The system of philanthropy is rife with privilege. Because of the inherent power dynamics of this field, many grantmakers and funded projects alike operate under the false assumption that the perspectives, experiences and opinions of those working in philanthropy are more valid, important or significant, or that somehow the financial resources we steward are more valuable than the work grantees are doing in their communities. If love is about investing in your own and another’s growth, sharing power is essential for philanthropy to effectively build just societies.
In designing our program, we attempted to address issues of power by decentralizing decision-making. Before our open call launched each year, we selected 48 readers from diverse communities across the country to help us evaluate the over 1,000 applications we received. In this process, we used a complex matrix with demographic, geographic, and professional characteristics to construct a review and site visit panel that statistically mirrored the composition of the U.S. When selecting both finalists and projects to fund, we were guided by the expertise of the panelists.
Once grant recommendations were made and approved, we developed customized memorandums of understanding (MOUs) instead of using grant agreements. We chose MOUs because they are intended to be jointly negotiated. They allowed us to share power and build consensus about our relationship and expectations of each other (beyond the financial investment). Through this back-and-forth process, funded projects could request non-financial resources in support of their goals.
While using MOUs was a step in building a more equitable power dynamic, funded projects rarely took advantage of this opportunity, and we recognized we still had the ability to “reject” a request as the holder of resources. We also realized that we had not accounted for the spectrum of political and economic values our panelists held. If we were to go back to 2014, we would ask potential readers and panelists to rate themselves along those two continuums from conservative to progressive. This additional dimension would have supported the selection of a panel that not only mirrored the U.S. population demographically and geographically, but also culturally and psychologically. We believe this kind of diversity would have enriched the quality of reviews and, ultimately, may have changed the investments made through the NCPF.
Far too often in social justice spaces, we set tables with like-minded people only to close ourselves off from the growth that happens when we engage in healthy discourse with those that do not share our perspectives. These conditions are further exacerbated in our field specifically because most foundations don’t invest in panel processes to select grantees. The field fully empowers program officers and directors to make choices that are for or against a particular social issue, investment or partnership. Advancing a loving grantmaking practice will require each of us to make space for those that disagree with us and spend more time in the rich, murky spaces that exist beyond binary ideals in order to get very clear about what just communities look like and how we will work collectively to improve them. Ultimately, our efforts to share power through panel processes and the use of MOUs were simple ways to begin deferring expertise to people working on the ground. There’s still much more work to be done in equitably sharing power through a loving grantmaking practice.
Grantmakers are gatekeepers of financial resources and social capital. When we attempt to define the impact of our work, we may further add to our power by creating complex rules for applicants. By no means do we disagree with the creation of guidelines, eligibility requirements and criteria. We do believe, however, that philanthropy should do more. For example, if we simply state the “rules” without providing context about why we created them or what we hope to learn by asking certain questions, we’ve designed systems that overwhelmingly provide funding to those privileged enough to know how to play this game, not those who may truly be aligned with the mission of a program or portfolio, but who speak a very different language.
When we embarked on refining the application process for the NCPF in 2015, we asked ourselves: “How do we benefit by holding our cards close to the vest?” There was no benefit! As a result, we sought to provide thoughtful explanations for why we needed information in a certain format. We also pushed ourselves to remove as much jargon as possible. Additionally, through our webinars and extensive FAQs, we provided the answers our reviewers were looking for within each application question and worked to explain what we fund and why.
During the open call process, we did targeted Facebook advertising to underrepresented areas, and visited with them; we provided in-depth FAQs on the front page of our website, and provided webinars and outreach visits to hundreds of attendees. At the next stage of our process (where approximately 7 percent of applicants were invited to submit a full proposal), we made the process more open by providing all applicants with what we’d actually be looking for in the full proposal and site visits. This is the same material we provided to panelists who reviewed all the projects and provided funding recommendations.
Additionally, our process included site visits before a full proposal was due, phone calls, and virtual office hours for prospective applicants. All of these measures both increased opportunities for applicants and grantees to gain clarity about what we were looking for and allowed us to get clearer about what the projects were attempting to accomplish.
One of the unexpected lessons from our efforts to be transparent was that sometimes, it encouraged an applicant to “work the system.” This showed up for us in 2016 when we chose to publish that we were particularly interested in projects focused on community development sectors underrepresented in our portfolio to date. We received hundreds of submissions in which applicants attempted to alter the goals and strategies of their projects into one of the sectors we listed as being “of special interest,” believing this would make them more competitive in the funding process.
