Time for us to go beyond grants if we are serious about real change.
Another set of stairs. Another doorbell. Another potentially emotional conversation with a neighbor to see if they, like so many others during the Foreclosure Crisis, were on the brink of losing their home. In the fall of 2009, I joined a team working to keep people out of foreclosure in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the hardest hit cities in the country. Grand Rapids, like many post-industrial cities, had been plagued by economic decline in the years before, devastating segregation, and was holding the title of the second-worst city for African Americans to financially excel. It was a bleak time, especially for those already on the edge who couldn't stand for the little they had built to be stripped away. And here I was, standing on another porch of a homeowner potentially on the verge of losing it all.
The resources of any single philanthropy will not, in fact, solve the world’s problems. We must not only collaborate, but also organize!
Down the street a family had been forcefully evicted with all their belongings in the front lawn. Come the weekend, another moving truck would likely take a family away and cut another tear into the fabric of this tight knit community. The numerous families I spoke with in the neighborhood, more often families of color, did not any have options except literal homelessness. They had been preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders, purchasing their home under shaky circumstances. They were anxious about uprooting their children and not sure where to go. Even as I stood on their porch armed with information about their legal rights and direct access to those who could potentially help, I was miles away from standing in their shoes.
But as this avalanche fell house by house, block by block, causing devastation and loss of wealth, I was ever more impressed by the resolve of the folks I met along the way. They were facing insurmountable challenges. When others would have crumbled, they had power. They showed up to community meetings to demand changes in the laws that protected people such as themselves.
Their power kept me energized and inspired to act. From these neighbors, I learned to find inspiration in the despair, to celebrate the small wins, and, most importantly, the power of galvanizing a community to be the change they wish to see. They had no other choice but to fight back. They lost sometimes, but they also won. And they won big! They organized to save families. They organized to hold those with power accountable for their actions. Neighbors tended to the house next door after a family was evicted. They changed policies and helped stem the tide of one of the most extractive moments in the history of our political economy.
I now stand at a similar moment of inspiration. Recognizing the great opportunity and responsibility that we have in philanthropy, I am calling us to act with the same urgency and momentum of those homeowners organizing to stop foreclosures in their neighborhood. This moment is calling us to move beyond our comfort zones, take risks, and act in bold ways. I believe those with the privilege to influence the flow of resources to finance social change have a responsibility to act in the best interest of the communities for which we profess to care so deeply.
The act of moving looks different for each person in philanthropy. I’d like to suggest that making good, thoughtful grants is only half our job. The other half of our great responsibility as grantmakers is attempting to bring order to the structural chaos which plagues this sector. Philanthropy is structurally de-incentivized to truly collaborate and align, while the calls from the field and this current political moment requires us to be in better partnership. The resources of any single philanthropy will not, in fact, solve the world’s problems. We must not only collaborate, but also organize!
Organizing people, dollars, and influence is gravely important so that this work - that of our nonprofit partners and the resources that support it - has an arc that bends towards justice. Grantees need more philanthro-organizers willing to convene other grantmakers, influence the sector, and showcase how to do this work differently and more effectively. We all have a role in the inside - outside game of philanthropy. I am calling those in the philanthropic sector to step into leadership to influence bringing your colleagues along as we all seek to be more responsive to the nonprofit field.
For those philanthro-organizers currently making it happen, this is a moment to stay resolute, motivated, and energized. It’s a moment for us to turn anxiety and despair into inspiration. As organizers, this is our superpower. In communities that are plagued with challenges, we rally for the cause and fight back. In conferences, writings, and the personal conversations that ground this work, I am feeling the growing angst as we organize to push the boundaries of the sector while others want to retreat. Now is the time to get fierce, get organized, stand in better collaboration, and play the long game.
For homeowners in Michigan, their strength gives me strength – gives us all strength. It gives us courage and inspiration to make real, structural change. It shows if they can show resistance to protect their communities, we as grantmakers can work better together and in deeper alignment. If they are bold, we need to be equally as bold.
So, how can you step up? How can you find your voice in this moment? Consider taking these first steps:
Know You Have A Voice: No matter your pathway to this work, you do belong here in this moment. Each person has a purpose and brings a set of experiences unique to only your journey. That gives you voice and perspective that many are craving.
Take Small Risks to Develop Your Agency: Taking risk and leaning into vulnerability can be scary, especially with uncompromising internal organizational dynamics. Find ways and spaces for you to test your voice and push the work further. It could be in partnership with a grantee or within the tasks of your job, but start small and feel confident that it can lead to a big difference.
Being Bold is Hot: I have witnessed numerous individuals grow into their leadership and can say, without a doubt, that being innovative, creative, and bold is attractive. People are drawn to leaders that embrace their vulnerability and step out. Let people see what you’re working with!
Building a community of allies within and across institutions is incredibly important. Self-care, reflection, and introspection are ever more critical. It is likely that many around you are asking these questions and are ready to engage. Organizer is a role for all of us in this work and I invite you to seize the title.
“If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tyler Nickerson serves as Co-Chair of EPIP DC and Director of Investments and State Strategy at The Solutions Project. Previously, Nickerson managed capacity-building efforts at the Dyer-Ives Foundation and founded Motu Communications, which supported philanthropic clients in strategic communications, public affairs, program design, and evaluation.