Philanthropy and the Destructive Illusion of “Leveling the Playing Field”

[Image description: Closeup of a person kneeling on a race track, as if in preparation to run in a race. They are wearing shorts and holding a baton. Image from]
A few months ago a program officer and I were talking about the lack of funding that goes to communities-of-color-led nonprofits (only about 10% of philanthropic dollars go to organizations of color). He shook his head in sympathy and frustration, sipping on his coffee. “There has to be a way to level the playing field,” he said. This was probably the third time that quarter I had heard that phrase uttered by a funder. 

This concept of “Leveling the Playing Field” is very present in our sector in our society, like cats or skinny jeans, and we don’t really question it at all. We assume that it is a good thing. If we just make it so that competitions are “fair,” then the people/groups with the most merit, the best ideas and proposals, will win. If we can just make the field more even, then everyone will be able to play the game and everything is good. 

This philosophy has led some thoughtful funders to accept applications in Spanish or other languages, accept handwritten applications, or accept non-written formats such as videos or photos (Although, how effective is this last one when my one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Capacity Building, has never resulted in funding?). 

Those practices are great, but can they level the playing field? Can the funding field ever be “level”?

I say no. The funding field can never ever truly be leveled, and the hopeful belief that it can has been preventing us from making profound changes in funding practices that would lead to resources going to the communities that are most affected by injustice. I know it is nice to believe that we can achieve an even, fair, unbiased competitive process, but the reality is that the combination of unconscious biases, the capacity paradox, and unequal access to relationships with funders will make sure that there is no possible way we can truly reach a state where all organizations, including ones led by marginalized communities, can “fairly” compete for funding:

Unconscious biases: All of us are unconsciously biased in one way or another. There have been lots of studies on this. For example, the often-cited one showing that resumes with black-sounding names in an experiment are significantly less likely to move to the interview round, even though the resumes are exactly the same as the ones with white-sounding names.

If we did a similar experiment (and we should) where we have the same grant proposals, but some are from organizations perceived to be more “mainstream,” and others with organizations perceived to be more “minority,” I’m pretty sure we will have similar results. This does not mean that people are bad—because, again, all of us have unconscious biases (Find out yours through this online test designed by Harvard)—but we all need to acknowledge that our implicit biases will ensure that we will never ever be completely objective when determining which organizations to fund.

Capacity Paradox: Even if the field were perfectly level, it does not mean that everyone will be able to compete equally. Organizations have different levels of capacity. Some have a team of development and grantwriting staff while others have a one or two or no paid staff in total. Some have staff who are well-trained in fund seeking; others rely on volunteers who have never written a grant proposal before. Some nonprofit leaders have authored dissertations; others are starting to learn English. To expect them to compete with each other is like expecting someone who hasn’t eaten in twelve days to race against a well-fed, trained, and rested person. It doesn’t matter if the tracks are “level.” Even giving the hungry person a head start may not be enough to compensate.

The sad thing, if we want to extend the analogy, is if these two people are competing for food. Winner gets to eat, which creates a horrible cycle where the starving person continues to starve. Sadly, that’s exactly what it’s like in our current funding system, where the Capacity Paradox is the default: organizations that do not have capacity to get resources continue to struggle to get resources to develop their capacity, no matter how “fair” we try to make the race.

Unequal access to relationships: Relationships are critical in sector. The best services, programs, collaborations, boards, office culture—everything—are grounded by strong relationships. I have seen many amazing program officers develop strong and trusting professional relationships with nonprofit leaders from marginalized communities, leading to critical funding for these communities.

But still, the reliance on relationships can be extremely harmful. The competition for relationships is just as inequitable as the competition for money, and smaller, grassroots organizations led by marginalized communities will simply not have as much time or as many staff to devote to developing relationships with funders. When the ED is literally unloading sacks of potatoes to give to hungry families, as I saw a colleague do when I was checking in on her one day, it is hard for them to find the extra time or energy required to form strong relationships that may lead to funding.

The combination of these and others reasons, such as cultural differences in communication, ensure that we will never be able to reach this “level playing field” in the funding landscape no matter how hard we try. The belief that a level playing field is achievable often results in bizarre situations, such as my organization, a capacity building and leadership org, once having to compete with a preschool program for the same fund. 

