As we prepare to close out 2018 and reflect upon the past year, it’s overwhelming to think about the countless crises that have erupted and disrupted communities around the country, including the growing incidence of extreme climate events, mounting wealth and income inequality, increasing urban displacement, gentrification, and families separated at the border. The rising tide of crises demonstrates the need for massive and systemic change.
Earlier this year, NPQ published an interview with Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, who posits, “The flaw is the idea that the earth is a commodity, and what we need is more production, more extraction. I think a new way of looking at our relationship to the earth is required.” Yakini later asserts, “Social movements become points of leverage—for example, the pushback against police killings. People within philanthropy are starting to see how oppression is racialized in the United States—how it connects to wealth and lack thereof. It activates people to push a bigger analysis of society—not just what we don’t want, but what we do want: policing justice, a new relationship to the economy.”
The idea that Earth is a commodity, as are certain people living on it, is expressed through the accumulation of wealth derived from extractive and exploitative practices such as the theft of Indigenous land, the genocide of Indigenous people, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of African people, and the systemic undervaluing of “women’s work.” Despite the gravity of these complex and intertwined systems of oppression, many social change endeavors have historically been based on the premise that through incremental steps, power could be built to move our society toward greater equality.
For example, social justice organizations and movements have relied on philanthropic resources for their economic survival. This is problematic because philanthropic institutions more often than not act to preserve and maintain the wealth and power that led to their founding. This cycle of dependency of social justice organizations on incremental support from philanthropy keeps organizations small and often keeps their work from being able to effectively challenge multiple systems of oppression. Meanwhile, philanthropic resources that could support systems change are invested in publicly traded companies that continue to extract wealth from the very communities that foundations support through their grants.
Unfortunately, the growing frequency and magnitude of the crises that we are experiencing suggest that at this point in history, incremental approaches will fail to adequately address the degree to which our social, economic and ecological systems are out of alignment. We need a just transition in philanthropy that redistributes wealth, democratizes power, and shifts economic control to communities. In other words, we must transform our relationship to capital and to our communities. To explore what such a transformation could look like, Justice Funders, where I serve as executive director, curated Liberate Philanthropy, a blog series to reimagine philanthropy free of its current constraints . Here are five lessons we learned:
1. The way forward for philanthropy begins by seeking greater values alignment.
Ellen Friedman of the Compton Foundation, Jennifer Astone of Swift Foundation, and Rini Banerjee of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation each described how increasing the alignment of their non-grant investments (i.e., the 95 percent of their assets that remain in the corpus of the foundation) with the social justice values of their grantmaking expanded their impact. Each demonstrated the possibility of reorienting how their philanthropic resources are managed, beginning with clarifying values and implementing practices that reflect those values.
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2. “Disrupting cycles of white supremacy will entail decolonizing the institutions that preserve the accumulation of wealth and power.”
So says Edgar Villanueva of the Schott Foundation. He continues, “We can create new ways of seeking and granting access to money. We can return balance to the world by moving money to where the hurt is worst.” The emergence of new philanthropic models, like the Buen Vivir Fund as shared by Joanna Cea Leavitt of Thousand Currents and the Fund for Democratic Communities as shared by Ed Whitfield, reflect a way forward.
3. Regenerative practices are rooted in trusting relationships among and between board members, community partners, and philanthropic peers.
Our allies at Solidaire reflected how this trust — between donors, staff, and movements — have generated both much needed Rapid Response support as well as long-term resources for the Movement for Black Lives, while simultaneously building new infrastructure to combat institutional anti-Black racism. In particular, Janis Rosheuvel and Sophie Robinson share how Solidaire does not “require applications, reporting, or site visits, but rely on ongoing trust and relationship building to create a shared sense of commitment to Black liberation. These efforts, among others, seek to liberate philanthropy by shifting the power disparities that exist between philanthropy and movements, to build trust with movements, and to enable us to move more money, more justly.”
4. The liberation of philanthropy requires that we do what is necessary for justice.
Both Vanessa Daniel of the Groundswell Fund and Jennifer Near of Shake the Foundations lift up how we have to actively choose justice and liberation rather than assuming that they are the natural outcomes of philanthropy. Near calls on philanthropy to “consciously disrupt these cycles of white supremacy and liberate our philanthropic practices in service of supporting the economic power and self-determination of indigenous, black and brown communities.”
5. Reparations, Democracy, and Power.
Aaron Tanaka at the Center for Economic Democracy suggests that solidarity philanthropy requires the following:
- Reparations. Shift funds to the communities that have been most harmed through historic extraction and explicitly resource Black and Indigenous organizations driving actual reparations campaigns. These investments must support communities to reorient their relationship to capital, control their own assets, and break dependence from the dominant, extractive economy.
- Democracy. Non-grant investments should be democratically governed by historically divested communities, where every member has an equal vote on the fund’s investment priorities, as well as loan and equity deals.
- Power. Our dignity as people, in part, is defined by our ability to self-determine our futures. Funders must recognize frontline organizing, coalition building, grassroots policy advocacy, and electoral mobilization as essential expressions of this right to participate in our own governance.
What we have learned from engaging with some of today’s most forward-thinking leaders in philanthropy is that transformation requires us to acknowledge the harm that has been done to communities through extraction and exploitation. We must bring an end to the processes and practices that reinforce existing centers of power, and instead employ practices that allow communities historically harmed through extraction and exploitation to self-govern.
In 2019, Justice Funders will be turning the ideas that have been shared in Liberate Philanthropy into a project we are calling Resonance: A Framework for Philanthropic Transformation. This is our call to action for philanthropy to advance a Just Transition toward a regenerative economy. We invite you to join us in channeling our collective energy towards what we want to manifest: a thriving and just world.