194 posts categorized "Grantmaking"

Private foundations and DAFs: Short-lived synergy?

July 22, 2021

Laptop_charts_graphs_gettyimages_SamuelBrownNGWhen families and their advisors contemplate establishing a charitable vehicle, they often compare and contrast the advantages of private foundations and donor-advised funds (DAFs). However, for many donors, the best choice isn't either a private foundation or a DAF — it's both. When used in combination, the advantages of a private foundation and a DAF can be synergistic, providing donors with a full spectrum of options for their philanthropic and wealth-management goals.

These options will change, however, if the recently announced Accelerating Charitable Efforts (ACE) Act becomes law. But for the time being, here are some of the benefits of using these two vehicles in tandem.

Philanthropic benefits

While a private foundation offers more control over grants and almost limitless flexibility for out-of-the-box giving, a donor-advised fund enables convenient, anonymous grantmaking. When donors have both vehicles, they have a complete toolkit for achieving their philanthropic goals.

Major gifts. Making a major gift to a favored charitable project or institution represents a significant commitment. To ensure that funds are used according to their wishes, which can include naming rights, donors may want to draw up a grant agreement — a legally binding document — to reflect those details. Because private foundations are independent legal entities, they can enter into such agreements, setting forth the purpose, terms, and conditions of their grant, with subsequent payments often tied to progress milestones. This option usually is not available for donor-advised funds because account holders are not agents of the sponsoring organization and cannot enter a legal contract on its behalf.

Balancing transparency and discretion. Private foundations cannot give anonymously because they are legally required to record their grants on their tax returns, which must be available for public inspection. In most instances, this transparency is an advantage: In addition to contributing vital financial resources to an organization or cause, foundations can attract public attention (which, in turn, can attract more resources), building awareness and support.

There are situations, however, when giving publicly does not serve the best interests of the donor. Sometimes funders prefer not to have their names associated with a grant, such as when the issue in question falls outside the usual scope of their foundation's mission. (For example, a funder might want to support a local school even though the foundation's mission is global.) To avoid confusing grantees, the philanthropist may elect to contribute from a DAF, which provides flexibility and discretion. And some philanthropists are concerned about having their business or professional reputation linked to a controversial or politically charged issue. Because the sponsoring organization is not required to show which grants are associated with each DAF account, a DAF is ideal for making gifts that require absolute anonymity.

Infinite giving options. Whereas gifts from a DAF are typically restricted to straightforward donations to U.S.-based 501(c)(3) public charities, a private foundation provides donors with many more giving options, including:

  • Making grants directly to individuals and families facing financial hardship, emergencies, or medical distress
  • Giving to foreign charitable organizations
  • Making loans, loan guarantees, and equity investments in support of charitable purposes
  • Providing funding to for-profit businesses that support the foundation's charitable mission
  • Setting up and running scholarship and award programs
  • Running their own charitable programs

In addition, private foundations can reimburse members for reasonable and necessary expenses incurred in pursuit of their charitable purpose, including board meetings, administration, site visits, travel expenses, and even costs associated with starting the foundation.

Options for enabling discretionary grantmaking. Many philanthropists establish a charitable vehicle for the express purpose of uniting their family in shared, purpose-driven work. But what happens when members either can't agree on an objective or want to fund their own areas of interest? In addition to granting as a group, some families give their members a portion of funds to donate as individuals. A private foundation can facilitate this practice of discretionary grantmaking. Alternatively, the family could set up a donor-advised fund that members could use to fund their side projects. Because neither the discretionary grants nor the grants made from the DAF would be subject to approval by the full foundation board, they each could serve as "pressure release valves" when individual interests threaten to derail mission and unity.

Financial benefits

While private foundations can be funded with and hold a wide array of assets, DAFs provide a higher tax deduction for contributions as well as a higher total limit for combined annual contributions. Combining the two can return the best possible financial outcome for the donor.

