Privilege, power, and personal conflicts: The forces preventing change in nonprofit and philanthropy

[Image description: A crowed of protesters, most wearing masks covering their noses and mouths. They are holding signs, with prominent ones saying “Black trans lives matter,” “racism is the real virus,” “silence is violence,” “and enough is enough.”]

Hi everyone. Apologies, this post will likely be long, poorly edited, and not have as many links to sources and I would like. I haven’t slept much, and even with a partner who is an experienced educator, parenting and crisis-schooling two small children have been fun but challenging.

As the protests against our deeply anti-Black, extremely racist systems continue, I am glad to see that foundations and nonprofits are getting more engaged in the conversations about how our sector must change. Invest more in Black-led organizations. Support grassroots orgs working to enable marginalized communities to vote and elect more women of color into office. Analyze the diversity at our own organizations and DO SOMETHING about the pervasiveness of senior leaders being white and front-line staff being BIPOC. Change the way fundraising is done to be less white-donor-centered. Increase payout rates beyond the minimum 5% and give Multi-Year General Operating Funds (MYGOD)!

These and other solutions are not new. People with the most lived-experience with injustice have proposed them for decades. So why don’t things change? Why do we keep beating our heads against the wall? What is this wall? What is it made of? I’ve been thinking about it, and think there are three main forces at play.

First is Privilege, which is something we are familiar with, as we discuss it often. Those with privilege want to maintain it, so they will oppose change. However, a form of privilege we do not talk much about is Solutions Privilege, a phenomenon that includes people of privilege expecting solutions to be brought to them but being unable to even perceive solutions that challenge their privilege. They cannot even mentally register the solutions that are proposed, and that’s why they’re always like “Why don’t you propose solutions and stop whining?”

But there are two other major forces at work to prevent change, and we barely talk about them, much less deal with them, so I’ll focus on them more here. One major force is Power. There are power differentials everywhere. White people have significantly more power than Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Men have more power than women and nonbinary folks. Cis-gender folks have more power than trans folks. Currently-abled people have more power than disabled people. Neuro-typical people have more power than neuro-diverse people.

In our field, foundations have significantly more power than nonprofits. White-led organizations have more power than those led by BIPOC communities. Foundations with more money hoarded in their endowments have more power than those with less. And within both nonprofits and foundations, senior staff and board/trustee members have more power than everybody else.

If we do not address power dynamics, our proposed solutions will continue to be stymied. For instance, many diversity and equity efforts go nowhere because they are relegated to a DEI committee that does not actively include the CEO/ED and key board members. So then these committees spend endless time creating recommendations that are rarely implemented. And among foundations, there are many sympathetic program officers who are fighting hard to change philanthropy for the better, but the folks with the actual power to make changes—foundation trustees—are never in the room. They use their power and privilege to excuse themselves from these conversations and then use their power and privilege to shut down solutions they don’t like or understand.

It is time our sector grasp with these severe power imbalances and get comfortable with using different strategies. Seriously, as much as I appreciate articles pointing out the severe racial inequity in where philanthropic dollars are going, for example, this issue has been pointed out repeatedly, by countless people, for a long, long time now. Asking nicely of entrenched institutions and systems to change has not worked. We need some different tactics:

Demand that the people with power be present: How many times have all of us been in conversations and think “I wish my board member/CEO/foundation-trustees were here to hear this?” So many important efforts are blocked every day because we allow the people with the most power in our sector to skip out on vital conversations. Which means that the most powerful people are also the most clueless. This has to stop. Demand that they be present or that they delegate decision-making powers to those who are. Especially foundation trustees: You all need to stop thinking of this work as a hobby; either show up to vital discussions, trust your staff who do to make decisions, or get off the board.  

Mobilize the voices of the community: As we have seen recently in the protests, power often only responds to massive demonstrations of number. Unfortunately, many of us in the sector have never learned the basics of organizing or have let our skills rust from lack of use. It’s time to learn or relearn them. I know it is challenging to mobilize folks, especially those who are busy dealing with systemic injustice, but oftentimes packing the room, or virtual meeting, with dozens or hundreds of faces is the best way to break power out of its insidious habit of reducing people to statistics. We need to remind people in power that their decisions affect the lives of real people.

