Hi everyone. Last week I was in Minneapolis for the GEO (Grantmakers for Effective Organizations) conference. I was there primarily to give a short talk called “Want to Help Communities of Color? Stop Trickle-Down Community Engagement” and avoid work. But I stuck around for most of the conference, mainly because funder conferences always have way better food and booze. I was trying to hoard appetizers, having developed this unconscious fear of being in places traditionally reserved for funders. If I was going to get found out as an unwashed nonprofit Wildling and asked to leave, by golly I was going to take as many grilled artichoke hearts with me as I could.
But then I realized that my organization, Rainier Valley Corps, is considered by many as a funder. Instead of giving financial support to organizations, though, we send resources in the form of full-time fellows of color, whom we train, to develop the capacity of host organizations led by communities of color. They apply to be a host org. No wonder these past two years everyone has been treating me nice, and no wonder I’ve suddenly become 27% more attractive to most people, despite being married and having two kids and basically having let myself go.
With that realization, I stayed for most of the conference, savoring the jicama sticks instead of cramming them into my conference bag along with as many pens as I can gather from the vendor tables. As I attended workshops and panels, listened to the other speakers, and talked individually to a few funders and nonprofits, I learned a bunch of stuff. And maybe GEO just puts on a really good and thoughtful conference, but I felt something at this conference I haven’t felt for a while: Hope. Hope that philanthropy can change to more effectively address problems our communities are facing. If the GEO conference of 800 people, mostly funders, is any indication, we can all be a little more optimistic:
“Equity is not a track”: I forgot who said this during one of the plenaries, but it resonated. Conferences usually have tracks, such as the leadership track, the strategic direction track, the data and evaluation track, the synergistic innovation for disruptive paradigm shifting track, or whatever. I have seen Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as a track at many conferences. The problem with that is that tracks are optional, and oftentimes the people who most need to traverse a track are not the ones on it. If Equity is a track, it allows people to opt out of the difficult conversation. But ours is a sector born to address inequity and injustice in all its forms. Discussions of equity, race, inclusion, diversity, etc., are no longer optional for any of us in the sector, especially funders. They must be interwoven through everything we do. True to its word, the difficult conversations on inequity, especially racial inequity, were threads that bound the conference together.
Feeling good about feeling bad: During the awesome second-day lunch plenary panel, where several leaders shared their experience with race and diversity, a woman, who was white, stood up and asked if we could all just “remove the race card and see each other as human beings.” The collective cringing from the room of 800 people was palpable. Colorblindness is one of the most subtle forms of racism, and it is deadly precisely because it sounds reasonable to a lot of genuinely nice people. But if we don’t see color, we don’t see injustice, and if we don’t see injustice, we can’t effectively address it. What I appreciated about this conference was that I saw several instances of people being willing to bring these issues to light, to name things that should be named. This process is often painful for many of us, requiring self-reflection and humility. But maybe it shouldn’t be as scary as it often is. If we create environments where we can be honest with one another, admit to our mistakes, feel bad once a while, assume the best intentions of one another, and learn from each other, then we can more effectively tackle these systemic challenges.
Speed and agility: I learned during Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza’s talk, that philanthropy has been slower to support and has given less in funding to the BLM movement than celebrities have. And this mirrors support of other civil rights movements. This is frustrating and depressing, but unfortunately, not surprising. Philanthropy has often not been agile enough to respond to pressing community needs, which often change and evolve rapidly. I can imagine, if Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi were leading their movements today and applied for a grant, they would be told by numerous foundations, “Sorry, but your program doesn’t align with our strategic priorities for catalytic grantmaking.” But, I see hopeful signs of many foundations starting to realize they must act faster, take more risks, and be more flexible, or else they will continue to miss the social justice train, currently funded by Beyoncé.
Creating space for Others: I’m paraphrasing a speaker, who said something along the lines of, “We are attracted to the idea of including Others, but we don’t prepare the space for them.” During the conference, I met with many program officers of color who were frustrated by the fact that they are got a job at a foundation, and yet their ideas, especially on race and equity, are constantly dismissed. Sometimes, their way of doing things is mislabeled. One leader said he was sent to anger management training. “The counselor and I talked about other things, because she knew I didn’t have an anger problem.” Diversity and inclusion are not the same thing. If we recruit diverse people, but then fail to include them in decision-making and agenda-setting, then it’s just tokenizing. There are now several fellowships to bring more leaders of color into philanthropy (such as the Momentum Fellowship). This is great, but if we’re going to do that, let’s make sure the host foundations, and the field of philanthropy as a whole, are ready for them. It’s a good sign we’re talking about it.
The end of Safe Space. In the context of philanthropy, safe space is about foundations having a place away from us irritating nonprofits who are always constantly asking for money to help poor people and the environment and stuff. We nonprofits are rarely invited to these conferences and gatherings of funders, which is frustrating at best, and counterproductive at worst. I crashed another conference of funders a couple of years ago, and felt like an outcast—like a vegan at a BBQ contest. But how can we possibly solve entrenched societal issues if the people doing the work and the people funding it are not talking to one another, if one does not feel “safe” with the other? The GEO conference demonstrated that funders and nonprofits could coexist and have thoughtful conversations without being suspicious of one another’s motivations.
Trust-based grantmaking: Funders and nonprofits have a weirdly adversarial relationship, and it’s reflected in our language when we say things like, “I used to sit on that side of the table…” Being treated as equal partners is something we nonprofits have been asking for for a while, but it always seems like we’re Wildlings standing on one side of the Wall. Are we not fighting the same battles, addressing the same issues? Is Winter not coming for all of us? Why do we constantly need to earn funders’ trust one ounce, one budget line item, one BS answer to the sustainability question at a time? Why can we not start with trust as the default? I was heartened to hear the conversation changing at the GEO convening, led by great funders like The Whitman Institute, whose philosophy of trust-based grantmaking is not only a much-needed salve for us weary nonprofits, but also critical if we all hope to fight the ice zombies of injustice.
General-operating, multi-year funding: And if we actually trust nonprofits and see them as true partners, then multi-year gen-op funding is the only way to go. With so many issues our communities are facing, none of us have time to waste playing the game of Funding Sudoku. Unrestricted funding is not only effective and efficient and allows nonprofits to focus on outcomes, but it is also more equitable. Restricted funding leaves behind communities of color and other marginalized communities, drive good people to burn out, and wastes millions of hours of everyone’s time each year. I know GEO has been recommending general operating for a long time now (here’s the action guide). Yet it’s still been slow to gain traction in the field. But I see signs, fleeting glimmers of light, that multi-year general operating is catching on with funders. I can’t wait until a few years from now, when we look back at restricted funding and see it the way we now see phrenology, leech therapy, or skinny jeans.
I know there are tons of things we all need to do better, both funders and nonprofits. But if these above trends continue—and if they are implemented out in the field instead of only seen at conferences—we, and the communities we serve, have good reasons to hope. It makes me proud to be a good-looking funder.
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