Teal & Fuschia. Via Calle Norzagaray. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico,” by Ian D. Keating

March 10, 2018; El Nuevo Día

Last weekend, the Puerto Rico newspaper El Nuevo Dia ran a story with the headline, “US Foundations will invest in Puerto Rico.” It features the work of the Network of Foundations of Puerto Rico, about which I wrote extensively in the special series on Puerto Rico NPQ just completed. In it, I compare the Network’s equity-neutral approach to the equity-focused one of the Puerto Rico Community Foundation.

In this recent El Nuevo Dia article, Ana Teresa Toro quotes Xavier de Souza Briggs, vice president of Economic Opportunity and Markets at Ford Foundation, as saying, “We want to accompany the reconstruction of Puerto Rico in the institutional and social sense, not only physical, and share our knowledge, our global networks and also mobilize other foundations to be part of the long term and not only of recovery, but of growth.”

Okay, so far so good; US foundations should be funding Puerto Rico. Not only is it part of the US, but it has some of the highest rates of almost any social challenge US foundations address, and it’s great that de Souza Briggs wants to share what Ford has learned as well. It’s what de Souza Briggs says next that is problematic: “The Puerto Rican foundations are the ones that will make the decisions….Here is a window of opportunity for a sustainable reconstruction; we want to have a more innovative, more strategic role.”

And, according to Toro, Jerry Maldonado, a program officer in Ford’s Equitable Development program who is also of Puerto Rican origin, says he will “bet on the successful models that the Third Sector has established on the island…the vision has to get out of here, the agenda has to be determined here, that is the commitment with the island.”

Ford has identified fighting inequality as “the defining challenge of our time.” Further, it commits to it when it writes, “Addressing inequality is at the center of everything we do.”

Other US foundations seeking to fund Puerto Rico may be following the same script, but Ford is big and influential, so what they say and do can set a norm. So, we think it’s worth highlighting the tension that exists in the space between words and action. Where does the imagining of the passing of the decision-making to Puerto Rico end? Does it end with a network of foundations because they are local, even if they do not commit to equity when your purpose is equity? Or does it end with the people of Puerto Rico? And how does any tension between the communities and foundation get identified and resolved?

These are not new questions for philanthropy, but they are vitally important. In the same El Nuevo Dia article, Frankie Miranda, senior vice president at the Hispanic [sic] Federation, says, “From my perspective, the most impressive thing is that in many cases the progress is very uneven. In certain parts of the metropolitan area there is a recovery that does not compare with areas such as Yabucoa or Punta Santiago.” As NPQ readers may recall from my recent stories on Crearte in Yabucoa and PECES in Punta Santiago, Hurricane Maria entered the island through these two municipalities and they were among the hardest hit.

Further, the disparity in the effects of the hurricane are themselves in large part the result of racial and economic inequality on the island and between it and the US. As Mike Soto, founder and President of the Puerto Rico’s Center for a New Economy told NPQ recently, “There’s no way you can do an effort like this and not take into account the high levels of inequality.” But this is exactly what can happen when you don’t get beyond the mediating structures of foundations.

Finally, here’s what Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said recently at a commencement address at John Hopkins University, which is quoted in the foreword of Ford’s recent report, “Participatory Grantmaking: Has Its Time Come?

“There is no better…defender of the vulnerable than civil society: committed, compassionate, engaged citizens organizing themselves—and mobilizing others—to work on behalf of others.” Such self-organizing and mobilization are central to disrupting inequality, which lies at the heart of our work.

The report goes on…

While this paper has been in the works for some time, it seems especially timely in the current moment. As [author and consultant Cynthia Gibson] notes in the Introduction, we are seeing “heightened demand for greater accountability and transparency” as people become “more distrustful of established institutions,” including foundations themselves.

So, the current moment before the Ford Foundation is important: Consideration of this question could lead to grantmaking that’s qualitatively different. We expect and hope that this will not be its last investment in Puerto Rico, so how this money is distributed—and how the communities are involved in those decisions—could mean a great deal to already mobilized communities and the sustainability of the island as a whole.—Cyndi Suarez