Work on legislation: How often have sector leaders screamed about the pathetic 5% minimum foundation payout rate? Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs), meanwhile, have no legal mandate to give out any money at all, so many just sit there growing or collecting dust, when donors get tax breaks immediately as soon as they park that money there. Begging and pleading with foundations and DAF-holding financial institutions to increase their payout rates have not worked. Writing op-eds has not worked. Presenting research and evidence has not worked. This is why there is now a petition calling for the Congress to enact legislation requiring the payout for foundations and DAFs to be doubled to 10% for the next three years. Please sign it. And start creating and rallying around other laws.  

Use public shaming: The past few weeks on Twitter I have been naming and shaming foundations who perpetuate harmful practices, on behalf of folks using the hashtag #CrappyFundingPractices (You can DM me @nonprofitAF and I will tweet and tag the funder; also point out #AwesomeFundingPractices). This was a deliberate decision I made after hearing about a foundation that required proposals to be hand-delivered during a pandemic. A lot of stuff that institutions with power do are not just annoying, they are actually harmful, and one of the most effecitve ways to get them to change is to call it out. @charitysowhite is naming-and-shaming organizations that have crappy DEI practices. And all of us should call out any organization that have a job listing that doesn’t have a salary range or that asks for salary history. Among other things we need to call out.

These tactics are not new; they have been used successfully by activists and community organizers for centuries. Most of us just suck at using them. We need to understand and learn how to confront power, sometimes by leveling the power we innately have but have not been using. Otherwise, we will continue to make incremental progress that may actually be more harmful in the long run, as these tiny wins lull us into a state of complacency that allows white supremacy, racism, and inequity to continue.

However, there is a third force we have to contend with: Our individual personal conflicts of interest. We cannot confront power effectively without understanding that we are unconsciously motivated to NOT confront power.

18 months ago, I was invited to speak with two dozen foundation program officers about how inequitable philanthropy is, how inhospitable it has been for BIPOC-community-led organizations. I think there was one foundation board trustee there. The folks in the room were people I worked with and admire. “Communities of color are tired,” I said, “We’ve been saying these things again and again. You’ve been hearing these things again and again. What will it take?”

The room went quiet for a few seconds. One program officer said, and I paraphrase, “Let’s admit it. Most of us have cushy jobs working for foundations. How can we rock the boat when we have well-paying jobs that we don’t want to lose?”

This was a refreshing moment of honestly that has stuck with me. All of us do this work because we believe in doing our part to create a just and equitable world. But let’s also be honest with ourselves, we also do this work because we have families to feed, rent to pay, futures to think about. All of us then have personal conflicts. If we push too much, if we cause too much trouble, we increase our chances of not being promoted, or getting demoted or fired. And besides the financial and career risks, there are potential costs to our reputations, our mental and emotional health, our sense of belonging to the “insider” group.

Challenging institutions with power comes with a cost. We see this in the people who are getting beaten or killed by the police during the protests, and who greatly increase their risks of contracting Covid. Some folks are losing their jobs for speaking up. Children are being attacked by white supremacists for holding signs in support of Black lives. In order to achieve the world we want, all of us must ask ourselves how we are conflicted and what are we willing to give up, especially those of us who have more privilege. Are we willing to risk our jobs, our reputations, our sense of comfort, even our physical safety?

These are challenging questions. But if there’s ever a moment for us to get some clarity on who we are and what we each stand for as individuals and as a sector, this is it. While we think about it, though, let’s remember that Black civil rights leaders and activists have risked and lost their lives and continue to do so, so that all of us can enjoy the many freedoms we have. And in our sector, as colleague Catherine García (@thecathyshow) points out on Twitter, “Black and Brown women in philanthropy & nonprofits [have] paid the price historically by being benched, ostracized, harassed, unpaid, unpromoted, and fired for speaking up. You almost never hear of men sticking their necks out. Or white women either for that matter.”

As I mentioned last week, our sector has become one giant white moderate that Dr. King warned us about, and as such, we are standing in the way of progress even as we continue to help people. Things need to seriously change. Many of the things that were reluctantly tolerated in the past, like the fact that less than 10% of philanthropic dollars go to organizations led by Black, Indigenous, and other POC communities, or the fact that 92% of US foundation leaders are white, are unconscionable now.

But the strategies we have used to try to solve these and myriad other issues have not worked. Just like trying to reform the racist police system has not worked, or nicely asking for racist statues to come down has not worked. We have to understand that people and institutions with privilege have all the formal the power, and formal power does not yield without being challenged. But to effectively challenge power, we must examine the personal conflicts we each have and wrestle with what we are each willing to give up to realize a world we know is possible.

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