Maximizing tax deductibility. The maximum that a donor can contribute to a foundation is 30 percent of one's adjusted gross income (AGI). However, donors who have had a significant liquidity event may want to exceed that limit. Because contributions can be made both to a private foundation and to a public charity in a single year, additional cash contributions of up to 30 percent of AGI can be made directly to one or more public charities, including DAFs. By "stacking" contributions to a DAF and a private foundation, donors can effectively maximize their deduction. Note that the temporary suspension of the AGI cap on charitable deductions that applied in 2020 has been extended through 2021.

Funding with alternative assets. Private foundations can own nearly any type of asset, including partnerships, real estate, jewelry, closely held stock, stock options, art, insurance policies, and other valuables. A DAF may limit investment options to cash equivalents, publicly traded securities, and shares of mutual funds. Donations of real property and nonmarketable securities typically are sold or liquidated by the sponsoring organization.

A DAF offers fair-market value for a donation of long-term capital assets (e.g., real property, notes, and privately held stock), whereas a private foundation provides cost basis. However, because a private foundation can hold onto these assets and even put them to charitable use, there are other possibilities to consider.

Sustainable benefits

Because no one can predict their future needs with certainty, establishing both a private foundation and a DAF provides maximum flexibility. Whereas DAF-sponsoring organizations' policies typically ensure that family control over a DAF eventually sunsets, a private foundation is an independent legal entity, and control of its assets can be transferred from the founding generation to the next in perpetuity.

Finally, having both a private foundation and a donor-advised fund is ideal for donors to future-proof their philanthropy. Should a private foundation prove too cumbersome over the long haul, the assets can be transferred to a DAF. However, should a DAF prove too limiting, it's all but impossible to do the reverse. Although DAF-sponsoring organizations are permitted to make grants to private foundations, most have internal policies prohibiting such distributions. By having both, should donors "outgrow" their DAFs' philanthropic and investment options, they can turn to their private foundation. And should their initial forays into philanthropy, typically begun with DAFs, turn into either a "second act" for a retired donor or a family enterprise that includes the next generation, their foundations can serve as an enduring legacy.

(Photo credit: GettyImages/SamuelBrownNG)

Mary Ann Stover_foundation_source_philantopicMary Ann Stover is the chief revenue officer at Foundation Source, which provides comprehensive support services for private foundations. The firm works in partnership with financial and legal advisors as well as directly with individuals and families.

Funding criminal justice reform in Latin America: Investing in affected communities

June 15, 2021

Casa de las Muñecas_PhilanTopicThere is always a glass-half-full aspect to grantmaking: While we are proud of what our grants have helped accomplish, we recognize that we can always do better. Looking back on the past decade of grantmaking by the Open Society Foundations' Human Rights Initiative in support of criminal justice reform, we can draw critical lessons from both our successes and our failures.

We would like to share some lessons learned from our work funding communities affected by over-policing, mass incarceration, and state violence in Latin America.

A bedrock principle for us is that affected communities are the most capable drivers of long-term, sustainable change, and funders need to prioritize providing them with direct support.

There are four fundamental reasons why donors funding criminal justice reform should support leaders of the movement who are directly impacted by the system:

1. Investing in collective organizing and leadership provides affected communities with resources to build their power. It enables them to shape a narrative on public safety that highlights the stories of the victims and exposes the root causes of violence and harm such as social, economic, and racial injustices — and the way the criminal justice system is designed to criminalize and discriminate against marginalized communities. Funding their leaders also empowers affected communities to develop solutions to problems that directly impact them, and funding is critical to effectively challenging structural inequality and injustice through a bottom-up, rather than top-down, approach.

2. Investing in affected communities contributes to a more representative, diverse, and inclusive criminal justice movement that nurtures new and emerging leaders. In Brazil, for example, white — and often elite — legal and policy advocacy groups tend to dominate the criminal justice field — but this is changing. More Black activists and Black-led organizations such as the newly formed Black Coalition for Rights, are leading advocacy on criminal justice reform and placing racial justice squarely on the agenda of the broader movement, and more donors are funding racial justice work in the country. In Mexico, the trans-led NGO Casa de las Muñecas is introducing new perspectives in the criminal justice debate regarding discrimination against trans women, which other organizations in this space have not prioritized. Building the leadership of affected communities has a knock-on effect on mainstream organizations as well, motivating them to recruit staff and board members from these communities, diversifying their membership.