More often than not, these projects would have been strong had they been framed in a community development sector more authentic to the work, instead of the ones we stated as priorities for the year. As a result, these proposals were received by our peer review panel as round pegs attempting to fit into square holes, and ultimately decreased their competitiveness. Despite some of these setbacks, transparency was important to ensure everyone was operating from the same information. And, as we heard from the field, including transparency in our process was a mutually rewarding approach that supported applicants at all stages putting their best foot forward.
What makes upholding transparency difficult?
As grantmakers, or even just as human beings, we often disregard transparency, and in turn, create barriers—barriers that keep people at a distance, that “other,” and that prevent people from knowing who we truly are and what we desire. Sometimes we do it to protect ourselves in dangerous situations; other times, we do so to protect our own assets. In the case of philanthropy, it’s often the latter.
But what is philanthropy working so hard to protect, and why? If our aim is to distribute resources, wouldn’t we want as many people as possible to benefit from them? Why create barriers to shut them out? Bell hooks, in her book All About Love, says, “In our culture, privacy is often confused with secrecy. Open, honest, truth-telling individuals value privacy. We all need spaces where we can be alone with thoughts and feelings—where we can experience healthy psychological autonomy and can choose to share when we want to. Keeping secrets is usually about power, about hiding and concealing information.” Can we create a loving practice of philanthropy that is based on a core tenet of truth telling?
Each of the methods we used to increase transparency was fruitful, and we want to admit that we were not fully transparent about our personal values and how they showed up in our work as grantmakers. The NCPF criteria never expressed a priority for projects rooted in social justice, yet given who we are, we believe that communities of color, rural communities, and other oppressed peoples, have long been under-resourced, especially by philanthropy. As a result, this lens impacted who we chose to be on panels and ultimately who we selected to receive funding. If we were to go back, we think it would be critical to share these values with all applicants in order to run a program fully rooted in love. Love for all.
We think this is an opportunity to interrogate how philanthropy “punishes” truth tellers and those that choose to speak truth to power. During my (Javier’s) time in philanthropy, I have personally experienced threats to my employment after questioning the approaches of an institution’s work. I have also heard countless stories from my peers who have experienced similar struggles. The manner in which power centers protect themselves creates deep incentives for us as grantmakers to lack transparency, if only for self-preservation. The field of philanthropy can often be risk averse given the scrutiny of how we steward vast resources. This reality leads many of us to fear being “wrong,” or the perception of having “made a mistake,” and further encourages secrecy in our field. We hope we can begin to see a philanthropic field that values transparency on many levels in an effort to break down some of the inherent power dynamics we’ve experienced, and even practiced.
Taking a nod from Maurine Knighton, who reminded us that we don’t spend enough time getting clear about what we are for and spend too much time focused on what we’re against, we offer a series of questions we imagine can help us construct a more loving grantmaking process. For transformation to happen, we believe the most important next steps for philanthropy will require the field to align institutional policies, investments, procurement and systems with our stated values. What would it look like for grantmakers to invite communities to co-determine priorities for philanthropic investments? For instance, how could we facilitate a process in which resources are placed in a shared legal trust that allows us as grantmakers to be at the decision-making table as one of many committed stakeholders with no more and no less power than any other individual in a community? How much more impactful could philanthropy be with each institution acknowledging that the amassing of generational wealth has likely been through participation in a system that makes some people “winners” and others “losers?” That we need to give up power for transformation to be imagined by those who have been systemically robbed of opportunity? Indeed, what will an equitable world look like that no longer needs philanthropy, because abundant resources have been distributed equitably, ensuring everyone has what they need?
Consider that the etymology of philanthropy is actually derived from “philanthrōpos,” literally translating to “love of mankind.” Imagine how we could build the field from the foundation of loving each other, cultivating the will to extend one’s self for another’s growth, and how that might not even put us out of business, but perhaps create a new kind of business from which we could all benefit.
F. Javier Torres serves as Program Director of the Thriving Cultures program at the Surdna Foundation, where he is charged with leveraging the foundation’s platform and assets to strengthen the cultural fabric of communities in order to make them more just and sustainable. Prior to joining Surdna, Javier served as the Director of National Grantmaking at ArtPlace America.
Leila Tamari is the Senior Program Officer at ArtPlace America. In her three year tenure at ArtPlace, she co-designed and co-led the National Creative Placemaking Fund, which invested $86.4 million in 279 creative placemaking projects across the United States from 2011-2017.
ArtPlace America (ArtPlace) is a 10-year collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions. It began work as an organization in 2011, and will finish in 2020. Its mission is to position arts and culture as a core sector of community planning and development.