By: Funders for LGBTQ Issues Staff on June 27, 2023
America – and the world – is undergoing a fundamental examination of what it means to be a functioning multiracial, multilingual, and multigenerational democracy. Arguing for pluralism in philanthropy without centering impacted communities, at a moment when those with power routinely circumvent and upend democratic norms to consolidate their influence, ignores the political reality in which we are all living.
A slew of issues, long rooted in the systematic exploitation of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities, threatens our shared prosperity. Yet, the analysis and understanding of those issues are far from shared, dividing people along intersectional social, economic and gender-based identities. Many – including those in philanthropy – want the joy of executing collaborative solutions without the discomfort of disagreement, having to reckon with the consequences of their past (in)actions, giving up their current privilege, power, or influence.
As a coalition of philanthropic networks working together to strengthen bridges across funders and communities, we at CHANGE Philanthropy are all too familiar with these arguments. They come up as we engage leaders in transforming and challenging philanthropic culture to advance equity, benefit all communities, and ignite positive social change. Arguments like these have long been repeated to many of us at conferences, during grant reviews, and in intimate conversations from friend and foe alike. They are the narratives and beliefs that are behind the consistent underfunding of our communities, our community groups and our leadership. These are just some of the reasons why foundations and individual donors are still finding some measure of success funding legislation and other strategies targeting the existence of Trans, LGBTQ+, immigrants and refugees in states like Texas, Florida, Montana and Kentucky. And why communities are seeing books banned, their voting rights curtailed and even the mere discussion of historic truths like slavery outlawed in public schools.
Philanthropy must be able to shift and pivot and to respond to these dangers, guided by those who are directly impacted by those decisions and rooted in building – and maintaining — trusting and caring relationships with those communities.
The deepest relationships — the loving, energizing, healing kind — cannot blossom in a bed of lies and ignored truths. Collaboration that moves us forward past tough issues and difficult conversations is a partnership based on mutual respect and power. True partners are not afraid to be transparent with each other or held accountable to their current or past action.
For foundations, that also means examining their role in seeding these current issues, which often means having the courage to go back and examine how they acquired their current power and influence. The examination and reckoning around the wealth generation of a vast majority of our nation’s foundations are necessary steps in organizations healing the harm and trauma of society’s racist and exploitative systems. There is certainly room for grace in these discussions, but the discomfort and vulnerability implicit in this journey cannot be side-stepped nor shortened because of philanthropy’s best intentions.
History is littered with groups of well-intentioned people who have the privilege of ignoring the injustice that surrounds them. Generations ago, they may have been the moderate spiritual leaders described in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Today, they are proponents of a “new philanthropic pluralism.” Over time, they speak of ideals in the abstract, wielding polite language and calling for civility as a tool to avoid dealing with and making grantmaking decisions on the tangible issues confronting so many of our communities.
Too many well-intentioned philanthropic colleagues are more afraid for and protective of their own survival than that of the grantees and communities being targeted today. Yet the real threat to any level of public trust in philanthropy comes not from communities, nor Congress, but the sector’s own trepidation in ceding its own privilege, power and influence in the service of justice. Efforts against truth, racial and gender justice cannot be minimized and labeled as mere “disagreements” when those efforts impact the survival, existence, and dignity of our communities.
Bridging differences is an important part of getting to a more just and equitable world. But people don’t build bridges just to meet in the middle. They do so to get to somewhere. Philanthropy’s goal should not be survival or cooperation, but to help foster justice. Foundations do that by funding work and making space for relationships that lift our human rights and dignity, not strip them. That is the bottom floor, the starting line. A commitment to anything less these days is more than just a lost opportunity to change the world. It’s a potential death sentence for those who don’t have the power and influence to stop it.