3. The strong connection between directly impacted people and their families, neighbors, and/or people with similar experiences gives those leaders and organizations legitimacy in the eyes of their communities and the public. They therefore have a greater capacity to mobilize and galvanize people around their demands. In the United States, as a result of the shift in the profile of its leadership to include more people from impacted communities, the criminal justice movement has pushed new and more radical ideas to the fore, such as "prison abolition" and "defunding the police," and is placing greater emphasis on initiatives dealing with violence prevention, community reinvestments, and reentry. In Latin America, a nascent network of formerly incarcerated women (including Red de Acciones por la Justicia in Mexico, Mujeres Libres in Colombia, and Amparar in Brazil), is developing an advocacy platform to promote transformative justice across the region, a topic that traditional criminal justice organizations, which have been more focused on technical legislative reforms, have not prioritized.

4. While directly impacted individuals are arguably the most capable and effective leaders of the criminal justice movement, they are also the most in need of and the least able to access resources. Groups and movements led by affected communities are typically under-funded and conduct most of their work on a volunteer basis. They lack the vital resources required for organizational and professional development (e.g., fundraising, advocacy) and end up giving their time and energy free of charge, despite precarious living conditions, such as insecure housing, lack of access to basic services (health care, education, etc.), and the stigma that comes with having spent time behind bars or the trauma of having lost a family member to state violence.

Donors have an important role to play in supporting affected communities' efforts to organize, strategize, and develop their own solutions to problems of which they have an intimate knowledge.

Here are four lessons we'd like to share from our experience in Latin America:

1. Funding affected communities requires grantmaking that is flexible, long-term, and premised on trust. Keep in mind that while grantees will choose the path that works best for them, it may take time to figure this out, and results may not be immediately tangible. There may be an advocacy win down the road, but the organizing, strategizing, and mobilizing necessary to make it happen could take years. Results need to be measured against movement-building milestones such as agenda setting, increased visibility of advocates and positions, stronger networks/development of new organizations, and law and policy reform).  

2. Affected communities should make their own decisions, but they need allies and assistance from well-established organizations that can offer respectful accompaniment and technical support. Allies (including donors) must perform a delicate balancing act: committing to nurturing the leadership of affected communities while knowing when to step back to let them make their own decisions.

3. We need to navigate movement dynamics carefully. Funding one set of affected leaders or organizations but not another may pit groups against each other. Donors need to understand alliances and rivalries and asses how best to support the movement as a whole. It is also important to recognize the tensions between movements. For instance, in Colombia, we cannot assume that solidarity is automatic between female coca growers in rural areas and women who use or sell drugs in urban settings, but they could rally around common goals such as the need for economic opportunities.

4. Some communities self-organize to defend their rights and interests but do not focus on criminal justice reform. For instance, while associations of sex workers, people who use drugs, or LGBTQI communities are victims of violence and criminalization, they tend not to operate in the criminal justice field. They could, however, be allies and help break silos between movements.

It's too early to demonstrate, in a quantifiable way, the impact of this strategic shift on policy and practice and people's lives. Yet, after a few years of funding affected communities in Latin America, we already see changes in the types of organizations and activists present in the criminal justice field across the region: They are more diverse, they have brought new voices and perspectives to the table, and they have given a sense of empowerment to disenfranchised communities. We hope the donor community embraces this approach and understands that systemic change requires a sustained and collaborative effort and a commitment to invest in building the infrastructure for movements that have historically lacked access to resources.

(Photo credit: Casa de las Muñecas)

Soheila Comninos_Nina_Madsen_PhilanTopic Soheila Comninos and Nina Madsen are program officers in the Open Society Foundations' Human Rights Initiative.

 

How trust-based values can transform philanthropy

May 21, 2021

PhilanTopic_hands_collaboration_trust_GettyImages_Prostock-StudioWinston Churchill is credited with being the first to say, "Never let a good crisis go to waste." While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in immeasurable pain and suffering, it has also inspired action around how philanthropy can better address global crises in the future. At the start of the pandemic, more than eight hundred philanthropic organizations agreed to provide greater flexibility to and eliminate administrative barriers for their grantees. With a pandemic raging, funders who signed the pledge recognized they needed to act swiftly and to lean into the expertise of their nonprofit partners. By committing to the values of trust-based philanthropy, an approach to giving that seeks to address the inherent power imbalances between funders, nonprofits, and the communities they serve, the signatories to the pledge agreed to put faith in and share power with those hardest hit by the crisis.

