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Upending Philanthropy’s Power Dynamics: A Workshop Recap

November 18, 2020 - By Donita Volkwijn
DEI, Equity, Workshop

This year, the conjoined pandemics of COVID-19 and historic institutional racism sparked a long-overdue reckoning with pervasive, systemic injustices in the United States and across the globe. As an institution that uses private resources to deliver a public good, this moment prompted philanthropy to turn the magnifying glass onto itself and engage in thoughtful and honest examination of how it has both benefited from and contributed to inequities and injustices. As part of this journey, many philanthropic institutions have begun to consider how they can more effectively foster equitable power dynamics internally and within the external ecosystem of grantees and partners.

The heightened demand and appetite for guidance and meaningful discussion around how philanthropy is addressing inequity was illustrated by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ recent How Can Philanthropy Walk the Equity Walk and Shift Power Dynamics Internally and Externally? seminar. This convening was part of the peer-learning curriculum of the Theory of Foundation Learning Collaborative, a global cohort of dozens of leading foundations and philanthropic institutions. The session was attended by nearly 50 people representing a variety of countries, foundations and organizational positions and featured the insights and experiences of four esteemed panelists: Chris Cardona, Ford Foundation; Max Rutherford, Association of Charitable Foundations; Juanita James, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation; and David Daniels, Bainum Family Foundation.

Under the masterful facilitation of RPA vice presidents Mae Hong and Gregory Ratliff, honest and sometimes uncomfortable conversations revealed the ubiquity of the struggle faced by the sector in creating and implementing sustainable strategies that uphold truly equitable practices both internally and externally. The recognition that the sector needs to examine and perhaps rethink structures and systems that have long been stalwarts of philanthropy’s identity emerged as a further challenge (and opportunity!) for philanthropy.

While this conversation is but one of many steps on the journey to equity and racial justice, a few core themes emerged from the session:

Equity as a Core Value; Not an Effort

By referring to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as “efforts”, many organizations relegate equity work to that of something unrelated to the main work of their missions.  As the United States has seen in the growing awareness of the impact of centuries old, deeply embedded racist structures, inequity can only be reversed if equity work is prioritized and interwoven with core values.  Similarly, other parts of the world must reckon with the vestiges of colonialism and the newer but ever-deepening refugee crisis.  For organizations with branches around the globe, the conversation becomes about acknowledging and finding common ground in the myriad ways in which inequity manifests.

Alignment of Stakeholders

In a real-time survey, seminar participants identified the three biggest challenges to doing DEI work as: (1) fear of making a mistake; (2) lack of support from the board and senior leadership; and (3) not knowing how to break down the enormity of the work. If fear of making a mistake leads to slower progress than what this moment requires, the risk is that those for whom the urgency is necessary will leave others behind. If leadership is hesitant to address inequity, it’s difficult for those in the organization to object and if the scope of the work allows some to balk, organizations have a more difficult time in beginning or continuing the conversation.

​The divergence in stakeholders’ understanding of where they land along the DEI continuum adds another layer of difficulty to moving the work forward.  Whether the divide exists between board and management, management and staff, or Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) staff and white colleagues, the equity conversation is always further along in some communities, necessitating a tricky negotiation between meeting people where they are and ensuring that the work continues apace.

Letting Go of the Expert Identity

Philanthropy has long prided itself on its expertise and ability to pioneer strategies to address need.  As the equity conversation takes center stage, however, philanthropy now needs to reckon with its role in creating the very inequities it is trying to solve.  In response, philanthropy must shift its identity from expert to student in order to allow different voices and perspectives to lead the conversation.

Recognizing and Adjusting Power Dynamics

In creating truly equitable spaces, assumptions about who wields power have been turned on their head.  Traditionally, the entity holding the funds makes the decisions about where and how funding is disseminated, leading to a power imbalance between funders and grantees.  Community voices have begun to challenge that norm and are being raised to assert an increased role in determining where and by whom funding should be channeled. Participatory grantmaking, support of BIPOC-led nonprofits and the demand for internal DEI work are changing the power dynamic and leading to more balanced partnerships.

The biggest takeaway from the day was the need for the conversation to continue, because no one can do this work alone. Creating safe and brave spaces for leaders in philanthropy to learn from each other so that they, in turn, can learn from their communities is necessary to ensure that the conversation moves to action.

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