In the past, when given the chance to write about philanthropy, I’ve generally focused on the question of what we can do differently. You know the drill: start with a sober critique of the status quo, pivot to a charismatic vision of what the alternatives might look like, and then close with a set of concrete practices that will credibly bring us closer to that vision. Sounds compelling, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, holding forth in this manner will only get us so far. To start, the sober critiques aren’t exactly new. Most of philanthropy is totally disinterested in the question of building or shifting power. And even among “aligned” funders, it’s still possible — common, even! — to fund the right work in the wrong way.

The charismatic vision can be forceful, but it can also feel more than a little removed from the current state of affairs. And the list of concrete practices...well, that list ought to be very familiar by now: long-term, unrestricted commitments; various approaches to co-design or democratized decision-making; relational or trust-based philanthropy; and so on.

I could even flex a bit and frame the practice of “spending down” as a way of taking an abolitionist stance with respect to private philanthropy itself, just to stir things up. But the reality is that, while knowing what we can do differently is absolutely necessary, that knowledge in and of itself remains woefully insufficient. Instead, we need to focus on how we actually bring these practices into being.


We Cannot Educate Our Way Out of This

Left to our own devices, the philanthropic sector tends to operate from what I can only describe as an “information deficit” theory of change. If funders only knew, then they would act accordingly. And so we have the countless reports, briefings, and thought pieces created by those of us who wish to educate funders into adopting different approaches. While all that data, storytelling, and well-reasoned argument is useful, the merits of the overall approach have been grossly overestimated. Take, for example, the well-worn story of the friendly program officer who consistently reads the reports, attends the briefings, and shares the thought pieces...and yet the behavior of the foundation where they work hasn’t moved an inch. What’s missing here? What’s happening — or not happening — behind closed doors?

Unsurprisingly, we usually find that the real obstacles are both cultural and structural: the cultures that inform how funders approach our work and the structures that make it hard for us to change that approach — even when we genuinely want to. Rather than simply educating our colleagues, we must meet these cultural and structural obstacles head on. If we believe that organizing is a fundamental practice for facilitating social change, and if we believe that it’s capable of transforming entire sectors, then surely these beliefs must apply to the philanthropic sector as well. Many of us regularly use the phrase “funder organizing,” but what does it really mean?

This may seem obvious, but it’s important to name that funder organizing can and should mean much more than simply fundraising. “Moving the money” may be our primary objective, but it’s not, in and of itself, an act of organizing; it’s an act of mobilization. It’s absolutely critical, but it doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

If we sketch a working definition of “organizing” as the process of building collective power and developing leadership to effect structural change, then “funder organizing” must focus on building power, developing leadership, and effecting structural change within the philanthropic sector itself. This work must be informed by and accountable to pre-existing organizing efforts taking place in marginalized and oppressed communities, but it must also be its own, distinct practice with its own knowledge, skills, relationships, and cultural competencies.


Developing Leaders in the Fullest Sense

Leadership development is the backbone of organizing; good organizers develop the leadership of community members and, ultimately, of other organizers. Organizing isn’t just about meeting a set of campaign objectives; it’s about developing and democratizing leadership itself. That’s how we really build and shift power. Good funder organizers, then, must do more than develop better grant makers; they must develop more powerful leaders who are effective funder organizers in their own right.

Transformative leaders model different ways of being; that’s part of shifting culture. They also seek to change the rules to more broadly support — or even require! — different ways of being; that’s when we make it structural. The project of transforming philanthropy will require powerful leaders who are capable of both modeling better grant making and changing the rules to require better grant making.

As a radical leader in philanthropy, and as someone who’s deeply committed to organizing my peers, I’ve found it both illuminating and sobering to look back on all the ways that my own leadership has been developed over the past 15 years — by the progressive and radical funders who took me under their wings, by the philanthropic support organizations that recruited me into their leadership development pipelines (both formal and informal), and, most importantly, by the grassroots organizations that saw in me more potential than a simple fundraising target. This in and of itself represents a cultural shift in how we engage with funders, and the importance of that shift has not been lost on me.


Organizing in the Philanthropic Workplace

As funders, we talk a lot about “moving the field.” But we’re rarely as talkative about what it takes to move our own organizations — and our own organizations can be deeply contested spaces. Knowing what you can do differently will only get you so far, especially if your boss or members of your board don’t share your perspective. There can be real risks in pushing for transformative change within a contested organization; people can — and have! — lost their jobs in these fights.

We must take the question of power seriously, not only as the lens for what we fund or for how we fund it but for how decisions get made within our own sector, including in our own organizations. In that sense, funder organizers have a lot to learn from more established forms of workplace organizing. We must build on strategies to win better wages or working conditions and direct those strategies toward questions of organizational decision-making and the impacts that those decisions can have on the outside world. What would it look like to power map philanthropic organizations, determine the nature and the location of consolidated power, and develop effective strategies to challenge that power? Which of these strategies are structural, and which are fundamentally cultural? Our ability to mobilize resources at the scale at which they’re needed depends on our ability to answer these questions.

For example, let’s consider the concept of organizing one’s own board. With an information deficit theory of change, board “organizing” is a fairly low bar. We send them some readings, there’s a compelling presentation, and we have a robust conversation. That’s all fine and good, but what about power mapping your board, developing the leadership of specific board members to challenge consolidated power, and investing not only in their education, but in their skills and their relationships? Aligned board members are good. Aligned board members who can speak powerfully when they’re needed are great. And aligned board members who can speak powerfully and organize their peers to do the same are fantastic.