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, the philanthropic community must resist the urge to return to the status quo. The need for such a pledge underscored the reality that funders need to do more to make their grantmaking accessible, equitable, and empowering for grassroots leaders. And they can do that by moving to a trust-based philanthropy model.

I know firsthand the power of trust and service. Before taking the helm at The Pollination Project, a micro-granting organization that provides funds to community leaders in support of early-stage projects, I spent a decade as a monk. Four values guided my daily life during that time: faith, humility, relationship, and service. All four show up in the trust-based philanthropy model and offer a framework for how funders — and our grantee partners — can better solve the global challenges of today, and tomorrow.

Here's how those values can reshape philanthropy:

Faith

Monks believe that everything in life is a dynamic proposition of faith. A trust-based funding approach is similar, in that it calls on funders to reevaluate their grant application process to allow more opportunities for smaller organizations. Automatically rejecting volunteer-led organizations or early-stage projects, for instance, closes the door to many deserving recipients.

Over half of the grant dollars awarded by U.S. foundations are directed to just 1 percent of recipient organizations. Black, Indigenous, and people of color leaders historically have been overlooked by philanthropy and often receive fewer grants, less money, and are given less freedom to decide how to use that money than their white counterparts. We are at risk of perpetuating these inequities unless we lead with faith and understand that those most directly impacted by an issue almost always are in the best position to solve it.

Directly investing in communities isn't just a moral issue; it works. For years, The Pollination Project has supported projects that mainstream philanthropy would likely deem risky, including providing seed funding to grassroots volunteers without a traditional educational background or nonprofit experience. But we go a step further than the current trust-based model by committing to an open application process through which anyone can share their vision for a project and seek funding. By providing grants directly to individuals, we allow those without access to other sources of institutional funding — especially underrepresented groups such as Indigenous people, women in the Global South, and religious and ethnic minorities — to launch impactful, meaningful projects. Take, for instance, a volunteer in Kolkata, India, who mobilized marginalized youth to manufacture hand sanitizer and distribute it to families living in urban slums at the start of the pandemic. Community leaders have the passion, skill, and trust to drive local efforts, and philanthropy should grant them the resources to do so.

Humility

Trust-based philanthropy recognizes that because philanthropic leaders don't have all the answers, they must redistribute and share decision-making power. Too often, those making funding decisions at nonprofits are disconnected from the communities they serve. Paternalism and elitism are deeply rooted in philanthropy, and it takes humility to give back some of that power.

A peer-to-peer giving model is one way to redistribute power. In such a  model, a network of grant advisors — none of whom is paid staff and most of whom are previous grant recipients — decide which projects receive our funding. By democratizing funding decisions, philanthropic organizations can address the inherent power imbalance between funders and grant recipients.

Relationship

The ability to forge meaningful relationships is critical to driving social change; in 2020, however, fewer than a third of foundations provided any assistance to their grantees beyond the grant itself. To make the greatest impact, funders must move from solely providing financial resources to viewing ourselves as a partner to our grantees and ensuring their long-term success by offering non-monetary support such as introductions to other funders, capacity-building training, and promoting their work to our networks.

Monks recognize the power of relationships. We lean into the vulnerability required to develop authentic relationships and find strength in connection. I've used these teachings to foster a global community of four thousand changemakers who share learnings, work to build capacity, and form community with one another. Smaller and people of color-led organizations typically don't have the same resources as larger nonprofits, which in turn drives inequities in the field. Philanthropic leaders can support the long-term success of such organizations by ensuring that their relationships with grant recipients don't end with a check.

Service

The trust-based philanthropy model recognizes that nonprofits currently spend a lot of time completing funder-required application forms and reports, which takes precious time away from their mission.

