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Exploring Power and Privilege in the Funding Landscape: A Personal Reflection

June 18, 2018

By Gurpreet Singh - Skoll Foundation

If I have your ear for long enough, you’ll eventually hear me grumble about the philanthropic sector.

I usually start by claiming that, contrary to recent assertions by Steven Pinker and others, humanity’s progress is grossly uneven and has exacted a severe price: a rapid spurt of negative externalities that now threaten the fine-tuned systems that sustain our quality of life. While we grapple with wicked problems ranging from rising inequality to ecological overshoot, our population and consumption of natural resources rise and other self-reinforcing feedback loops accelerate. Many of these problems were identified and targeted well before I was born and yet, in my near 30 years of life, we’ve made little progress towards solutions.

I might then turn to the fact that despite all the well-intentioned people and organizations (nonprofits, social enterprises, activists, community organizers, foundations, impact investors, individual donors, and others) trying their seeming best with the resources and knowledge at their disposal, the systemic crises documented by the World Economic Forum and the Global Challenges Foundation continue to swell. While the sector—genuinely guided by its love for humanity—has helped improve many lives, it is failing to prevent the protracted unraveling of the social and environmental fabric we all depend on, because the sum of our efforts is not commensurate to the scale of the problems we face. Our chat will likely end in a heavy sigh and, though we may fantasize aloud about taking a different course of action, we’ll probably go back to our entrenched patterns in life and work.

Recently, I’ve asked myself and others: what will it take to attain the Skoll Foundation’s vision to live in a sustainable world of peace and prosperity, or to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, or cross any of the other local and global goal posts that we’ve set for ourselves? I firmly believe that this sector is perhaps the only one capable of sparking the change needed—due to its independence, power, intention, and more. So, what more should we do? Can we collectively shift the underlying systems of philanthropy, to become more capable of shifting the barriers that keep us from reaching those goal posts? These questions were top-of-mind for me at the Forum, and as I watched the “Proximate Philanthropy: Exploring Power and Privilege in the Funding Landscape” session. Fortunately, the session provided compelling answers. More importantly, it helped turn my gaze away from the large, amorphous ‘sector’ and toward myself.

As you’ll see in the recording above, this was a feisty conversation between moderator Pia Infante, Co-Executive Director of The Whitman Institute; panelist Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director of the Peery Foundation; panelist Parminder Vir, CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation; panelist Vu Le, Executive Director of the Rainier Valley Corps and writer of the inimitable Nonprofit AF blog; and a candid audience. To help the room arrive at a definition for “proximate philanthropy”, and to demonstrate Bryan Stevenson’s notion of committing to uncomfortable acts, Pia had the panelists share examples of spectacular failures in philanthropy. The panelists didn’t hold back.

  • Vu observed that some foundations are “askholes”, i.e. grantmakers who invite input from grantees and communities, costing them time, and yet don’t act on it. An example: a grantmaker asking around for how to build the capacity of organizations led by people of color, but not being willing to provide multi-year unrestricted funding to those very organizations. He compared foundations’ lack of trust in their current and potential grantees to the way that society treats poor people
  • Parminder bemoaned that while she has been to many “talk shops” in just the four years she’s been in the sector, she can’t meaningfully collaborate after initial conversations. Despite her efforts, the necessary follow-through doesn’t happen, and the conversation is bound to start all over again at the same venue the following year. “[You see] the same faces at these conferences,” she said. “It’s almost like a gravy train for the senior people, and the people who are really doing the back-office work do not get to participate. Their voices do not get heard.”
  • Jessamyn pointed out what she called the “homogeneity of decision makers”, and added, “we’re all here to solve social problems and right now we sit on different sides of the table. It’s incredibly frustrating that we’re trying to address intractable problems while we don’t trust each other, we don’t communicate with each other, we don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt, [and] we don’t work together virtually at all.” She also shared an anecdote of how the Peery Foundation, while attempting to minimize the time organizations spent on their applications and reports, once created a one-page limit for submissions. Later, an entrepreneur shared that it took longer to draft a page than it did to repurpose the three to five pages already on hand. The Foundation realized that, because it hadn’t completed its own process, it had been less effective than intended.
  • Parminder and Jessamyn even had a live debate, on grantee/entrepreneur burden, but you’ll have to watch the video to catch it.

