The Power of Philanthropy

With great power comes great responsibility. This motto, beloved by superhero fans everywhere, should be as equally beloved by philanthropists. Because, as Jamie Bennett of ArtPlace America so eloquently stated, philanthropy is one of the only fields that has the power to tell other fields and issues that they need to wait (I’ve paraphrased his words). Because philanthropists may not be ready for a particular issue yet, that issue may not receive a voice, or ever important funding streams. To me, this does not sound like equity, and for this reason those in philanthropy must be particularly careful about the power it wields.

Before entering philanthropy, I hadn’t really thought about the inherent power dynamic present in the relationship between philanthropists and those they fund.  Only after talking to more people in the field and reflecting on the massive funding streams foundations have   was I even able to accurately assess the massive impact philanthropy has had on my life. As a student, most of the research I performed was possible through private grant dollars, and I worked with an organization that was almost fully dependent on a foundation for its start. In that capacity, and through my position at CEP, I was awed by how much philanthropy has done. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the doubts that I often have regarding equity in the field. Those doubts are structured around four different aspects of philanthropy: equity regarding the issues grantmakers fund, equity regarding grantmaking processes, equity at philanthropic organizations, and equity with regard to foundations’ funding streams. 

Issues funded by grantmaking

I started off this post by quoting the ED of ArtPlace America, who—in the Grantmakers Take the Lead on Advancing Racial Equity session of PolicyLink’s 2015 Equity Conference—said that philanthropists have the power to tell other fields and issues that they will have to wait their turn to have their time in the spotlight (again, this is paraphrased). I find it troubling that, because someone has more money, his or her  valuation on what is important becomes more valid than a valuation by someone without the same funds. Clearly, this problem is an issue for most, if not all fields, and not isolated to philanthropy. However, I’m speaking to it here because foundations have such large funding sources.

Grantmaking processes

I’m gonna paraphrase Jamie Bennett again (sorry), but in the same session he brought up how language used in the field is often vague. In addition, the effort required in grantmaking processes can be disproportionate to the funding received (or the odds of receiving funding). If an NGO is asked to “build capacity” to secure funding, what aspect of capacity needs to be built? Language like this does not directly address what needs to be accomplished, and can be exclusionary to different groups and backgrounds. Knowing how to write a good grant proposal, or speak the language of philanthropists, does not correspond to impacting greater change on the ground.

Equity at foundations

Of the approximately 8,000 foundations surveyed for Council on Foundation’s 2014 Grantmakers Salary and Benefits Report, racial and ethnic minorities comprised about 25 percent of staff yet only 8 percent of CEOs. All fields, including philanthropy, could do some work to ensure that leadership is more representative of staff. For foundations, this issue stems even further. Philanthropy can work to be more representative of the grantees working with a foundation to carry out their (hopefully shared) vision, as well as the ultimate recipients of grant funding (where relevant).

Foundation funding

My question here is simple – how do you effectively work in a system to change the system? Especially if you are one of the few people that has benefitted from the system. To me, this seems especially difficult when those working in philanthropy may not be representative of those they should be partnering with. I don’t have an answer for this, and it is probably my biggest issue with philanthropy, but I think that it is a matter of trust. Can you trust someone or something that has benefitted from a system to change that very system? 

At the conference, my fellow EPIP members and I often reflected on these issues and more. I have often felt conflicted about the field and my role in it– do I want to be closer to the issues funded or do I want to be able to really drive the funding focus behind the scenes? Am I doing all that I can to deter exclusionary language in grantmaking or are there other levers to pull? Can philanthropy, often driven by inequitable funding sources, be an effective driver of equitable systems change?

My time at PolicyLink’s 2015 Equity Conference has only added to the questions I have about equity and philanthropy, and I’m so excited to question even further next year.

|Jen Cole

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