NCRP webinar panelists stress philanthropy’s role in reimagining what’s possible for democracy and the economy

Leaders discuss philanthropy’s role in moving a progressive agenda during the current coronavirus pandemic.

Written by: Elbert Garcia

Date: May 28, 2020

For the panelists assembled for NCRP’s latest webinar, philanthropy’s role in helping communities steer through the current coronavirus pandemic is clear. There is a responsibility to go beyond grantmaking and use their influence to make possible the dreams of a better world.

That means not just funding organizers and movements, but also getting involved in policy debates, even if it means directly challenging political leaders to do better.

“Advocacy is important,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal. “It is chairing committees, of course, but it’s also writing op-eds; it’s calling your members of Congress who pay attention to the wealth of philanthropy to address these deep inequities that are built into our system … [to] pay less attention to what is politically possible because ultimately, I believe what’s politically possible is what we make possible.”

Jayapal was one of the 4 leaders who joined NCRP President & CEO Aaron Dorfman for a funder strategy conversation that explored how foundations could not just provide immediate relief, but also long-term support that empowers communities beyond the current moment.

“We need to name why people have gotten sick. Why they have lacked access to quality care and why they died, and specifically why Black, Indigenous, immigrant communities of color have died at horrifying rates,” said Marguerite Casey Foundation incoming President Carmen Rojas. “We need to say clearly that our family members aren’t [just] dying. They are being killed. Killed by bad policies, killed by corporate responsibility and killed by those who profit and keep power because racism exists.”

“This is a time to wield the power that we have and be the influencers,” said Colorado Health Foundation President and CEO Karen McNeil-Miller. “This is the time to say to the governor’s office or [your state’s] Department of Human Services or whatever department of government that is in our wheelhouse: ‘Yes, I’ll lead that committee for you. Let me take that off your hands.”

“This is a movement moment where we need to do more and it is also a generational battle to instantiate a different set of ideas about what America should be and can be,” said Hilary Pennington, executive vice president of the Ford Foundation. “Let’s stop talking and start acting more – and hold ourselves accountable for doing that.”

Increasing Payouts

Each of the funders on the panel expressed their institution’s desire to spend more than their traditional payouts in providing long-term support for vulnerable communities. It is spending that should also come with it, a long-term shift with how philanthropy operates with grantees.

“We in progressive philanthropy have tended to steer grantees towards our projects, our priorities, rather than giving them the support and freedom to lead where they say see fit,” said Pennington. “At a time when the nonprofit sector is in free fall and organizations are themselves in crisis, we should not expect grantees to ask us to fundamentally change the relationship that they have with us. We have to do it. We have to make the offer and the invitation to them, and we have to step up and do it individually and much more strategically together.”

“I would just urge us to think boldly about what the answers are,” said Jayapal. “Politics is the art of the possible, and we should be in the business of pushing the limits of what is seen as possible because that is not the same as what is actually possible. Foundations can help us not only through your grantees, but through your own advocacy. Say ‘This is the solution. These are the kinds of solutions that we should be pushing.’”

More than 100 leaders from nonprofits and foundations participated in hour-long mid-week discussion. Speakers touched upon a number of points and issues, including:

Originally intended as a behind-the-scenes, off-the-record conversation for funders and nonprofits, Dorfman said that by the end of the webinar, it was clear that participants wanted to forward the discussion to colleagues who not only couldn’t attend, but who needed to hear what was said.

“Our panelists were clear. This is the moment to dream big, to be bold,” said Dorfman afterwards. “We know that conservative funders increased their spending during the Great Recession while most liberal and centrist funders cut back. Let us not just wonder why some people and their issues made gains. Let’s act to avoid those same mistakes during this crisis and provide the support that leaders of color on the ground need so that we can all move forward together.