I simply cannot overemphasize the importance of culture in all of this. If political power is the ability to influence decision-making — in a city, a state, a country, and also in an organization — then cultural power is the ability to influence what people perceive and what they believe about themselves and the world around them. It’s a disservice to all of us when we misrepresent culture as simply a product of something else; culture sets the parameters for what we believe is possible or desirable in the first place. And the dominant culture of philanthropy — which is to say, the dominant perceptions, beliefs, values, and norms — undergirds literally everything that happens in the sector. Transforming structures will require that we shift cultures as well.

Finally, it would be irresponsible of me not to name the ways in which race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability show up in this work. Given philanthropy’s torrid love affair with “diversity, equity, and inclusion” as a reformist and tokenistic frame, we cannot simply recruit leaders from marginalized or oppressed communities into philanthropic spaces that are often implicitly — or even explicitly! — white supremacist, classist, cisheteropatriarchal, or ableist. When we talk about the power dynamics inherent to philanthropy, we clearly need to talk about all of the power dynamics between funders and grantees. And we also need to talk about the power dynamics among funders — even funders who are at the same organization or part of the same program team. Good organizers know how to navigate complex power dynamics, and even how to use them to their advantage. If we aim to develop the leadership of good funder organizers, then we’re going to need to be comfortable naming these dynamics early and often.


How We Tell the Story of Past Success Matters

Many of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about organizing have been through storytelling. And messy stories — or even stories of horrific failures — are often much more illuminating than tales of pristine victory. In philanthropy, however, we tend to sanitize stories more than most. Our proximity to wealth and power, and our desire to maintain that proximity, can discourage us from being fully transparent about what goes on behind closed doors. This might be a good strategy from an organizational PR perspective, but it’s a huge obstacle to our ability to learn from each other and propagate any of our hard-won successes.

In public, we tend to give boards or executives a lot of credit for progressive change at the organizational level — they’re the ones who already hold a lot of the power, after all. And sometimes they deserve that credit. But other times they were organized into it, often by their own staff. And there are still other times when these same boards or executives were, in fact, the largest obstacles to the very shifts that they’re now being given credit for. The act of erasing staff and grantee leadership — and, most especially, the leadership of women of color — is deeply problematic, even when it’s done in the name of discretion.

We may not always be able to name these dynamics, but how can we push ourselves to be more open, honest, and vulnerable about what it takes to really shift power in a sector that is deeply resistant to change? If our ultimate goal is to transform the structures of philanthropy, then this is a clear example of one of the cultural shifts that will be needed to get us there.


Key Lines of Inquiry Moving Forward

You may have noticed that I was able to produce several paragraphs on the subject of leadership development within the philanthropic sector...but not so much on the subjects of base building, organizational development, campaign development, or alliance building in that same context. These questions are still very much alive for me.

  • What would real base building and organizational development look like in the philanthropic sector, when most of our existing membership organizations are essentially professional associations? Who is the base? Are there multiple bases?

  • Which existing forms of workplace organizing should we be studying? How much can we learn? What’s analogous in philanthropic workplaces? What’s totally distinct?

  • What philanthropic campaigns do we currently have the capacity to pull off? What campaigns do we need to build capacity for, and what would the path to building that capacity look like?

  • How can we organize in a sector that’s notorious for being totally unaccountable? What are the carrots and the sticks that are currently available to us? How can we take bigger risks strategically? And how can we better support those taking the most risk?

  • On that theme, what would organized disruption, civil resistance, or direct action look like in a philanthropic context? Is it even possible? When and how would this kind of approach make the most sense?

  • How do we ensure that our funder organizing is both informed by and accountable to the movements and the communities that we seek to support? In particular, how can those situated within philanthropy step into greater leadership as funder organizers, shifting the (currently disproportionate) burden away from those still outside of philanthropy while simultaneously working in close collaboration with them?

Having read the above, you may be wondering, what's the ask here? For my fellow funders, the ask is to join me in exploring the questions above and to shift the ways in which we engage with each other. For organizers, the ask is to encourage your funder allies to lean into this work, and — if you can put up with us — to support us in sharpening our own organizing skills. Given the multi-year nature of this work, we have no time to lose.


Putting It All in Perspective: Structural Reforms and the End of Private Philanthropy as We Know It

My own aspiration is to deploy family philanthropy as a tactic for reparations, with the rather large caveat that this involves explicitly challenging what words like “philanthropy” or “investment” usually mean. And I believe that the concept of reparations in its fullest sense will require rethinking aspects of our entire political economy — not just “paying off a debt” within the current system. There is no justice at scale within the confines of racial capitalism.

Philanthropy as it’s conventionally understood is the product of racial capitalism. As a result, I see progressive — or even radical — private philanthropy as, at best, a transitional form. If we seek to support transformational work, then we ourselves must be open to transformation. I like to think of this as a “just transition” for the philanthropic sector: we must directly challenge the conditions that produced the wealth inequality that allowed for private philanthropy in the first place.

As I alluded to in my introduction, I have grown to think of myself as an abolitionist in many ways, including with respect to private philanthropy. Conversations about “good” vs. “bad” philanthropy can be useful and important, but, ultimately, I’m most interested in helping to build a world in which the resources and the power aren’t extracted and consolidated in the first place. This, to me, is the ultimate objective of transformative funder organizing. Moving the money is just a part of getting us there; we must also challenge the conditions that put funders in charge of the money in the first place. And so I leave you with my final question: if another world is truly possible, and if private philanthropy need no longer exist in that world, then what is the role of today’s funder organizers in bringing that world into being?


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