As philanthropists, we must remind ourselves to whom nonprofits are accountable and consider how we can be of more service to the ones we support. We must ask ourselves how we can minimize bureaucracy and free would-be change agents to do what they are called to do. Putting more value in conversations instead of written reports or applications allows small organizations with limited bandwidth to focus more on their work and on creating a kinder, more compassionate world.

One thing COVID-19 has taught us is that philanthropy works better when power is distributed equitably and those closest to the issues have the opportunity to lead. By embracing trust-based and monastic principles, philanthropic leaders can make a more direct and immediate impact in communities. Crises can be an opportunity to change things that no longer work; let's not waste this one.

(Photo credit: GettyImages/Prostock Studio)

AJ Dahiya_PhilanTopicAJ Dahiya is a former monk who is now a writer, speaker, and chief vision officer at The Pollination Project, a global community of four thousand-plus grassroots volunteer leaders in over a hundred and twenty-five countries.

5 Questions for...Carly Bad Heart Bull, Executive Director, Native Ways Federation

April 13, 2021

Carly Bad Heart Bull joined the Native Ways Federation (NWF) in April 2020 as its executive director. Launched in 2006 in Longmont, Colorado, by the American Indian College Fund, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Association on American Indian Affairs, First Nations Development Institute, National Indian Child Welfare Association, Native American Rights Fund, and Running Strong for American Indian Youth, NWF is focused on activating and expanding informed giving to Native-led organizations through donor education and advocacy. To that end, NWF is working to bring together Native organizations and raise awareness and support for the communities they serve, strengthen Native nonprofits, and ensure the highest levels of ethical standards and fiscal responsibility across the sector.

Prior to joining NFW, Bad Heart Bull, who is Bdewakantunwan Dakota/Muskogee Creek and a citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, managed the Bush Foundation's work with twenty-three Native nations across Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota and served on an advisory committee for the Investing in Native Communities portal, a joint project of Native Americans in Philanthropy and Candid. She holds a juris doctorate and previously served as an assistant county attorney for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office in Minneapolis; led a successful campaign to restore the Dakota name of the city's largest lake, Bde Maka Ska; and in 2019 was selected by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as a Community Leadership Network Fellow.

PND asked her about the impact of COVID-19 on Native communities, Native efforts to address climate change, and the role of language in racial equity efforts.

Headshot_Carly_Bad_Heart_Bull_Native_Ways_Federation_KelloggPhilanthropy News Digest: Native American communities have experienced disproportionately higher infection and mortality rates than the general population during the COVID-19 pandemic. To what do you attribute those disparities?

Carly Bad Heart Bull: COVID-19 disproportionately affects communities of color, and Native people are at an especially heightened risk because of numerous factors, including limited access to quality health services, inadequate housing, lack of access to clean and safe water, and other infrastructure issues. Native people are also more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and other underlying conditions that put them at significant risk.

All these community issues connect back to the U.S. government's failure to comply with historical treaty obligations to fund basic services in exchange for tribal land. The impacts of colonization continue to have detrimental effects on our nations and our people. Our tribes and Native-led organizations are working hard to address these issues, and many of them are doing amazing innovative work. However, they need increased funding and supports in order to most effectively serve their communities. This need existed before the pandemic and it's even greater now. For example, many of our Native language speakers, the majority being elders, have died in the past year from COVID-19. Our Indigenous languages are central to who we are as Native people; they embody the essence of our cultures and teach us Indigenous worldviews and ways of being that connect us to one another and to the land. Assimilation efforts by the U.S. government, including education policies such as the development and implementation of boarding schools and relocation policies, were aimed at disconnecting our people from these important cultural resources. Language teachers and advocates in our communities have been working hard to revitalize our languages for years. It's imperative that this work continues and grows — now more than ever — as we have even fewer fluent speakers to learn from due to the pandemic.

I would also note that we don't yet know the full impact of COVID-19 on Native communities, in part because of the issue of inaccurate and misclassified data as it relates to our communities. It's an important story that needs to be better understood and addressed.

PND: How has philanthropy, both Native-based and more broadly, responded to the needs of Indigenous communities during the pandemic? Have you seen an increase in philanthropic investments in Native communities?

