NCRP response to GEO’s call for a new definition of effectiveness

Written by: Aaron Dorfman

Date: February 15, 2018

The last few years have been complicated and challenging ones for the country. The three and a half years since the Ferguson Uprising have brought a renewed national focus on the depth, breadth and cost of pervasive structural racism, as well as a resurgent white supremacist political movement whose chief proponent holds our nation’s highest office.

A reinvigorated national movement for racial justice has gained steam, and other broad-based movements for gender, economic, climate and immigrant justice are successfully moving their agenda into the mainstream of progressive politics.

I have been encouraged by the reaction of many philanthropic institutions – both foundations and the organizations, such as the one I lead, that monitor and support them. It’s clear our diverse sector mostly agrees that systemic racial bias and inequity are the challenges of our time, challenges that philanthropy must wrestle with just as the country does. Many in the sector now agree that sitting on the sidelines during this national reckoning is not a viable option.

So I was pleased to read from my colleague Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), that in October 2017 GEO’s board adopted a new position on the centrality of racial equity to their organization’s mission.

“In the years ahead,” Kathleen wrote, “we are committed to supporting racial equity in philanthropy in ways that are aligned with the GEO community’s identity, [and] we are committed to helping develop a new concept of effectiveness … that integrates racial equity.”

I think it’s a good and healthy development for our sector that GEO has entered this space. For too long, effectiveness has been divorced from justice and equity.

NCRP agrees with GEO that “sound management” and “strong governance” – two key facets of its definition of organizational effectiveness – are fundamentally subjective, and therefore vulnerable to implicit bias. We also agree that executing programming well is only a public good if those programs are not based in what Kathleen called “false narratives” about the root causes of injustice.

We agree that these factors are undoubtedly at play in a nonprofit and philanthropic sector where whiteness – and white-dominated definitions of what effectiveness looks like – have always been the driving force behind the movement to identify and invest in effective organizations.

I am grateful to hear GEO name these contradictions and challenges in its work. They are the same contradictions and challenges that NCRP, also a white-led organization seeking to influence the philanthropic sector, has been wrestling with for decades.

During that time we’ve learned that the philanthropic sector’s understanding of effectiveness will never be complete or just without true responsiveness to communities harmed by inequity. Such responsiveness demands we examine our own privilege and how it distorts our understanding of effectiveness and impact.

Our research on grantmaking in the Southeast, the site of some of the most stubborn racial disparities in the country, confirms one of Kathleen’s observations: “[N]onprofits deemed ‘effective’ are often those most skilled at navigating the thicket of hurdles, requirements, and processes put in place by philanthropy,” and this dynamic converges with philanthropy’s white-dominant culture to disadvantage organizations led by and serving communities of color.

As we noted a year ago in As the South Grows: On Fertile Soil, “when funders expect a college degree or a polished grant proposal to justify an investment, they exclude organizations in need of philanthropic resources that are led by people who are most capable of organizing their communities. Funders often misconstrue signs of privilege for signs of capacity.”

“In New Orleans at the Unity Summit,” Kathleen wrote, “amazing and effective leaders who have been working for racial equity for many years – often at considerable personal risk and sacrifice – told us from the podium that they are not getting the support they need from philanthropy.”

NCRP has been documenting this woeful underinvestment for decades, helping under-resourced communities speak truth to power, and we’ve concluded that to truly advance equity, philanthropy needs to share its power with community leadership, especially leadership from communities of color.

Funders must embrace an ideal of responsiveness that cedes the power to define what is effective and what impact looks like, and shares the power to determine who is worthy of foundation investment with those communities directly affected by the challenges we confront. We must acknowledge that to continue to define effectiveness within the white-dominated halls of philanthropy is to perpetuate the racial injustice we deplore.

This aspirational responsiveness, which is difficult to achieve because philanthropy holds more power and privilege, has been and will continue to be at the center of NCRP’s work to change the sector. I cannot say that it comes easily to us: We operate in a space of contradictions – very much a creature of the sector we hope to hold accountable to people with whom we don’t always share lived experiences.

But the aspiration is at the heart of all our work. It drives our Philamplify initiative, whose objective has been to elevate grantee feedback as a tool for greater justice and equity in the field. It drives our As the South Grows campaign, which spotlights Southern grassroots leadership and challenges grantmakers to shift their understanding of Southern capacity and potential for progress.

I hope that a radically responsive perspective on grantmaking will also find its way into GEO’s push to implement racial equity values in its work. I’m optimistic it will, given GEO’s boldness in striking out into this new and challenging territory, Kathleen’s leadership and the strength of GEO’s board of directors (two of whose members also serve on NCRP’s board).

If, however, the GEO community doubles down on a definition of effectiveness that centers foundation voices and foundation perspective on the public good, they will have missed the mark.

I welcome GEO to a movement within philanthropy that has many visionary leaders. You are not in this alone.

Ultimately, all of us in the sector must move beyond a closed loop of redefining organizational effectiveness within a white-dominant framework. Until grantmakers cede the power to define what works to those for whom we work, racial equity grantmaking will remain beyond our reach.

Aaron Dorfman is president and CEO of NCRP. Follow @NCRP on Twitter.