Examining the equity implications of culture of philanthropy

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Hi everyone. A couple of things before we get started on this week’s topic. First, if you’re planning to host some sort of PEEP (Party to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy), please fill out this form by June 10th so I can help spread the word. Second, I’ll be taking the annual summer break from this blog during all of July. And last, I mentioned in January that I’ll be removing ads from this website. Wellll….after looking at my finances, I realize that this is losing me a lot of money. I hate backtracking, but I need money to buy hummus and dark chocolate. So, the random google ads are still gone, but the display ads (the ads you see on the side of this website and not embedded into articles), are coming back starting August, after the break. Thank you for understanding. And thank you, Patreon supporters, for keeping this blog open to everyone and with fewer ads.

Over the past several years, we’ve been hearing the term “culture of philanthropy” a lot. According to the 2013 report Underdeveloped, by Haas Jr. Fund and CompassPoint, culture of philanthropy incorporates these key elements:

“Most people in the organization (across positions) act as ambassadors and engage in relationship-building. Everyone promotes philanthropy and can articulate a case for giving. Fund development is viewed and valued as a mission-aligned program of the organization. Organizational systems are established to support donors. The executive director is committed and personally involved in fundraising.”

Haas also provides a great list of what a culture of philanthropy looks like, in this follow-up report, “Beyond Fundraising: What Does It Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy?”

It’s been a few years now, and “culture of philanthropy” has worked its way into our lexicon. People use the term all the time, often latching on to the first element mentioned above, the one where fundraising is not just the purview of fundraisers, but that everyone participates in fundraising.

This embrace of culture of philanthropy can’t possibly be bad, right? But as I talk to colleagues, I am hearing increasing skepticism and concern at this concept. Nell Edgington, for example, raises alarms about our sector’s tendency to focus on individual organizations’ fundraising tactics while continuing to ignore sector-wide issues.

My main issue with the concept of culture of philanthropy is the lack of equity analysis. This has been the common challenge with so many concepts that have been advanced in our field: Collective impact, strategic philanthropy, logic models, etc. Because of this lack of equity analysis, we often take things as “best practices,” and over time, it can cause a lot of harm to our work. Collective impact, for instance, at least in Seattle, where I am located, often resulted in a bunch of funders removing funding from grassroots marginalized-communities-led organizations and consolidating funding to grant to white-led, gatekeepy backbone organizations (See “Why communities of color are getting frustrated with Collective Impact”).

My colleague Gloris Estrella and I were discussing culture of philanthropy, how white-centric is, and how it may be dismissing philanthropy as practiced by marginalized communities. “Many BIPOC cultures have philanthropic values embedded in them since the beginning of time. Taking care of the collective, the community, is central to how folks show up in the world. Organizing meals for families with newborns or folks experiencing a death in the family, etc.”

This above point made by Gloris crystalizes what has been bothering me and other colleagues of color about the culture of philanthropy. Philanthropy is a deeply ingrained value of many marginalized communities. But it may look different than how our white-dominant sector thinks about philanthropy. In many marginalized communities, there have always been community support for deaths, births, weddings, and other life events. Women in villages often create lending circles. Neighbors look out for one another’s children. Relatives live with and are often taken care of in their old age by the younger generations. These things would truly fall into this sphere of “philanthropy” if we use the definition of “the love of humanity.”

Updated to add: It’s not that white communities don’t do mutual aid or neighbors don’t look out for one another (they do), but these things have not really been seen as “philanthropy.” Philanthropy, over time and as envisioned by white-dominant culture, is primarily about people with more wealth helping out those with less wealth, and being treated with deference and gratitude for doing so.

The culture of philanthropy, the way our sector currently defines and implements it, then is really about everyone being involved in fundraising strategies that focus on building relationships with donors in order to raise as much money as possible. That’s not philanthropy; that’s fundraising. Philanthropy and fundraising are two separate things. They may be deeply interrelated, but they’re not the same.

That may be one of the reasons why some colleagues of color, as well as white allies, are frustrated with the concept of culture of philanthropy. Of course, people are not monolithic, and my experience talking to colleagues provides only a small sample size of the sector. Still, here are questions we need to ponder before we further advance the idea of culture of philanthropy the way it is currently understood and implemented:

Do we want everyone to engage in fundraising when our fundraising practices are currently so inequitable? The Community-Centric Fundraising movement was formalized to address the fact that the way we’ve been taught to do fundraising in this sector has been rife with white saviorism, poverty tourism, centering the feelings and comforts of mostly white donors, the glossing over of the injustice on which so much wealth has been built, and the perpetuation of the Nonprofit Hunger Games, etc. Do we actually WANT more people at our organizations to learn this traditional system? Do we really want to create an entire culture out of extremely problematic philosophies and practices?

Is it really just a culture of everyone at the org catering to donors, who are mostly white? There’s been a conversation we’ve been having regarding donor dominance and whether our fundraising practices have been training donors (and also foundation staff) to think and act a certain way. Namely, being entitled. We say “donors” as if it were a neutral and all-inclusive term, when the reality is that most donors are white. Building relationship, engaging donors in the work, etc., are often good things to do, but without an equity analysis, everyone at the organization may be helping to condition white donors to think and act in ways that may be counter to our goal of advancing a more equitable world.

How does culture of philanthropy affect people from marginalized communities? Staff of color in particular have been exhausted by the way fundraising has been done. Those who don’t do fundraising at least used to be able to ignore it, but with culture of philanthropy encouraging everyone to be engaged in fundraising, there is little reprieve for those who just want to focus on their area of work and not deal with fundraising and its multiple forms of inequity. Also, I’ve seen organizations and fundraising experts using culture of philanthropy to justify terrible practices, such as asking staff to donate a portion of their wages back to the org, a practice that ignores the problematic power dynamics at play and glosses over the fact that lower-paid staff, and thus staff more likely to be people from marginalized backgrounds, will be disproportionately affected.

Does it encourage complacency and prevent work related to systems change? Expanding on Nell Edgington’s article, I wonder if the culture of philanthropy is a red herring distracting us from systems change work, for instance around fair tax laws that may prevent donors and funders from accumulating so much wealth to give out in the first place. We are terrified of advocacy and political organizing. When white-supremacy-driven violence is on the rise, abortion rights are being set back fifty years, and hundreds of voting suppression laws have been passed and more and being rammed through, among countless other simultaneous manifestations of injustice disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous, Latinx, AA & NH/PI, Jewish, Disabled, LGBQTIA+ people, should “everyone promotes philanthropy and can articulate a case for giving” and “organizational systems are established to support donors” really be the culture our sector focuses on strengthening and expanding?

Does it narrow the definition of philanthropy by dismissing the way marginalized communities view and implement philanthropy? As mentioned above, philanthropy and fundraising are not the same thing. Without an understanding of this, “culture of philanthropy” may further entrench a set of white-centric fundraising practices and unconsciously ingrains it into everyone’s mind as “philanthropy.” This may prevent an actual culture of philanthropy from taking root.

What would an ACTUAL culture of philanthropy look like when we aren’t confounding it with a culture of fundraising? This is something for our sector to discuss. For me, if we ground it in the definition of philanthropy as love of humankind, and if we consider how marginalized communities practice philanthropy, a culture of philanthropy would look at least like nonprofits looking out for one another, nonprofits turning down funding if another org needs it more, nonprofit staff having one another’s backs, the people and communities most affected by injustice lead the work addressing it, we have honest conversations with donors about racism and inequity, we all put the well-being of the community above our organization’s survival, and we’re all fired up and organizing to change the systems that make our work necessary in the first place.

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