Giving for Radical Impact: Philanthropy in a Time of Revolution

Giving for Radical Impact: Philanthropy in a Time of Revolution

Expert opinion


Giving better begins with acknowledging that you are in the position to give because of the broken systems that philanthropy is built on.

During the past few months, I have been asked more times than I can count about how to give better. The questions come almost exclusively from white people. Questions like, “Do I donate to organizations working on the urgent response to COVID-19 or to those working on long-term health systems change?” “Should I focus on upending systemic racism in this country or work on fighting injustice all over the world?” “As someone with privilege (whiteness, wealth, health, and so on), what can I do to help?”

I don’t begin to have all the answers to these questions; I too am asking them every single day. I am a white woman with privilege. I lead the Maverick Collective, a community of bold women philanthropic partners who deeply engage in the work they are funding to ensure women and girls in the developing world have health, well-being and equality. The Collective, powered by global health non-profit PSI, includes many white women and some women of color. We have virtually convened every single week for the last 10 weeks, to hear from leading thinkers and actors around the world, share our stories of hope and resilience, and foster collective action. We have asked these same questions of leaders in global philanthropy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Skoll Foundation. We have shared readings and resources on how to be anti-racist and decolonize development from trusted allies like Stephanie Kimou at PopWorks Africa. We have asked ourselves critical questions about what needs to change in our own consciousness, and in the ways that we approach philanthropy, to support movements for social justice here and around the world.

I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that for those of us who are white, this process is uncomfortable. And so very provocative. I feel called to act. If you are white, wealthy and/or philanthropic, I call you to act as well.

Here arejust a few ways to start immediately.

1) Give now and give a lot. It is glaringly obvious that we need big changes. Long-term, structural and systemic changes that require the transformation of power structures, governing bodies, policies and practices that are deeply embedded in social, cultural and religious norms. Those kinds of changes need more than what philanthropy can do alone. However, philanthropic capital has an essential role to play. Philanthropic capital is nimble, flexible and can be deployed rapidly to where it is needed right now. It is time to give what you can, regardless of how large or small the gift. Over $120 billion is sitting in donor advised funds (DAF) and community foundations, already allocated for giving and yet by sitting there, it is doing nothing for the organizations and communities that need it most. Whether this is because donors don’t have the time to research organizations to give to or wish for the money to be allocated by future generations, it just feels wrong. If you give through a donor advised fund, release that money now! Perhaps this is the time to make a pledge to the #HalfMyDaf campaign, spearheaded by Jennifer and David Risher. Don’t let your philanthropic capital sit there waiting for a better time. This generation is responsible for solving this generation’s problems.

2) Create an impact portfolio. Diversify your philanthropic investments across a few trusted and credible organizations that are working on issues you care about. This might mean splitting your resources between local direct response organizations like food banks and shelters and with international organizations like PSI, that are responding directly and building better and more resilient health systems for the future. Or using some of your philanthropic dollars to support political candidates who will stand up and fight for the values, ideologies and policies you care about. You could also add gifts of your time and talent to your impact portfolio. Volunteer. Join a board. Feed a protester. Talk to your kids about racism and equality. Put your purpose and your resources to work by pulling all of the levers you can in the ecosystem of social change. Remember that low overhead does not equate with high impact! Impact is determined by an organization’s values and results. Pay them to deliver on those.

3) Invest in women and in particular, women of color. We know that investing in women and girls, particularly women and girls of color, is one of the smartest investments we can make. This means investing in organizations that put women and girls at the center of their work, lifting them up, amplifying their voices and removing the barriers that sit in the way of exercising their rights and their power. Equally critical is investing in organizations that are led by women and people of color. Eighty percent of U.S. nonprofits are white-led. Yet, as Vanessa Daniels writes in her fantastic NY Times op-ed, women of color are the M.V.P.s of social change. “They go beyond asking for incremental gains to demand the full scope of what all communities deserve.” Invest in organizations that are led by women of color and that are working for women of color. A personal favorite of mine is Mamatoto Village, a DC-based, women-of-color-led organization creating career pathways in healthcare for women of color and providing essential perinatal support for black and brown mamas. Want other ideas? Check out Radha Friedman’s great piece last week for 50 women of color-led organizations in the U.S. that we should support right now.

4) Invest in yourself. Invest your time, and money, in raising your own consciousness. Invest in your learning and your growth, as a human, a non-black ally and a donor. Explore the constructs of power and inequality that put you in the position to have money and to give it away. Bring together your non-black circles to do this important, and often uncomfortable work. Discover, name, and then work harder than ever to abandon the implicit biases that live within us all. Importantly, find partners — other donors and non-profits — that will go on that journey of discovery with you. At PSI and through Maverick Collective, we work with philanthropic partners through experiential philanthropy. With 2–3 year investments in innovations for women and girls, Maverick Collective Members and Fellows deepen their understanding of the issues they are funding through direct work alongside PSI colleagues, one another, and most importantly with the women and girls that are impacted by our programs. Imagine, it is one thing to read articles about child marriage. It is quite another to be able to sit and drink coffee with a 15 year old girl and her husband in their home in rural Ethiopia, discussing their hopes and dreams. Over the course of their journey with us, Maverick Collective members and Fellows become informed advocates for the issues they are funding, bold leaders with a voice and seat at the table, and strategic investors in social impact.

5) Create space to listen. For too long, we have tried to solve problems about which we don’t have first-hand experience. I am talking about myself. I may be talking about you. We who are not black or brown. We who are not discriminated against when trying to access basic healthcare. We who do not worry for our lives or our children’s lives every time we go out for a run. We who are not on the brink of poverty because the pandemic has killed our livelihood. We who are identified and identify as experts because we read and travel and gather at exclusive conferences. We who have time and space to think about privilege, because our very lives are not at stake if we are not doing anti-oppression work.

It is time to use our privilege to pass the mic and listen.

And then we need to listen with our full bodies — with our ears and eyes and hearts and minds — to the people and communities with lived expertise. We must trust and celebrate that expertise. We should resource and vote for the ideas, ideals and leaders that grow from it. We will stop trying to give answers and just ask questions.

At PSI we are doing the hard work of recognizing that for 50 years we have strived to empower others. Yet to empower is to imply that we hold the power and control if, to whom and when to give it over. We are breaking up with the word empowerment and we are standing in solidarity with people and communities with lived expertise. For the next 50 years, we will strive to remove the barriers that stand in the way of women and girls using their power. The power they already have. We will listen to them. We will design with them. We will let them lead.

We all have work to do in trying to figure out our own interpersonal connection to the issues of our times, without making it about us. Our country is built on centuries of inequality and broken systems that have privileged just a few. Giving better begins with acknowledging that you are in the position to give because of the broken systems that philanthropy is built on. It means asking yourself, in the words of Darren Walker in his powerful book Generosity to Justice, whether you are more concerned about others’ liberation or your own legacy.

Recognize and embrace, as uncomfortable as it is, the ignorance that your privilege allows you to live with. Bring that ignorance, and your resulting curiosity, to the work. Listen. Be uncomfortable. No matter what, choose to act. Your choice to act, no matter its size, is a choice for justice.