More seriously, the belief is dangerous because it weaves an illusion of equity and allows us to be complacent. Accepting applications in another language is great, but will it actually lead to profound organizational or systems changes that true equity requires?

Again, I say no. If a rule or process is inequitable to begin with, making exceptions instead of trying to change the rule or process still reinforces the inequity. 

So what’s the alternative? The solution that true equity demands is to create entirely new fields, fields that are targeted specifically for the communities that are most affected by systemic injustice. Funders must help figure out which communities are experiencing the most inequity, then target significant long-term funding specifically toward organizations and movements that are visibly led by and serving those communities, demonstrated by the majority of their board and staff, not just their clients, being from those communities.

What does this look like? Here are some examples:

If your foundation cares about the tragically high rates of missing Native women, then create a significant, multi-year fund that can ONLY be accessed by organizations led by Native/indigenous people to address this critical issue. Make it very clear that every applicant must have at least 75% of their board and staff be Native. Disqualify all organizations from consideration that do not meet this basic criterion. 

If your foundation cares about the horrifically high rates of black men being unjustly incarcerated, then create a significant, multi-year fund that can ONLY be accessed by organizations led by and serving the black community. Make it very clear that every applicant must have at least 75% of their board and staff be black. Disqualify all organizations from consideration that do not meet this basic criterion. 

If your foundation wants to address the constant employment discrimination faced by people with disabilities, then create a significant, multi-year fund that can ONLY be accessed by organizations led by people with disabilities. Make it very clear that every applicant must have at least 75% of their board and staff be people with disabilities. Disqualify all organizations from consideration that do not meet this basic criterion.

If your foundation cares about the potential political and economic ramifications of the undercounting of immigrant and refugee residents in the upcoming 2020 Census, then create a significant, multi-year fund that can ONLY be accessed by organizations led by immigrants and refugees. Make it very clear that every applicant must have at least 75% of their board and staff be immigrants and refugees. Disqualify all organizations from consideration that do not meet this basic criterion.

You get the idea. 75% is a number I threw out there, based on my general belief that 75% is a decent percentage to say that an organization is legitimately led by certain communities, but we can debate over that. There are plenty of valid exceptions; for example, a community may be small so may not yet be able to reach this 75% threshold of board/staff representation, yet they are clearly led by and serving that community. 

What I don’t want to debate is the tedious and predictable argument that leaders from marginalized communities have been hearing from funders for decades:

“Well, we can’t invest significant, multi-year funding in y’all because you don’t have the capacity. You don’t have strong financial and other systems to handle large investments. Here’s 10K to help you hire a consultant to develop a strategic plan that will likely never be implemented because we won’t fund staffing. Please apply again; next cycle we accept applications in slam poetry format to make it more accessible to diverse applicants!”

This attitude has been trapping nonprofits led by marginalized communities in the Capacity Paradox, and then these same funders often complain about the lack of diversity in the sector.

It’s frustrating. Honestly, the leaders from marginalized communities that I have been talking to are really sick and tired of competing in foundations’ “fair and open processes” that have historically been leading to the dismal rates of philanthropic dollars going to communities of color (1.4% going to black-led orgs, 1.48% going to Latinx-led orgs, one-half percent going to Native/Indigenous-led orgs). Philanthropy’s “fair and open” grantmaking process is a destructive illusion that has been perpetuating the very inequity philanthropy is trying to solve.

This pervasive and harmful “level playing field” belief needs to end. The playing field will never be level. EVER. Stop hoping it will be. And even if it does for some miraculous reason become level, it would still further the default Hunger-Games-based model of funding distribution that is fundamentally bad.

Do not try to level the playing field. Create new fields. And let’s start ending competition-based grantmaking altogether. Just as nonprofits do not generally force our clients to compete with one another to get services, but rather we target services to the individuals and families who most need help, funders must do the same thing. Stop forcing us to compete with one another in a misguided attempt to appear “fair,” and do the hard work of identifying where the greatest needs are, providing significant funds to community-led organizations and movements, treating them as partners, and helping them to succeed.

Related post: The Courage to Be Unfair

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