How Will Philanthropy Respond to the Call?

Crystal Hayling

“This is 9-1-1, may I have your name and your emergency?”

“My house is on fire! 234 Maple Drive. Please send the fire trucks!”

“Can you please describe your house?”

“What? OK, it’s a green house on the corner.”

“Can you tell me the square footage?”

“What? What difference does that make? Uh, OK it’s about 2,000 square feet. But please send the fire department now, it’s burning down!”

“What evidence can you provide that the fire is causing the destruction? What studies support your belief that water would address the problem?”

Some days, that’s what it feels like when nonprofits contact foundations. An immediate need and urgent request is met with modulated emotion and pre-set questions. This, Bryan Stevenson warned us in his opening remarks at the 2017 CEP Conference a few weeks ago, is why we need to get proximate. Sometimes, to hear the real story and understand the contours of a situation, we must be close. Our heart needs to be beating fast, too. Our breath needs to catch.

Listening — seemingly the simplest of acts — isn’t really so simple at all.  Doug Stone, author of Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback, talked at the conference about the three conversations actually happening during every conversation: 1) what happened, 2) how do I feel about what happened, and 3) how does what happened support or assault my sense of identity? This is true not only when we are seeking feedback, but also when we are seeking data and facts.

Economist Raj Chetty later shared insights from his big data analysis of U.S. economic mobility, which paints an abysmal picture of declining opportunity for low-income Americans. In short, the American Dream, as defined by the chance of moving from pauper to prince — from lowest income to highest income group — is currently two times greater in Canada than it is in America.

It was heartening, though, to hear the finding from CEP’s recent research that shows it is possible for us to get better at listening, and also to change our priorities based on what we hear. Foundation executives surveyed for the study last year identified wealth and inequality as the most pressing issue that will influence society and foundation philanthropy in the coming decades.

What remains to be seen is whether the other calls to action so movingly described at the conference by both Stevenson and playwright and performer Sarah Jones, whose extraordinary performance was a perfect diorama of class and culture clashes at a family foundation board/grantee meeting, will also be listened to: equity cannot be achieved without confronting historic and systemic racism. As Vu Le remarked in his inimitable dry brilliance in a panel on different perspectives on philanthropy’s influence, “It’s like philanthropy is married to inequality but sometimes goes out and flirts with equity.”

Civil society has led the massive response to the alarming assaults on democracy and our nation’s highest aspirational values. Nonprofits are on the frontlines in communities across the country. How will philanthropy get proximate, listen, and respond to these communities’ 9-1-1 call? 

Crystal Hayling is the managing director for the Environment Leaders Fellowship and senior advisor to the Aspen Philanthropy and Society Program at the Aspen Institute. She is also a member of the CEP Board of Directors. Follow her on Twitter at @CHayling.

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