To reimagine philanthropy, go back to its roots: the love of humanity


Sarah Henry


Philanthropy’s practices have moved it so far away from its definition of loving humanity. Intersectional feminism offers a roadmap for the way back.

Stop dividing people into groups based on unrealistic and artificial singular boxes. Stop defining issues for them. Stop incentivizing competition. Stop demanding ‘scale’ for the sake of it. For the love of humanity, please stop.

The love of humanity is the very definition of philanthropy, but the sector’s practices have moved it so far away from that. At worst, they perpetuate the same unjust systems and power dynamics that must be dismantled in societies at large.

Making these changes demands intentionally redistributing power as well as resources. There is an illuminating roadmap that philanthropists can follow home to their humanity-loving roots: Intersectional feminism.

Intersectionality is a term coined by the feminist academic Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe how different factors of discrimination can intersect and overlap, exacerbating inequality. It sees people’s complex lives, not isolated single issues.

Philanthropy is a sector full of people with good intentions. But it’s not always easy to turn those intentions into concrete actions.

Feminist movements have won victories for women’s rights, but they are also involved in challenging militarism, the effects of climate change and many other issues – reflecting this understanding of complexity and intersecting threats.

These movements are chronically underfunded – and, when funded, often subjected to limitations, conditions, and onerous requirements. This must change – these same movements offer philanthropy a roadmap for its reinvention.

A recent report by Shake the Table (a new group bridging philanthropy and movements for gender, racial and economic justice) and the consultancy company Bridgespan, called for an additional $1.5bn a year to be invested in these movements around the world – and for this money to be moved in different ways.

Unlike current practices of dividing people and issues into ‘silos’, what if philanthropists based funding decisions on values, rather than singular issues? Instead of perpetuating a scarcity mentality that incentivizes competition, what if philanthropists prioritised collective action and collaboration and considered them markers of success?

How can relationships between funders and those they support be restructured, to build more horizontal partnerships and meaningfully redistribute power? How can philanthropy build a more humble and self-reflective internal culture that enables people to have hard conversations about power that are otherwise left unspoken?

Beyond technical tweaks and portfolio reviews, these are the kinds of questions that the sector must ask. Beyond supporting inclusion and diversity, intersectional feminist philanthropy actively centre and shifts power to those historically marginalised by white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, and colonialism.

Changing the dominant and often static paradigms in which we work requires an ongoing commitment to shifting mindsets as well as behaviour. This means constantly considering one’s own place within systems of power and privileges based on factors including race, gender, sexuality and able-bodiedness, as well as challenging them.

Philanthropy needs to see the people driving movements for change as unique and whole, complex individuals. This means prioritising well-being and joy as well as recognising the emotional, social, and physical risks that social activists face, which are also racialised and gendered. It means showing up to support the collective care and protection strategies of social justice activists, partners, friends, and colleagues.

Philanthropy must also be more responsive. The sector is uniquely positioned to support social transformation because it can be adaptive and flexible. It can challenge traditional perceptions of risk and accountability – and it should be able to meet both the long-term and the urgent needs of intersectional feminist movements.

Of course, philanthropy is a sector full of people with good intentions. But it’s not always easy to turn those intentions into concrete actions – especially alone.

It starts with inner work to unpack one’s own privilege, power, and position – taking a step back from technical tools to see the political issues and dynamics at play. But shifts in paradigms, as well as practices, need whole communities of change-makers.

Philanthropic organisations should ensure that key decision-makers are representative of the communities their work is serving – and trust their decisions. They should also do the internal work to ensure their own workplaces are safe, healthy, and responsive to the needs of diverse staff members.

The fight for humanity won’t be won issue by issue, sector by sector. Instead, it requires breaking down silos, seeing issues and people as connected, and supporting and trusting those at the forefront of change. Intersectional feminism offers a roadmap for all philanthropists to be more effective in their core humanity-loving mission – and the work to follow it can begin today. Start with asking how can you use your power wisely?

Sarah Henry is co-founder and Executive Director of the Global Center for Gender Equality at Stanford University and is launching a new feminist organization. She is also a Senior Strategy Advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and an advisor to Shake the Table, a new organisation that bridges philanthropy and movements for gender, racial and economic justice.

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