“I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids-and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Last summer, I read with interest a slew of articles critiquing the philanthropic sector and calling for large-scale change.
Wrote Peter Buffett, son of Warren, in an op-ed the New York Times: “People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem…over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.” Buffet went on to describe how; despite the fact that until 2006 when his father handed him the reins of a foundation, he had little experience or knowledge of “the world of philanthropy as practiced by the very wealthy”; his lineage gave him entrée into the most upper-crust of philanthropic circles. He calls some of what he discovered there ‘damaging’, noting that in rooms where heads of state, finance power-players, and corporate leaders get together to wrestle with the important social issues of our time, including inequality, the focus is too often on what Albert Einstein famously warned against: trying to solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it.
Author Courtney Martin expanded upon these ideas in Al Jazeera America. The problem with philanthropy, she argued, is that solutions to wicked problems like poverty are sought in conference rooms in ‘the abstract’ with thought partners who “have little experience of the problems poverty creates-while real, poor people continue to innovate, organize and fight for their own dignity, each and every day.” So, philanthropy and the people that the field endeavors to serve operate on two deeply disconnected planes of reality.
Around the same time that these stories, and many others in response to Buffett’s op-ed, were released, events of national significance such as the Trayvon Martin case and the 50th Anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech sparked a robust national conversation about issues of race, equity, and inclusion. Living Cities brought this conversation ‘home’ as staff committed ourselves to think about and engage (with each other and others in our networks) around how these issues intersect with the lives of low-income people in US cities, and therefore necessarily, with our work that aims to expand economic opportunity for these communities.
Now, we are embarking on a long-term organizational learning and change process aimed at intentionally embedding a racial equity and inclusion lens across our entire portfolio—acknowledging that our ability to effect lasting and meaningful change requires us to better understand current realities and barriers.In my mind, the critique of philanthropy presented by Buffett, Martin and others, and the questions that Living Cities is grappling with through this change process are intensely related.
I worked, for a time, in ‘direct service’, meaning that every day I said good morning to the people that my organization served. I answered their questions; I asked them about their families; I was connected to them, and to their lives, in a way that was immediate and tangible. I found satisfaction and meaning in that, and I learned a great deal from the people I met, but I also began to feel frustration and disillusionment with the growing belief that the need for such service was seemingly without end. Every evening I said goodnight, and every day I said good morning again. Poverty did not, even for a single individual who walked through the door, go away. The burdens that it brought could be eased slightly, some of its weight lifted momentarily, but the ‘wins’ were small and fleeting.
Conversely, the mission of Living Cities, where I currently work, is one of large-scale systems change. What will it take; we ask ourselves; to reverse growing income inequality and disparate outcomes in education, employment, mobility, health and housing? What will it take; I ask myself often; to make it so that everyone can dream of a better life at night and truly believe that dream attainable when the sun comes up? I relish this big-picture thinking, just as I relished connecting to people on a personal level. Yet, I believe that when you work ‘further from the ground,’ it is important to be diligent about holding those that we serve close, even if our connection to them is less tangible, less personal. While we push ourselves to do that at Living Cities, and I know that many others in the field do as well, there is always room to push ourselves further, particularly considering what is at stake.
I am not necessarily making an argument for a philanthropic sector that is ‘closer to the ground’. In terms of what works, there is very, very little that I know for certain. What I have is a messy collection of hunches, of insights, of data, and of experiences--my own and those of others with far more experience than me. Together, these elements are like the many small pieces of a giant puzzle for which the box has been lost so that, although I have begun to fit some of the pieces together, I have no idea what picture they will eventually reveal. I do believe that there is ultimately a need for the type of work that I used to do, the type of work that I do now, and many other types of work between and beyond.
However, I can’t help but wonder, particularly in this hyperconnected world where engagement and conversation with nearly anyone on earth is, through technology, possible: What would happen if we better connected the two planes described by Martin (that occupied by philanthropy and that occupied by the communities we serve) with a system of ‘bridges and tunnels’?
I am not alone in raising this question. Many leaders, particularly in the public sector innovation space, are harnessing technology and other tools to better connect to constituents. Could philanthropy benefit from these types of efforts? At Living Cities, a group of staff are in regular conversation (largely informal at this stage) with each other and other emerging practitioners in philanthropy to begin to think collectively about what this system could look like, and how the field might build it. I’m certain that these types of conversations are happening elsewhere too. I would love to hear about them and to work together to build a vibrant dialogue.
Ultimately, critique can be a great force for good, particularly if it drives people and institutions to strive to do better. Too often, and for too many, poor people are, in many ways, invisible. This cannot be the case for philanthropy, or for the broader social sector. No matter how far we work from the ground, we must continuously ask, as Martin similarly urges, who isn’t in the ‘room’ and how does their absence (or invisibility) stand in the way of our ability to move the needle on the issues that we care about? And, further, how can we create more inclusive philanthropy?
Nadia Owusu is Senior Associate for Knowledge and Organizational Development at Living Cities, a Collaborative of 22 foundations and financial services companies working to improve cities and the lives of their low-income residents.
This blog originally appeared on Living Cities' blog, The Catalyst