Taking Down the Ivory Tower a Brick at a Time

Lori Bartczak

This post originally appeared on the Community Wealth Partners blog.

As Grant Oliphant of the Heinz Endowments kicked off the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s 2019 conference, he reminded us of the seriousness of the time we’re in — increasing income inequality, a climate crisis that is quickly approaching, and a rise in xenophobia and hate. I felt fear and hopelessness take grip in me — feelings that have become increasingly familiar the past few years. I looked around the ballroom at my philanthropic colleagues, thought about the vast amounts of money, knowledge, and talent this group represents, and wondered, “What difference are we making?”

As I sat there, I reflected on the dozens of philanthropic conferences I’ve been to over nearly two decades (many of which I was responsible for in my former job) and how much seems to have stayed the same. There were a lot of familiar faces in the room and a lot of familiar questions up for discussion — should philanthropy be more regulated? Should foundations live in perpetuity? Is philanthropy a force for social good or a vanity project for the wealthy?

I believe in the power of learning together to drive changes in practice. Yet despite all this earnest discussion in hotel ballrooms over plated chicken lunches, data show that much of what we tout as good practice is not taking hold. There continues to be a lack of diversity in foundation leadership. And no matter how many conference sessions end with rallying cries for increased general operating support, the proportion of unrestricted grant dollars has held steady at a paltry 20 percent.

With all this in mind, I went back to my hotel room after the first day of the conference feeling discouraged about philanthropy’s willingness and ability to change. But the next two days reenergized me. From conversations with colleagues and stories shared in sessions, I saw many bright spots that suggest to me that the philanthropic sector has indeed evolved since I first stepped into this space. Early in my career I often heard references to philanthropy as an “ivory tower.” But there are places where the ivory tower seems to be coming down, even if it’s one brick at a time.

What most inspired me were the stories of grantmakers sharing power and deepening relationships with communities and grantees and the many ways this can take form.

  • For the Marguerite Casey Foundation, sharing power means ensuring the foundation’s staff is representative of the people and communities the foundation serves, inviting grantees to serve on the board, and being intentional about leading from behind (for example, using the foundation’s communications platform to lift up the work of grantees).
  • The Headwaters Foundation of Montana shows they trust that nonprofits know best what they need by offering general operating support grants with no proposals or reports required and granting approval within 24 hours.
  • When St. David’s Foundation of Austin, TX, deepened relationships with rural communities, the staff learned of needs in the community that weren’t showing up in data, and the foundation prioritized what it heard from communities over what the data showed.
  • The performing arts program of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation recently ran its first participatory grantmaking cycle — ceding grantmaking decision-making power to a committee of eight Bay Area arts nonprofit leaders and two Hewlett staff. The nonprofit leaders on the committee were chosen for their histories as equity, inclusion, and diversity thought leaders who have designed and implemented equity-based policies and procedures at their organizations.
  • As a way of staying accountable to the community it serves, the first question the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations asks grant applicants is, “Who informed the work?”

To me, these stories show what philanthropy can be at its best. It’s inspiring to see the ways in which some foundations are rethinking their power and privilege to better serve their communities. As grantmakers deepen relationships with grantees and communities and gain greater understanding of their needs, I expect we will see broader changes in practices such as hiring staff that reflect the communities served and giving more unrestricted support.

And yet, there is always more work to do. We must continue to find ways to bridge gaps in perspective and power between foundations and the communities we serve so that giving can be more effective. At the conference, we received a reminder of this from board members of Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (Renters United for Justice). I hope more of us follow the wise advice of activist Tecara Ayler:

“Door knock and engage. Come see us in our houses. You can’t help us if you don’t know us.”

Lori Bartczak is senior director of knowledge and content at Community Wealth Partners. Follow her on Twitter at @lbartczak.

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