Recent calls for foundation engagement leave out grantees and communities they serve

Only engaging with other philanthropists and ideological opponents reinforces issues of power and privilege.

Written by: Ryan Schlegel

Date: January 23, 2019

Two recent philanthropic sector news items have attracted the attention of philanthro-folks on social media. Both channel current debates about whose voices are heard in public discourse, and both hint at opportunities for foundations to embrace sharing their power with the communities they serve.

On Jan. 9, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that a group of extended Andrus family members who object to the Surdna Foundation’s current racial equity grantmaking strategy had sent letters to the Surdna board of directors expressing their displeasure.

Now their objections have been aired in a prominent industry publication.

The next day, Hewlett Foundation CEO Larry Kramer published an open letter in which he announced that, in order to “hear our opponents and make them feel heard,” the foundation’s staff would, over several months, spend time listening to the foundation’s opponents and deliberate the merits of their opinions. 

The implied identity of “opponents” in the letter seems to be those who would, like the Andrus family members, take issue with the Hewlett Foundation’s systems-change approach to their grantmaking.

What connects these stories is what is conspicuously missing: The voices of grantees and the often-marginalized communities they serve.

Both assert that foundation staff have a responsibility to engage meaningfully with those who would question their grantmaking strategies, but appear to presuppose that that category includes other philanthropists or ideological opponents.

In other words: People with similar levels of power and privilege as the foundation leadership and staff themselves.  

Neither speaks to the value of grantee community voices in that conversation, and that’s a missed opportunity that, luckily, can be easily remedied.

It’s no surprise that foundations, like the rest of us, have begun to wrestle publicly with hot-button issues in the past few years: Whose voice is worth listening to? Who has power and privilege in a changing country and world? Who should?

Whose voice is worth listening to?

“Foundations depend on their boards for wisdom, perspective, and sense-making. Board members who bring authentic relationships, experiences, and an understanding of the communities the foundation aims to serve are more likely to help shape strategies that are responsive to real needs.” – Jim Canales and Barbara Hostetter, Barr Foundation

Our capacity to listen empathetically should expand in light of the deep divisions recently exposed in our civic life. But we shouldn’t listen as if power and privilege do not exist.

The descendants of a mega-wealthy donor whose ideological viewpoint is echoed in the halls of the Senate, the White House and on the country’s most-watched TV network are not under-represented in the public discourse.

Those who would deny facts to defend the status quo – people who deny the facts of our changing climate, for example – are not those whose perspective is sorely missing from philanthropy.

It may feel broad-minded to give hearing to voices of dissent when they come from other people with power. But inviting conversation with other wealthy, privileged and, often, white people about what good grantmaking looks like is not a shift in the status quo. It’s what most foundations do by default every day.

In 2014, the D5 Coalition’s research showed that 92% of foundation CEOs and 87% of their board members were white. Just 38% of foundation board members were women, 2% identified as LGBTQ and just 1% identified as disabled.

No data exist on the socio-economic status of foundation CEOs and board members, but it’s not going out on a limb to conclude the overwhelming majority are people with high incomes, high wealth or both.

This begs the question: In a sector that is still overwhelmingly staffed by well-heeled white people, what would a shift in empathetic listening look like? Grantee organizations and the communities they serve hold part of the answer.  

Who has power?

“Public officials, grantmakers, and others in power may tap constituents for their ‘input’ at a neighborhood charrette or community meeting, but they often ultimately ignore community ideas and insights. As a result, many communities have plenty of experience with people in power telling them what is really good for them, rather than being able to speak for themselves and act on their own behalf.” – Linda S. Campbell, Detroit People’s Platform and Building Movement Project

Listening with empathy is necessary, but insufficient. The most effective foundations go beyond listening to actively sharing power in order to co-determine the best interventions with their grantees and the communities they are part of, which are closest to the sticky problems foundations are working to address.

These ideas are being put into practice by innovative institutions in the sector. In 2014, the Brooklyn Community Foundation launched a community engagement initiative that brought foundation staff and leadership into conversation with nearly 1,000 Brooklyn residents through 30 neighborhood roundtables.

The results: The foundation created a 17-member community advisory council, invested $100,000 in community-identified priorities and decided to implement the resident-driven process every year.

A wealth of knowledge, experience and innovation are left out of the grantmaking process when foundations make decisions in a vacuum without grantee and community input.

There are paths for institutions to take to begin listening with empathy to the unheard voices of philanthropy and sharing power through accountability.

NCRP’s Power Moves guide provides a host of different options for foundations interested in embarking on that journey.

And NCRP’s staff is ready to be a thought partner to those who decide they’re ready to take the leap toward accountability.  

It’s for each foundation to chart its course through this era when questions of power and privilege are inescapable, especially for a sector that is largely built on both.

Philanthropic leaders have incredible opportunities in this challenging time. Foundations that embrace sharing their power with their grantees and the communities they serve can unlock innovative new solutions to our pressing problems and begin to transform their grantmaking practices to become more effective, more authentic and more mission-aligned. 

Ryan Schlegel is NCRP’s director of research. Follow @NCRP on Twitter.