Just 12 days ago, our five-person staff at the MRG Foundation began working remotely, and I began my morning by sending out an email to local funding colleagues about coordinating a response and creating a pooled fund rooted in racial and economic justice. Many were in the beginning phases of pushing their workforces toward home, and the pace of what was happening around us began to quicken exponentially.
By 9 am the following morning, our board was voting on a memo that would establish our own path, apart from some of the funders we had been in conversation with not 24 hours prior. Here is the story of what fell apart; it’s a cautionary tale the philanthropic sector needs to hear.
For over four decades, we have been funding grassroots groups, many that don’t even have 501c3 status, that focus only on social, racial, economic, and environmental justice—something most large funders are just beginning to “explore,” “learn,” “research,” and write statements about. Ultimately, this means they are weighing whether or not equity, diversity, and inclusion is something they actually want to do. Hey, I’ve been there: a part of a well-resourced, predominantly white institution, the kind that benefits from maintaining social hierarchies, so they can maintain power and money into perpetuity. It’s not easy, and it’s why I left.
Here’s the thing that makes this crisis different, and what every funder with access to significant wealth needs to know: now is the time your commitments to equity and diversity—better said, your commitment to justice—will be tested.
This is a global pandemic. If we keep doing work in philanthropy the way we have been, we will be complicit in the death of the most vulnerable. The triple threat of this crisis—the virus itself; the lost wages, missed meals, and lost jobs and housing during social distancing; and the economic downturn during and after the outbreak—will hit the communities that social justice organizations serve first and hardest.
Because the living legacies of oppression are baked into our social, economic, and political systems, we know that the folks most affected by the crisis are more likely to be Black, brown, Native, and especially folks who are part of our Asian and Pacific Islander communities. To be immigrant, refugee, or undocumented. To be among those who are incarcerated. To be women, trans, or gender-nonconforming. To be poor. To be disabled.
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So, when my email thread with some larger funders fell silent on March 13th, we pivoted and refined our approach. I stayed up until midnight, then woke up at 5 am the next morning to write and refine a memo to our board proposing that we liquidate 30 percent of our operating reserves, which is $300,000. We had been left out of conversations I thought we were a part of leading, and I know it wasn’t by accident.
We are not entirely alone. I want to lift up our sibling foundations—the Social Justice Fund and The Women’s Foundation of Oregon—for responding quickly and being guided by a vision of justice. Additionally, both the Seattle Foundation and Group Health Foundation are two larger funders that are similarly motivated. But it still feels lonely out there; many other response funds have been created and coordinated, but do they center equity and justice?
So, rather than stay quiet, I wrote an expanded group of the same funders and expressed my disappointment, while also reiterating that we would like to remain involved and not just informed. Many reached out and apologized and are now partnering with us, but there are some who remain distant. And when I proposed to an employee of one foundation two days ago moving just 10 percent of their wealth, they laughed at me. It is hard not to feel insulted. Listen, I see the poorest elders in my own tribal communities giving and sharing all the wealth they have in the world right now, the only food left in their fridge, with neighbors less fortunate.
We can’t afford another outcome like we had in the Great Recession. We clearly need a different strategy. We need to ask ourselves: what are we willing to sacrifice when so many lives and livelihoods are at stake?
Friends, it’s time. Time to put your money—and I mean a good chunk of it, where you say your values are—into equity and justice. Why? Because this is the moment that will define us, and those of us who fight on behalf of the communities we serve, and of which we are a part, will remember. We will remember your choice today.