UNITY 2017: Advancing equity with an intersectional lens, and with our community at the center of our learning

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"They call this work; we call this living.”


I reflect daily on the awesome responsibility of philanthropy. When I check something off my list of tasks, it’s not done. Because those tasks represent people: my neighbors who don’t have healthcare or the kids in school who don’t have lunch.

By Megan Thomas, Vice President of Collaboration & Special Initiatives

More than 600 people gathered at Change Philanthropy’s Unity Summit and talk was not about which email program to use or ice breakers that will really make your board meetings more engaging. Every discussion went to the heart of how philanthropy can step up and change lives. Key notes, panels and hallway conversations exhibited anguish and outrage, but also strategic, long-term thought. The moment wasn’t about burning down the house; it was about building it up. Capture the spirit, harness the energy, take a stand. The time to be bold has come.

Time after time, the summit speakers emphasized relationships.

At San Diego Grantmakers, we see this in our own work and that of our members. Collaborative funder groups start with a common concern and, still, it takes months to develop the trust and understanding to share a vision and commit funds together. San Diego Food Funders will support healthy youth meals in 2018; they started discussing this topic in 2016. Thanks to that, instead of $50,000 to buy a few ovens, the Food Funders are aiming to provide $400,000 to change school districts and attract state and federal dollars. We see how relationships matter. Through difficult conversations and months when it seemed no progress was made, we stick with it and build trust. And at the other end, the dollars and ambitions soar.

One Unity Summit speaker urged us to “privilege the needs of the grantees, NOT those of the foundations.” Others called out the racism inherent in application processes and questioned whether we need all the information asked for; whether established networks privilege those who have been “plugged in” to the existing system through their history and ancestry.

We should heed this advice, which – again—comes back to relationships. Most of the organizations we know and consider stable and “easy” to give a grant to hold connections to political powers, families with wealth, and the staff and decision makers at foundations. But as we look to who will be most effective achieving our shared goals, we must expand our circle to include the small, under- or un-funded community based organizations. In a session called Want Answers in the Movement Moment: Look to the South, panelists noted that for people working in the community, “our relationships are our resources” and funders need to figure out how to provide the resources so people can convene themselves to organize. As San Diego invests in the rising voice of residents and small community based organizations and businesses, how can we make our processes easy and accessible to them? We know, as was said in a variety of ways during Funding Power: Strategies to Build and Sustain Change, “the work is already happening,” so don’t create something new. Instead, find those doing it and ask how your philanthropy can help.

Whether we intend it or not, we are always in relationship with grantees. The Unity Summit underscored that funders ask grantees to take risks with every grant we make. We insist that they have stretch goals, reach more people, add new staff, show progress. So, let’s challenge ourselves to take a risk on their behalf. Make a general operating grant where you wouldn’t normally. Guarantee two years of funding instead of one. Join a pooled fund to explore grantmaking that you wouldn’t otherwise do. Ask a grantee for feedback and make a change based on what they say. Because this is not work; this is living.

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