Surdna’s Thriving Cultures Program Director, Javier Torres-Campos recently spoke with Mike Scutari of Inside Philanthropy about the past, present, and future of the philanthropic sector. The excerpt below was first published by Inside Philanthropy.
What recent developments in philanthropy make you feel optimistic about the future of the field?
I’ll share an example from my current organization. For years, Surdna has defined itself as a social justice organization that has really pushed itself to listen to field leaders and to think critically about the way in which we intervene in systems and structures of injustice in the United States.
I think it would be really easy for an institution like that to pat itself on the back for being able to lead in so many ways, and what I really appreciate about our board and our president Don Chen’s leadership is that no one’s ready to settle. They know that we are on a continuum of practice and that we need to continue to dive deeper and ask different questions so that we are holding ourselves accountable to the kind of transformation that we want to be a part of.
The way that that’s taking shape at the moment is that Don is leading us through a multi-year process with external consultants to work toward becoming an anti-racist institution. And I think there are lots of others. When I look at the leadership of the Marguerite Casey Foundation at this moment and the transformation that their leadership is driving, it is really exciting to me.
Folks are speaking honestly and asking questions like, “How do we look at ourselves? How do we hold ourselves to continue to build and deepen accountability in our work in our practice?” It makes me really optimistic about the work that philanthropy is doing and will continue to do in the future.
What recent developments in philanthropy make you feel pessimistic about the future of the field?
Well, first off, I would probably frame it as opportunities for us to do better and less about pessimism. I think that the good news is that there’s always progress to be made.
I’ve been having some really great conversations with the Leeway Foundation in Philadelphia and their executive director, Denise Brown, who has been a mentor for so long. The founders walked away from the corpus and turned the institution over to a community-led board and governance structure, where they no longer have a say as to how those resources are used. That story, I think, is one that really sticks with me, because it reminds me of what’s possible when we can acknowledge the roots of philanthropy, why it exists in its current form as an outgrowth of capitalism.
I think that what can be fearful for some is that there aren’t many Leeway stories, there aren’t enough folks that are willing to say, “Not only do I want to do good in the world, but I can admit that perhaps the way I’ve amassed these resources, or the way my ancestors amassed these resources, may not actually qualify me to make decisions about how these resources should be stored and invested in the long term.”
Those are painful and challenging conversations, but I think those are opportunities for us to continue to look at ourselves and find deeper impact in the philanthropic sector.