Systems change, equity, and the role of philanthropy serving organisations


Eddie Torres


I’m writing to share some thoughts on United Philanthropy Forum’s excellent 2020 Forum Virtual Conference, which brings together Philanthropy Serving Organizations (PSOs) to share examples of how we’re working to support, strengthen, and lead the grantmaking community. 

My pre-eminent take-away comes from Monitor Institute’s presentation on their COVID-19 scenario planning for nonprofit and philanthropic organizations: Navigating uncertainties in the social sector. In the last of Monitor Institute’s four proposed scenarios for the future, a higher impact of our ongoing crises overlaps with an increase in social cooperation. In this scenario, the nation emerges with a growing recognition of the need to fundamentally change our existing systems.

This scenario requires systems-change, which requires collaboration. United Philanthropy Forum presented great examples of collaboration such as Northern California Grantmakers, Southern California Grantmakers, and San Diego Grantmakers working together as the alliance of Philanthropy California to implement racial equity initiatives.  Another example is the great collaboration between seven PSOs: Biodiversity Funders Group (BFG) / Climate and Energy Funders Group (CEFG), Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA), Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities (TFN), Grantmakers In Health (GIH), Health and Environmental Funders Network (HEFN), and Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF).  These seven PSOs recognize that the impacts of the environment, poverty, race and health are not mutually exclusive but entwined and that our efforts to address them must be strategic and coordinated.

In addition to their ongoing work, the seven PSOs co-designed a survey of the practices of non-profits and grantmakers who self-identified as working to address health and/or equity issues related to climate change or the fossil fuel economy, however they defined that work.

The struggle for equity
The majority of the PSOs’ survey respondents said their funding or work in climate, health, and equity had a focus on specific disproportionately impacted populations, with over 70 per cent specifying low-income communities and over 60 per cent specifying communities of color.

When foundations were asked to what degree their climate, health, and equity funding strategy focused on supporting organizations that had leadership and decision-making (majority of board or staff) from disproportionately impacted communities or populations, less than 40 per cent reported that this was either fully part of their funding strategy focus or a majority of their funding focus.

To be clear – I worked as a grantmaker for about a decade and I’ve made every mistake imaginable.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, who presented as part of the conference, brilliantly articulates one of the roots of our struggle to embrace equitable practices. The concept he shared during his talk and through his brilliant writing is that of assimilationist racism: the belief that the adverse social outcomes for BIPOC communities is somehow the result of their cultural inadequacy, which can be fixed by white people or through proximity to white people or through adoption of white norms. Assimilationist racism is particularly difficult to address as it is often times ‘well-intended.’ This ‘well-intended’ assimilationist racism has manifested from the abolitionists who wanted to save slaves’ souls through Christianity to our contemporary top-down outreach, community-engagement, and funding patterns.

The solutions to the challenges of well-intended inequity and silos that prevent systemic change are often difficult to embrace as they require the confidence to share or even surrender decision-making authority and power. But our peers’ examples – shared by philanthropy-serving organization like those gathered by United Philanthropy Forum – show us how it’s been done and continues to be done. These examples include National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s Power Moves toolkit, as well as the work of ABFE, Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, EDGE Funders Alliance, Justice Funders, among so many others… including the examples that come from the members of my own PSO, Grantmakers in the Arts.

In a recent webinar, Marcus Walton, president of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations explained that it takes courage to do what you feel is right even when you know that it can only address a small part of a large problem. He explained that it is only through acting in concert with each other that those partial and incomplete efforts culminate to make the futures we want.  I am grateful to you all for the chance to make the futures we want.

Eddie Torres is president & CEO of Grantmakers in the Arts

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