What Must Be Sacrificed in Times of Crisis

Leaha Wynn

This post first appeared on the Alliance magazine blog.

For centuries, philanthropy has aided society during times of crisis. At the United Philanthropy Forum’s 2020 Annual Conference (virtually, this year), the ways philanthropy has mobilized to address the COVID-19 crisis was (unsurprisingly) a central theme. In the past several months, philanthropy has grappled with shifting in ways it never considered to adapt to the novel challenges presented by the pandemic.

On top of the virus, the outcry to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others has prompted dozens of U.S. cities to name racism a public health crisis. But reactions to this crisis have been different. There are statements of solidarity and commitments to learning, but commitment to action has been slower. With the understanding that racism, like COVID-19, is actively harming our communities, what can philanthropy take from the lessons learned of the pandemic response and apply to its efforts to confront and tear down racism?

COVID-19 has necessitated transitions (from the workplace to the classroom) that are difficult to navigate — and successes thus far have surely been inconsistent. One of the biggest challenges during COVID-19 has been many people’s individualistic decision to refuse to wear masks and take social distance precautions seriously despite doctors’ and experts’ advice. This is likely an example of the endowment effect bias: the instinct to inflate the value of what we have over what we’d be willing to sacrifice for it. Even in a global crisis, so many are fueled to behave in their perceived self-interest rather than sacrifice something seemingly small (their comfort and convenience) in service of public safety.

For philanthropy, it’s important to understand and account for how the willingness to make sacrifices will impact efforts to address the crisis of racism as well. During his keynote at The Forum conference, How to Be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi discussed his analogy likening racism to cancer. Kendi argues that we can learn from how we treat cancer to conceptualize the treatment of racism — as needing both local and structural extraction. Treating cancer requires sacrifice. When you choose to treat cancer, you face potential surgeries (and their risks) and painful chemotherapy, and you allocate time and resources away from your family and other priorities because the alternatives are too dire to consider.

So, what might philanthropy need to ‘sacrifice’ to address racism?

In short, power. Many speakers at the conference emphasized the need for philanthropy to embrace trust and to share and build power with impacted communities, those with lived experience, and those most proximate to the ground (i.e. community-based organizations). Organizations should embrace general operating support and engage practices highlighted in NCRP’s Power Moves.

In one session, former and current executive directors of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, Luz Vega-Marquis and Carmen Rojas, emphasized that many suffer needlessly due to bureaucratic processes or leaders waiting to get comfortable with taking action. In exploring the crucial question, ‘Who are we moving slowly for?’ Rojas argued that, overwhelmingly, it’s for people who hold power but are not willing to cede decision-making about deploying resources to communities and other stakeholders who understand the needs best. Vega-Marquis noted that ‘requiring people to ask for everything…creates an environment of a salmon swimming upstream.’

In philanthropy’s response to COVID-19, it has quickly become clear that a certain amount of transformation is necessary to address the crisis. Just like COVID-19, racism is plaguing our communities, and the action necessary to alleviate the suffering it is causing cannot wait. This transformation will require sacrifice, but the alternatives are too dire to consider.

Leaha Wynn is manager, people and culture; diversity and inclusion strategist at CEP.

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