The Fierce Urgency of Now: Delivering Lasting Change Through Radical Accountability

Kimberlin Butler

The last few years (and beyond) were incredibly difficult for leaders of color. Amid a pandemic that has exacerbated inequities, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and 10 Black people in Buffalo reminded us of the reality of racism permeating everyday life in America. United States Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to Congress from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, said it best when she observed, “We are managing a pandemic within a pandemic. Police brutality is a scourge, it is a pandemic. The pre-existing condition before COVID, and it still exists, is racism.” Foundations and their partners have employees mourning the lives of those lost and sitting with these injustices. These events shook our organizations at their core. At the onset of the pandemic, Mathematica joined the more than 800 foundations in signing the Council on Foundations pledge, “A Call to Action: Philanthropy’s Commitment During Covid-19.” It was important for us to listen deeply to partners and leverage data to inform public discourse, policy decision-making, and grantmaking across the philanthropic ecosystem.

As a former educator, grantmaker, leader of three national funder networks, and advisor to two U.S. secretaries of education on philanthropic alignment with experience deeply engaging communities, I currently serve in a bridge-building role between research and philanthropy as senior director of foundation engagement at Mathematica. Because foundations are in different places along the spectrum of understanding the power of research to orient their knowledge of the issues affecting their grantees and communities, my leadership role in advancing our philanthropic practice has involved ensuring that my colleagues understand the complex social challenges plaguing underserved communities. Given my lived experience, I’m a trusted advisor to foundations seeking to engage in deeper learning as a partner to grantees and communities.

In responding to the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) report Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change? I am compelled to reflect on this defining moment in philanthropy from these perspectives. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he described a “fierce urgency of now,” reminding a divided nation that we need each other, and that we are stronger when we make progress together. Dr. King’s words still ring true. The future is now, and the philanthropic sector is well-poised to deliver on the promise of sustainable change amid the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice in close partnership with grantees through equity-focused investments and evidence-informed grantmaking.

Based on my experience as an educator, public servant, and advisor to foundations, I offer my recommendations for how the philanthropic field can practice radical accountability — a cornerstone of the evidence-informed grantmaking framework — to make a lasting impact. Evidence-informed grantmaking is an equity-centered strategic framework that leverages data — partnering authentically to deeply understand community context and complexities — to guide grantmaking strategies. It facilitates a process of learning at every stage of a foundation’s grantmaking cycle, both pre- and post-investment. I offer three strategies to engage in the practice of evidence-informed grantmaking grounded in equity, catalyzing lasting change in partnership with grantees most proximate to challenges to ensure deeper impact.

Engage Equity-Centered Research Partners

Given that structural inequities cannot be tackled in a vacuum, philanthropy should engage research partners that practice equitable evaluation, ensuring multicultural validity, and trust those most proximate to social challenges. This requires a way of being and doing; it is heart work just as much as it is hard work. In a recent Mathematica podcast, “How and Why Foundations Push to Advance Equity Through Evidence,” I join Mindelyn Anderson, founder of Mirror Group, to reflect on the importance of such culturally responsive research.

Furthermore, in our best efforts to sustain successful change after making shifts in practice, including the findings in the CEP report such as grantmaking flexibility, explicitly centering race (internally and externally), and diversifying our boards, the key to making an indelible mark is radical accountability. Partnering with researchers and communities to uncover root causes of inequities to co-create aspirational outcomes moves the philanthropic sector beyond the performative and invites authenticity that yields deeper impact.

Build Bridges — and Community

Drawing inspiration from Dr. King as a drum major for justice, foundations should seek to build beloved communities through deep equity. As a Black woman who is often the only one in white-dominant rooms, I consider myself a cross-sector bridge-builder for social change and, as an equity-centered facilitative leader, I seized a leadership window to engage more than 300 Mathematica staff and research teams in an Equity Community of Practice to guide our existing research and evaluation approaches in service of equity-focused grantmaking and policymaking. Over the course 18 months, we centered three goals: 1) internalize an equity results process and identify the culture change required to partner with foundations, nonprofits, and government; 2) build the “muscle” and capacity to continuously incorporate a set of equity principles; and 3) identify partnerships and collaborations across internal teams and externally for achieving the vision and commitment to equity. This community developed an equity guide used to build reflective practice across research teams and ensure that equitable evidence is generated and used to authentically inform philanthropic practice, strategy, and board decisions.

Similarly, foundations should leverage data (qualitative and quantitative) to understand the complexities of communities and target investments while building bridges across communities to address inequitable systems. Data has a heartbeat; the evidence mirrors real people and communities who should be valued as experts in driving lasting change. Philanthropy should be intentional and build communities of practice to dedicate focused attention to shifts needed in foundations, centering equity across programmatic investments. This requires understanding that relationships move at the speed of trust. Our work to ensure lasting change is about return on relationships (ROR) over return on investments (ROI). The nexus of research, cross-sector partnership, practice, and community voice should be at the core of grantmaking strategies.

Model Empathy and Reflective Practice

In philanthropy, radical accountability requires an intentional focus on actions that are inconsistent with organizational core values and practices; this action inconsistency can become a major point of contention and be psychologically painful and exhausting for staff of color and marginalized communities engaged in the foundation’s strategy. In unpacking Chris Lebron’s “Thoughts on Racial Democratic Education and Moral Virtue,” I believe there are multiple roles foundations can play, including introducing the conceptual framework of imagination to create systems change, building the “perpetual capacity” of nonprofit leaders, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to understand what it is like to exist as a Black person (or to come from other marginalized communities) in America and abroad. This framework to improve systems requires looking beyond historical data to surface inequality and building empathy in leaders willing to create a resonant microculture. This focus inspired my recommendation to develop an equity guide and invite researchers to build reflective practice while serving as learning partners to philanthropy to generate equitable outcomes.

Foundations can leverage their convening power to facilitate shared learning, make sense of data to guide new theories of philanthropy, and amplify strategies for more equity-focused programmatic investments, as modeled in an equity-focused cross-sector collaborative convening in Denver. For example, funders can iteratively listen to grantees and restructure existing grantmaking programs to reimagine communities and systems while partnering to create the conditions that eliminate disparities and close opportunity gaps. Philanthropy should step into a role that models action consistency to build trust with community and grantee partners.

The pandemic opened new doors for foundations to move from response, recovery, and resiliency to radical accountability. The field offered a response through COVID-19 RFPs and moved to recovery as communities focused on recovering from critical economic and social losses as lives were mourned. Our communities of color remain resilient, even in the face of racial injustice and harm. What happens next requires radical accountability across the philanthropic sector to sustain transformative change and build the “beloved community” Dr. King envisioned. It requires a mirror looking inwardly at our organizational practices — and how we show up individually — to partner authentically with communities and people most proximate to the issues. It requires being uncomfortable and leaning into growth to ensure lasting change.

History has a way of repeating itself. How will we meet this historic moment this time? What opportunities might these unjust racial events present to deepen our investments and impact externally? Will what we promise in our grantmaking strategies match the lived experiences of grantees and communities? We must truly believe Dr. King’s words that we are “inextricably bound in a mutual garment of destiny” and it is within our reach to change the course of history given the fierce urgency of now. Lasting change is possible only through radical accountability. Today is different from yesterday. Tomorrow will be different again, only if we sustain transformative change in philanthropy right now.

Kimberlin Butler, MPA, is senior director of foundation engagement at Mathematica. She is currently pursuing a doctorate of educational and organizational leadership at the University of Pennsylvania. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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