Members on Philanthropy: We Need A New Definition of White Ally

I have always been an advocate for justice. As a nearly lifelong community organizer, I have spent years navigating through grassroots organizing spaces, institutions of higher education, traditional nonprofits, foundations, and multi-stakeholder collaborations. From a young age, I was fortunate to be politicized by former Black Panthers, SNCC organizers, community activists, and young peers with whom I still share a deep connection.

Still, I can remember sitting in a church in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans in 2008, surrounded by dozens of community residents, organizers, advocates, and movement builders, and experiencing, for the first time, my privilege being challenged as a white-passing straight man. At that moment, I realized that even though both of my mother’s parents emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. as teenage orphans and my grandfather is from Acámbaro, Guanajuato and of indigenous descent, I have received the benefit of whiteness my entire life and through every stage of my career. From that point forward, my life became dedicated to dismantling systems of inequity.

As a philanthropy practitioner, my cultural relationship to colonization has taught me that the way I present myself and the many benefits I receive must become a tool in my work advancing racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice. As more voices in our sector emerge to challenge assumptions, transform priorities, and reevaluate criteria for being an effective funder, those of us who have access to greater privilege have an opportunity to wield it and support deeper outcomes. In philanthropy, we talk at great length about prioritizing those with lived experiences and assert that those with intimate point of view knowledge should be making decisions and leading. We claim that our roles and our work should be guided by and in service of those most affected. But we are far from that in this moment.

White men with positional power, myself included, must be less destructive where it matters and more impactful when it is needed. We must do everything we can to make the activities and operations of those with lived experiences more possible and do so with less resistance.  Our role is to clear a path for people who know how to connect the dots and see problems and solutions more clearly than we do. We must not be complacent or comfortable in our work because the consequences of our actions – and inactions - can significantly limit the potential of people walking the talk.

Let’s be honest, this is a difficult discussion to have. I don’t possess all of the answers and I never will. What I can do is continue to refine my practices and tools to advance justice through conversations with colleagues, reflections on funder convenings, lessons from grantees, and connections to my history in community organizing. I have also taken inspiration in part from the work of Pamela Shifman, Executive Director at the NoVo Foundation. The takeaways below are part of an evolving reflection that I build on every day. I hope they can be used as a tool to assess, critique, and improve. This process can’t be earmarked as a final product: it is a genuine commitment to building another world.

  1. Know that you don’t know: Do not try to know what it is like to be someone with a different lived experience than your own. Become okay with not knowing. I am aware that I have the choice, ability, and resources to think about the issues, try to build solutions, and challenge the systems that create them.
  2. Own and accept responsibility to develop your own cultural literacy and do the work you need to do: Go beyond a commitment to “do the work.” Read, reflect on what you have read, listen in conversation, ask questions, mull, experiment, and vulnerably self-assess. Reexamine yourself in your work, in your role, in your institution, in your community, in your social network, and beyond. This is a life-long process.
  3. Be critically aware of your presence, decisions, behaviors, actions, and reactions, and how they impact others: In any role in philanthropy, you are wielding power. It isn’t enough to simply know this. You should be aware of how it’s being wielded and to what extent. A good place to start is by assessing how much you speak in a room, especially a room full of grantee partners. Are you providing a space where honest dialogue and feedback can occur? Reflect on the behavior you demonstrate and question its nature. Does it create barriers for authenticity to thrive? Is your voice limiting the extent to which others share or shape vision? Do you ask questions to better understand the correlation between your positional power and its broader systemic origins? If so, when do you ask them and to whom? You must accept that you are not entitled to knowledge. The belief that you are owed any sort of wisdom because you have decided to commit yourself to justice is a fallacy.
  4. Understand your capacity for real, necessary feedback: A colleague recently checked me on something I needed to examine. She also told me that there were earlier moments when she wanted to address the issue but did not feel that we had developed enough trust to do so. She was concerned about how I would respond. This was a deep learning moment for me. It made me reflect closely on the definition of trust, especially as it pertains to philanthropic relationships. They need to be mutual partnerships, no matter how difficult that is or how long it takes. Fragility is a function of supremacy, so let’s vulnerably open ourselves to the possibility of being the best versions we can be advancing collective justice.
  5. Own your role, because you can safely take risks and make mistakes while many others cannot:  Not everyone has the luxury to speak freely on contentious issues without being penalized or having their credibility challenged. Have you spent time reflecting on the burden that those around you face? As allies with power, there will be times when we need to name the moment or take the heat. An ally is not a hero nor savior; an ally is a supporter, co-conspirator, and at times a waymaker for others to have a seat at the table. It takes practice to know how to do this effectively, and it takes commitment to consistently stepping outside comfort zones and being painfully, vulnerably courageous.

A note: This is not a complete checklist or a roadmap or a finalized framework. I encourage you to read further using the resources below. We cannot continue to discuss the power inequities in philanthropy while maintaining superficial visions of solidarity. The needs of our time are too dire, and there is simply no more space to mess around. If we are committed to building another world, we must do everything we can (and probably more) to go beyond our understanding of “ally.”

Further Resources:

How Academia Uses Poverty, Oppression, and Pain for Intellectual Masturbatio

Soul Fire Farm Training, “Uprooting Racism”

Resisting the Lone Hero Stance 

To Hell With Good Intentions 

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Beware of the So-Called Woke Allies  

Shifting Philanthropy from Charity to Justice


About The Author

Alex Goldman headshot

Alex Goldman is a people mover and resource mobilizer with ten years of community organizing experience working alongside community-driven organizations, social and environmental justice coalitions, academic institutions, and foundations. He has domestic and international grantmaking experience in the United States and East Africa, and is the Steering Committee Treasurer for EPIP New York.



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