Funders can’t turn over leadership to communities if they aren’t leaders in the first place

Observations on last month’s blog post, “4 Questions to sit with as you learn to let communities lead”

Written by: Allen Smart

Date: January 23, 2020

I read with interest the recent NCRP blog post that summarized the “Let Communities Lead” session at last year’s great Upswell convening in Chicago.

Because I led a session on rural funder practice at the meeting and got in late, I couldn’t attend the session. But, the summary rekindled some thoughts I had when I first read the session description.

The session title implies that funders are leaders and they must turn over responsibility for leadership to communities.

If we define leadership in philanthropy as somehow identifying, advocating for and working to test or implement solutions to fundamental challenges faced by those without voice, then most funders are not leaders.

Many funders are at best highlighters of important issues but most are essentially followers. So the idea that there is leadership to turn over doesn’t ring true.

It’s more accurate to say that funders need to help communities strengthen and support their (the communities’) leadership skills and sensibilities – whatever that might look like.

What is the risk? Funders strengthen and support communities to practice the bogged-down de-energized leadership that often plagues funders.

Who do funders want to work with when they turn over this “leadership” to communities?

Not surprisingly, the same leaders who have been complicit in being good managers of those archaic funder-nonprofit relationships that have been around since the founding of philanthropy.

If funders want to inspire the elevation of community leadership on important issues, then the traditional nonprofit leaders aren’t going to be the majority of the core group that funders will support.

Funders have somehow decided along the way that community leadership is housed primarily in nonprofits. Sometimes it is, but that is the exception and not the rule.

Funders need to get their arms around the idea that nonprofits aren’t the dominant stakeholder, but are part of much larger and complex ecosystems.

Thankfully, we seem to have reached a mild consensus that longer-term grants – whether for general operating support or projects – are better than short-term and inconsistent support.

Leadership can surface better over time if communities aren’t wondering if support is coming or going.

Unfortunately, though, we need to confront the age-old conversation about dependency that is hard-wired into some funder mindsets and history.

From my first venture into private philanthropy almost 25 years ago, I have heard about how funders are doing folks a disservice by financially supporting them – as if the communities are some struggling relative needing that third or fourth extra chance to get back on their feet.

We say we don’t want organizations to become “dependent.” That is a loaded word, but one that is too frequently used in philanthropy and used with only a passing understanding of how a belief in nonprofit dependency as a risk will prevent any attempts at letting communities lead.

What if a funder of genuine goodwill “Lets the Community Lead” and the response from community is “Just tell us what to do”?

We forget that these sometimes decades old relationships between funders and communities are so entwined around grantmaking and grantseeking that the community sense might be that all the funder has done is create another game, but without the rules being explained.

Thoughtful and strategic funders understand this and spend time testing out different ways to change the game, let local people inside the funder intention and act in ways that signal change but also breathe with periods of learning and reflection.

Trust is a different category that only the community gets to offer, not something interpreted by the funder.

I am hopeful that more funders are getting some of this work right. I am frustrated, however, with the assumption that funders can quickly change what they are doing, provoke the response they want and, as a result, a new system of relationships that is somehow equitable and community-run will fall into place.

It’s not like flicking a light switch. Funder behavior has much less influence on communities lives then all the philanthropic gnashing would lead us to believe – no matter what any provocative conference plenary speaker may have told us.

Philanthropy at its highest value supports people in acting on what the people know is best amidst all the noise and pressures of everyday living. That is an important, achievable and low-ego goal.

Allen Smart of PhilanthropywoRx is a spokesperson and advocate for improving rural philanthropic practice. Follow @allensmart6 on Twitter.