EPIP Philly Discusses Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva

Ever read a book about philanthropy and wonder who you can call to discuss? This March, EPIP Philly launched our new quarterly book club to bring together EPIP Philly members and others in the world of philanthropy to discuss the hottest new philanthropic reads. We started with Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva, which came out this past October and gives a provocative look at the dysfunctional colonial dynamics in philanthropy. Haven’t read the book? Check out this article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Edgar Villanueva for an overview of the key concepts, including his seven steps towards healing.

Philanthropy doesn’t actually want to change the world, it just wants to show it cares.

Philanthropy is all virtue signaling without actual meaningful action.

Philanthropy promotes savior complexes in those who feel the guilt of privilege but does nothing to tackle the real issues.

Philanthropy is reactive, not proactive - it only responds when its reputation is threatened. In the world of power and money, image is always more important than impact.

These statements may sound harsh, but they were just some of the observations about philanthropy at its worst that came up during our Decolonizing Wealth conversation. And while these themes are present in Edgar Villanueva’s writing, all of the above beliefs came directly from the experiences and observations of the participants in our discussion.

What does that mean for people working in or interested in philanthropy? In the words of one participant, “it’s still worth rolling that stone uphill.” As frustrated as we were with many aspects of philanthropy, we related to Villanueva’s approach: the systems of power and money that undergird philanthropy are problematic, but there are ways we can actually start to unlearn our colonized mindsets and come together to heal.

What does that look like? Here are some issues and ideas that came up:

  • Beware false equivalencies: Just because you’ve been oppressed does not mean you will always make the best decisions about or understand all types of oppression.
  • Learn the history of the money: This goes beyond which family or company gave the money to how that money was made. Who benefitted? Who was hurt? Everyone has to set their own boundaries regarding what money they’re willing to take, but understanding the history and speaking openly about it will help us all learn so that we may heal.
  • Represent the community: We should explore grassroots funding and stop our obsession with figureheads which perpetuates the myth that the Executive Director or board chair is the only person who speaks on behalf of an organization or the communities it represents (which the ED or chair may not be part of).
  • Relate to one another: We need to see each other as we are, whether that’s good or bad. But we also need to understand that although there may be commonalities or goals that bring us together in community, at their core all of our experiences are different. 
  • Create feedback loops: These should exist between funders and recipients. We need to question why they aren’t there – are we afraid of what we’ll see? Is it just inconvenience? Are we not appropriately listening in the way that Villanueva teaches?
  • Rethink reputation: Is your only motive to change so you aren’t called out? Do you only fund opportunities which lend themselves to photo ops and press releases?
  • Avoid “Shiny Pennies” thinking: We need to make sure that people of color within philanthropy don’t feel threatened by each other to the point of sabotage. There is room for more than one powerful person of color in every room – even though they have often been told otherwise.
  • Read the book!: There’s great advice in Decolonizing Wealth about how we can all move forward, starting with seemingly little actions like understanding your own identity and moving to big items like considering transferring investment vehicles.

As we discussed these, we wondered about Villanueva's story and how the organizations and people he criticized have responded. Are they standing up to change their ways?

At the end of the day, we all felt that there was work we could start doing to improve equity in philanthropy. We may not know exactly how, but conversations like this are an important start to getting there and we hope you’ll join us for the next one!

EPIP Philly’s next book club event is June 27th! We’ll be discussing White Fragility by Dr. Robin DiAngelo. RSVP here - we look forward to seeing you there!


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