In between pointing out what proximate philanthropy isn’t, the panelists also described what proximate philanthropy is.

  • “It’s not rocket science,” said Parminder. For her, proximate philanthropy is being on the ground, being able to look people in the eye, and knowing the culture, history, and context, without any mediators like foreign consultants. And, this proximity should be manifested in board and staff composition.
  • One of the Peery Foundation’s core principles is to view their grantees as their customers and major stakeholders and to be accountable to them. Jessamyn shared how it’s done: finding mechanisms to be accountable (such as assessing whether a foundation is doing harm, like wasting a grantee’s time or energy with onerous processes), and factoring the challenges inherent to a nonprofit leader’s or entrepreneur’s work into decision-making. This is one of the building blocks for—as Jessamyn and Vu describe in their new book Unicorns Unite—EPIC partnerships between foundations and non-profits. (EPIC stands for: equally values all inputs; prioritizes the needs of those they serve; increases trust and empathy; and commits to big, bold, and better.)
  • The decision-makers need to be those who have experienced the injustices the sector tries to address, said Vu. Then, we wouldn’t even need to talk about proximate philanthropy. He also shared a couple of examples. When a foundation was interested in supporting the Rainier Valley Corps’ work, it asked Vu to simply forward along the most burdensome grant application that he ever completed; a few weeks later, the RVC received $40,000 after putting in five minutes of work. In another instance, when the Whitman Institute was interested in supporting the RVC, Pia read its materials online and just requested the only item that she couldn’t find: the organization’s budget.
  • Members of the audience made suggestions as well, such as board seats and leadership positions need to go to those who understand the issues being addressed, despite any discomfort that may arise. Funders ought to be proximate to each other, collaborate more, and take a collective impact approach to supporting change efforts. Funders ought to move away from single solutions and toward holistic approaches. A more diverse set of organizations needs to be represented at powerful dialogues like the Forum. Finally, we need to help build the capacity and skills of nonprofits, which in turn will enable more money to flow to them.

But, while sitting in the room, I noticed that many of these calls-to-action—and similar ones made elsewhere, such as in the recent Scaling Solutions Toward Shifting Systems report—were directed at the ‘sector’. I self-selected into this session because I too think that there’s significant room for improvement in our sector, and I believe it needs to improve given the challenges we face. But the sector has no ears with which to hear such calls or limbs with which to act. In other words, there is no central authority or coordinating body that can nudge the entire sector to bring these calls to fruition in a short amount of time. While it’s easy to criticize a sector or an institution, I realized that little will change unless I—an ordinary, flawed individual—push for it within my small circle of influence, and others like me do the same.

So, during Q&A, I asked the panel for advice on how I could influence those in positions of power at the Skoll Foundation, where I work. They were quick to respond:

  • Jessamyn suggested leading colleagues through one of the (25+) exercises in Unicorns Unite, and building allies by starting conversations that are inclusive, engaging, self-reflective, and safe.
  • Parminder suggested getting passionately angry and taking the conversation “beyond the watercooler” and to those in positions of power to do something.
  • Vu suggested getting over imposter syndrome and self-doubt, especially among women and people of color.

It was all good advice, and I love the mantra offered in Unicorns Unite: “I am the one to start this change. If not me, who? If not now, when?” But I still struggle. Given my full plate of work, how do I carve out time? If I use some of my personal time, where do I draw the line? How much of my limited social capital am I willing to spend pointing out the urgency and moral imperative of our moment? How do I cultivate the courage to take risks, and pushback against my tendency to avoid conflict? How do I develop the discipline to keep the sector’s systemic issues top-of-mind throughout the day? How do I encourage my amazing colleagues to keep these issues alive in their minds, even as the next deadline looms? To what extent do I model what I preach, before making demands of others? How do I know when I’m right to assert a belief, or not? How uncomfortable am I willing to be?

If you’ve grappled with these issues too, I’d like to hear your thoughts and guidance in the comments below.

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