W.carter / CC BY-SA

Can the world, as it is, be reprogrammed?

If you’ve watched the Matrix movie series, you’re familiar with its exploration of an alternate reality. One famous scene is when Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is offered a choice: take a red pill that reveals an unpleasant truth—or take a blue pill and remain in blissful ignorance. Through a storyline that centers on humans as a power supply for a race of robots, Neo has an opportunity to make the choice to enter the Matrix and reprogram the world in which he lives.

This moment of the COVID-19 global pandemic has made undeniably visible that the United States is currently programmed to support an extractive capitalist economic system based, as the nonprofit Movement Generation puts it, “on the removal of wealth from communities through the depletion and degradation of natural resources, the exploitation of human labor and the accumulation of wealth.”

Daily, our news outlets tell stories of how those with means receive what they need to survive and thrive, while whole communities on the margins are experiencing disproportionate risks to their health, their financial security, and their very lives. At the same time, it’s been inspiring to see a growing number of grassroots networks that are practicing mutual aid, collective care, and community support in ways that are rooted in trust, solidarity, and collectivity.

What would it take for us to operationalize these practices to reprogram our society into one that supports a regenerative economy based on, that fosters, in Movement Generation’s words, “reflective, responsive, reciprocal relationships of interdependence between human communities and the living world”?

I direct Justice Funders, a nonprofit that supports philanthropy in reimagining practices to advance a thriving and just world. For those of us in a position to redistribute resources to frontline communities, this is a moment in which we must urgently act with moral clarity and choose which side of history we want to be on.

In previous crises, high net worth donors and philanthropic institutions chose to uphold the systems of oppression and economic structures from which they benefit, driving the extreme inequities that we witness today.

The question before all of us in philanthropy right now is this: Are we ready to take the “red pill” to squarely face and address the unpleasant truth that our field has played a significant role in the extractive economy?

For example:

  1. Like all other forms of wealth in the US, philanthropic wealth can be traced back to industries that relied on economic practices of extraction and exploitation, such as the theft of Indigenous land and genocide of Indigenous people, the kidnapping and enslavement of African people, the systemic undervaluing of “women’s work,” and the destruction of natural systems and the web of life.
  2. Due to tax loopholes that allow foundations to earn more in interest from market investments than they are required to disburse in grants, foundations as tax shelters for the wealthy are able to exist in perpetuity.
  3. The vast majority of a philanthropic institution’s assets—generally 95 percent—are invested in speculative markets and publicly-traded investments in order to endlessly accumulate wealth, regardless of the social, economic, and environmental harms caused by these investments.
  4. With a few exceptions, the majority of foundation grantmaking supports incrementalism instead of systems change, exhibited by a five-percent payout rate (which interprets the legally required minimum as the ceiling, rather than the floor), restricted project based grants (rather than general operating support), and one-year grants (versus multi-year commitments), to name a few.

As a philanthropic community, we have a moral obligation to recognize and reconcile how our institutions and field have contributed to building and reinforcing the extractive economy. While it was the tax policies of the twentieth century that initially shaped this field and its practices of accumulating and privatizing wealth and power, individuals and institutions have since made their own choices to institutionalize practices that are misaligned with their values, missions and primary objectives.

Aligning our practices with our values means that capital, rather than being accumulated by individuals and institutions, must support the collective capacity of communities most impacted by economic injustice to produce for themselves, give to and invest directly in what their communities need, and reinvest the returns for themselves. It means collective well-being must be prioritized over the wealth and power of a few.

It means philanthropy must reorient from a “charity” approach, which perpetuates power dynamics between givers and receivers without tackling root causes of injustice, to actively shift management and control of financial resources to the communities most harmed by wealth accumulation and the extractive economy.

Justice Funders has long urged philanthropy to take a transformative role in building a thriving and just world by redistributing wealth, democratizing power, and shifting economic control to communities. In Resonance: A Framework for Philanthropic Transformation, Justice Funders and the Resonance Collaborative, a group of movement and philanthropic leaders, assert the following:

Until recently, social change philanthropy—at its best—was still based on the premise that through incremental steps, power could be built and shifted to move our society towards equity and justice. At this point in history, incremental approaches have no reasonable chance of addressing the scale of crisis we face. Only transformational approaches rooted in strategies with the potential to advance exponential change can put us on a path towards justice and liberation. Philanthropy is a key sector in our society where we can choose to redeploy resources boldly and dramatically in service of a future where all of us can thrive.

Regardless of the laws and regulations governing philanthropy, individual organizations can deploy their resources more cooperatively, restoratively, and regeneratively. Here are some ways to begin.

1. Transform our underlying approach to philanthropy by centering justice in how grantmaking is done and what is funded.

Philanthropy must certainly fund the immediate work of ameliorating the d