and sustainable progress. Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to lift up disenfranchised populations, people of color, and underserved communities, and to help transform our nation into a stronger, more just, and more equitable society. Yet it must undergo serious self-examination and advance substantive change for this goal to be achieved.

The number of people of color working at grantmaking foundations in professional and management roles remains very small. This is disturbing because so many foundations have focused their work in communities of color. The voices of people in those communities — their wisdom, their contextual knowledge, and their relationships — are yet to be fully lifted up, and consequently do not contribute to making the work of these foundations more impactful. Furthermore, the constraints placed on most nonprofits — such as project support funding, lack of support for overhead costs, mismatched evaluation requirements, and low levels of support for social justice efforts — too often undermine meaningful change.

My Personal Story

Nearly 30 years ago, I intentionally sought a career in the U.S. nonprofit sector. I felt certain it was my calling since it was consistent with my personal values about social justice and it provided me the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people of color like me.

I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in a neighborhood called South Linden. My neighborhood was approximately 90 percent African American and almost everyone was somewhere on the poverty spectrum. At age 14, I left home for Minnesota to attend one of the country’s top public high schools, living with a teacher and his family as part of a scholarship program. I was a good student at my schools in Ohio, but that wasn’t why I got the scholarship; I got it through a stroke of luck and a middle school teacher who shared this opportunity with my parents and then mentored us through the process.

During the years following high school, I attended an excellent undergraduate college and a top graduate program in my area of study. I took my first professional job in banking to pay back student loans, but once that was done, I went back home to become the founding director of a nonprofit providing tutoring, mentoring, and college readiness programming for youth living in the neighborhood in which I grew up. What followed over the next 25 years was a number of grantmaking leadership roles, first as part of a new federal agency during the Clinton administration and then at several foundations around the country. I also held leadership roles at two university-based centers on philanthropy and nonprofit capacity.

I tell my story here because, while I’ve enjoyed many blessings in my life both personally and professionally, I want to be clear that I am not unusually intelligent, and certainly no more worthy than members of my family or any other person who grew up in my neighborhood. The truth is that I had one of those infrequent moments of access that should be regularly available to everyone, but particularly to those who have historically been denied access.

Drawing from my experience growing up Black in America, I intentionally sought a career in philanthropy because its values appeared consistent with advancing DEI for those historically denied access. The word philanthropy literally means “love of mankind,” and its synonyms include words like benevolence, generosity, humanitarianism, altruism, social conscience, and social concern. I know this all sounds idealistic and maybe a bit naïve, but that’s what I was determined to do.

Overcoming Old Paradigms

Over the course of the next four posts in this blog series, I will point out several critical issues where I believe the philanthropic sector has been stuck in old paradigms. These issues are the sector’s common issues and prevent it from making real and substantial progress on advancing social justice and pursuing the goals it says it wants to achieve.

The inequitable power structure and underlying systems in philanthropy are, in fact, part of the same systems that were designed at our nation’s founding to enshrine power, control, and prosperity in white America. These underlying systems have undone many hard-fought efforts to create a more just and equitable society. Despite decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education and the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, America’s schools and neighborhoods remain largely segregated. In 2013, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismantling of core elements of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described an evolution of “first generation barriers to ballot access” to “second generation barriers to ballot access.”

It is not lost on me that as I write this, deeply troubling and dangerous issues of either implied or overt racism are regularly leading news headlines in America, and have been with increasing frequency since the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Various analysts suggest the President’s comments appear to be encouraging and emboldening white supremacists to bring their racist views out in the open. In fact, most Americans believe race relations in America are worse under the current administration. America is far from dealing with its issues on race, and an underlying system driving old social norms around race appears to be alive and well.

These underlying systems are both persistent and overlapping supports to a particular social norm, and philanthropy is not immune. As Gwen Walden, senior managing director of Arabella Advisors, recently wrote, “We should also accept that philanthropic efforts have frequently, in practice or effect, perpetuated and extended inequitable power structures that they should have sought to undo.” Unless these underlying systems are pulled out and replaced completely with systems that are at their core just and equitable, they will always reappear in some other place or form to maintain the power status quo. Because of this, it must become a serious priority to remove these inequitable and unjust systems from within practices in organized philanthropy — such as hiring, staff development, executive leadership development and accountability, board appointments, grantmaking, financial management, and vendor selection, just to name a few.

There are four important areas where I recommend the sector change how it conducts business: general operating support, evaluating impact, recruiting and retaining people of color, and social justice funding. Meaningful changes in these areas will help foundations and nonprofits perform at their highest levels, and also support the broader case I have made about social justice and DEI.

Organized philanthropy is uniquely positioned to play both benefactor and an important voice of the nation’s social conscience. I hope that America’s foundations will act, as a field, to ascend the moral high ground and take advantage of this unique role.

Miles Wilson is a philanthropic professional with nearly 30 years of experience supporting the U.S. social sector as well as past efforts in Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, and South Africa. He currently serves as deputy director of education grantmaking at Ascendium Education Group and wrote this piece while serving as a senior fellow during 2019 with the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.

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