It’s time to decolonise philanthropy, are you ready to join the struggle?


Kit Muirhead


Set up in 1943 and currently occupied by nearly 10,000 Palestinian refugees, the Shatila refugee camp in South Beirut displays a telling piece of wall art. It merges the Aboriginal and Palestinian flags with a single clenched fist and reads: ‘From our Nakba to your Invasion Day, we are one in struggle’. 

This struggle is decolonisation. In the most simplistic terms, decolonisation involves undoing colonialism’s continued legacy. This may mean returning stolen land, or challenging and discarding colonial ways of life that cut across our economies, governments, family structures, gender roles, and more. 

Colonialism is around us all the time. Its pains run deep and across generations. Right now, colonialism is on our screens, as we watch the ongoing siege on Gaza and gawk at the blatant inaction of our global ‘leaders’. A few weeks ago, it thrived as Australians voted ‘No’ in a referendum for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. But colonial ways of thinking are also embedded in the decisions we make when we see such atrocities unfolding. Do we join the struggle for justice or turn our heads to the side?

Moreover, what role does philanthropy have in this struggle? Can we ever really ‘decolonise’ philanthropy? And what are the contradictions embedded in such efforts? 

Recently, a handful of activists, NGO workers and foundation members gathered around a conference table in London to discuss these questions and gain meaningful insight from the U.S.-based Decolonizing Wealth Project. 

CEO and founder of the Decolonizing Wealth Project, and self-proclaimed ‘angelic troublemaker’, Edgar Villanueva reminded attendees that ‘if we can be honest about what is broken, we might be able to move into some kind of repair’. Keeping honesty in mind, I have outlined my key learnings from this deeply collaborative and insightful discussion.

1. Decolonisation means repairing the harms of colonial exploitation 

Most attendees at the meeting were already aware that applying a decolonial approach to philanthropy is complicated. Decolonisation requires us to critique and unearth the often-hidden systems of exploitation that have created space for philanthropy to exist in the first place.    

Decolonisation requires us to think twice about what we accept as ‘natural’. Race, as a category of oppression, for example, is not ‘natural’ or ‘biological’. Instead, race was actively created by white European nations to justify the exploitation of Black and Brown labour and the colonial acquisition of land. Under such regimes, European settlers constructed dark skin as ‘inferior’ to justify the highly profitable Transatlantic Slave Trade, all while upholding the U.S. colony’s facile commitment to an ‘egalitarian democracy’. 

If philanthropy is to adopt an authentic decolonial approach, it must first recognise its own position in driving and upholding various systems of colonialism and exploitation throughout history. 

Across the sector, this often looks like public recognition and truth-telling about how foundations gained the money for philanthropy in the first place. This has happened with a handful of family foundations, who have publicly acknowledged their family’s legacy of ‘slave ownership’.   

However, as forewarned by Edgar during the discussion, taking a truly decolonial approach ‘does not simply begin and end with a history lesson’. Philanthropy must be willing to go beyond the initial steps of truth-telling if it is hoping to address the root causes of various social oppressions.

2. Reparative philanthropy takes us beyond symbolic apologies 

It was well recognised at the meeting that ‘decolonisation’ has settled itself comfortably on the podium of philanthropic buzzwords. Attendees discussed how this mainstreaming, alongside its benefits, poses a risk to genuine decolonial agendas. 

As outlined at the meeting, foundations may co-opt decolonial language to appear progressive and gain a social licence for harmful investment practices. It is certainly not a decolonial move, for example, to invest in the extraction of natural resources from stolen land with one hand, whilst funnelling philanthropic funds into ‘empowerment’ initiatives for dispossessed Indigenous communities with the other. 

It is for this reason that the Decolonizing Wealth project uses the term ‘Reparative Philanthropy’. This kind of philanthropy moves away from haphazard grants and symbolic apologies. Instead, it delivers reparations directly to communities to enact their own initiatives for empowerment and progressive change. 

Alongside these calls, Edgar and Vanessa Thomas, the director of Global Programs at the Decolonizing Wealth Project, highlighted the need for value testing and collaboration between investment teams and grant-making teams to halt continual, and often concealed colonial practices. It is from here that philanthropy can actively improve the material conditions of communities affected by colonial exploitation.

3. Decolonising philanthropy requires ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ tactics for change 

One of my key takeaways from the meeting was that a decolonial approach to philanthropy requires a mixture of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ tactics for change. 

Insider tactics involve working within philanthropy spaces to build collaborative relationships with those who hold power. The Decolonizing Wealth Project primarily uses insider tactics, with staff entering spaces of concentrated power including, recently, the New York Fashion Week.  

In these spaces, the Decolonizing Wealth Project invites others into Indigenous worldviews, centring ideals of forgiveness, collective healing, patience, and acceptance. They try to dissolve ‘us vs them’ paradigms and instead encourage ‘owning collective histories that we have all perpetrated in some way’. 

Edgar and Vanessa highlighted the importance of ‘insider’ education for board members and trustees to better understand how exploitation, division, and control can uphold colonial agendas and stunt progress towards social equity. 

Outsider tactics are more confrontational. They are grassroots-driven and apply pressure when efforts ‘within’ the sector or establishment are failing to create progressive change. As discussed during the meeting, such ‘outsider’ demands to decolonise philanthropy are growing and must be supported. They offer important insights for philanthropy into the needs of communities affected by ongoing colonialism. 

For example, a march led by the Chicago community-based organisation ‘Black Star’ stormed the offices of the MacArthur Foundation, demanding more funding for Black communities. Since then, the MacArthur Foundation has been at the forefront of funding racial equity issues, including as a part of the Abundance Alliance, a group designed to spread awareness of reparative racial justice within philanthropy.  

Progressive, decolonial and reparative philanthropy must continue to rise and match the energy and demands of those marching in the streets, not just those invited to speak in our office buildings.

Where to now?

A key message from the meeting was that the solutions to decolonisation lie in the constant, critical interrogation of the ways colonialism seeps into the everyday. It is through decolonising our thinking that we can come to decolonise our actions.

We must continually ask why certain categories and narratives are constructed in relation to various systems of exploitation. From here, we can begin to invest in the collective over the individual, to learn, rather than take, and to resource racialised, classed, and gendered communities in ways that genuinely repair the harm done by colonialism. 

Amongst many things, the Decolonizing Wealth Project prompted attendees, including myself, to consider our role in decolonisation. In twenty years, we as individuals, and as a sector, will look back on the decolonial struggles of today and ask ourselves where we stood; whether our actions aided or impeded global calls for justice and peace. 

Upon these reflections, I know that for me, part of decolonisation means refusing to look away from global struggles, even if they cause pain. It means finding solace in holding the collective and letting the collective hold me, in attending protest, after protest, and standing in anger, solidarity, and grief with the people around me – not only for Palestine but for the struggles of all people oppressed and exploited by colonialism. 

It is for these reasons that the Decolonizing Wealth Project and the artist of the Shatila refugee camp hold one message in common. Both emphasise the importance of solidarity, and both remind us that more often that not, we are all one in struggle. 

Tagged in: reforming international development

Comments (0)

watermelon game

I feel your writing really has the ability to change the reader's thoughts and opinions.

undertale yellow

I agree that outsider tactics are more confrontational

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