CBHB: Philanthropy responded quickly in many respects. Many foundations increased their giving amounts, and we saw a large number of foundations reduce restrictions on existing and new grants, providing opportunities for organizations to adapt appropriately and use their grant funds in ways that best served the people and communities they were intended to serve during these unprecedented times. At the same time, I've talked to Native nonprofit leaders who lost revenue they depended on because they weren't able to host fundraising events, and in many cases increased philanthropic support hasn't made up for those losses.

That said, I do think the data will show an uptick in funding — a response, in my view, not only to the impacts of the virus but to the greater call to action on behalf of Native communities and communities of color sparked by the murder of George Floyd. We are still not where we need to be, but I remain cautiously optimistic.

One thing I am concerned about is whether any increase in funding for Native communities will be sustained, or just be a one-time philanthropic reaction. I hope the answer is the former. I hope that foundations continue to pay attention to the underlying infrastructure issues that resulted in Native people and communities being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and that support for tribes and Native-led organizations continues to increase and not decline as the COVID-19 numbers start to fall. Philanthropy needs to support systemic change efforts that are led and guided by Native people so that our people not only survive, but can thrive in a post-COVID world.

PND: According to data compiled by Investing in Native Communities, large U.S. foundations have allocated just 0.4 percent of their total annual grantmaking to Native American communities and causes since 2006. What, in your opinion, are the factors behind the lack of funding for Native communities, and what is the Native Ways Federation doing to address it?

CBHB: That's correct, and that's also despite the fact that Native peoples comprise 2 percent of the U.S. population and, even more importantly, are the original people of this land. That same analysis found that only 20 percent of large foundations give to Native communities or causes at all. There are multiple factors at play here, and one of the biggest issues is that of invisibility. This country has done a terrible job of educating the broader population about Native history and people. A 2019 NCAI report found that 87 percent of state history standards include no mention of Native American history post-1900, and twenty-seven states don't even mention Native peoples in their K-12 curriculum. According to the dominant narrative, we are a people of the past. But the fact is, we are still here and we matter. There is really important work happening, much of it led by Native nonprofits, to lift up Native visibility and perspectives with a focus on truth-telling and healing.

I've done quite a bit of speaking on the importance of increased philanthropic support for Native organizations and tribes, and one of the responses I've heard too many times to count is, "We'd love to help, but we don't have a program for that." While intentional programs for funding Native communities are great, they aren't always necessary. It's more than likely that any area a foundation is investing in — whether that be education, health, the environment, economic development — is an area where Native organizations and tribes are doing important, necessary work, and that work should be supported.

NWF is working to address these issues in multiple ways. Our seven founding member organizations started coming together a number of years ago in part to address the lack of philanthropic funding for Native-led organizations and the fact that we were seeing a large percentage of funding intended for Native communities actually going to non-Native organizations. It's still a problem. A large part of NWF's work is focused on donor education and advocacy in support of Native-led nonprofits, because we know that we are best situated to effectively serve our communities. And we are further developing our collective voice in philanthropic spaces to hold foundations accountable and to strengthen the Native nonprofit sector on our own terms.

I came to NWF with experience as a Native program officer, and I hope to build on some of that previous work. For example, at the Bush Foundation we did a major analysis of our grantmaking in Native communities and found that our coding practices were inconsistent and that our grantmaking data were not always accurate. This is a bigger philanthropic-sector issue that needs to be discussed more broadly. I actually believe that the 0.4 percent number is inflated — in large part as a result of foundation grant data inaccurately reported as "serving" Native communities. This may not even be intentional, but it needs to be addressed, and it's an area where we at NWF hope to do more work in influencing change within the sector.

PND: You've said that your earlier career as an assistant county attorney taught you "to speak a new language — the language of law and how to navigate systems of power," and that institutional philanthropy needs to develop a common language as it evolves "from a transactional to a relational practice." What kinds of things would such a common language address?

CBHB: For one, the grant coding issue I just discussed; there needs to be a more consistent sector-wide effort toward making sure that grant data is being accurately reported. Current grant reporting by foundations falsely benefit the foundations themselves rather than the communities they are trying to serve, as they may believe they are serving certain demographics at a rate that they are not. Data tell an important story — and there needs to be more conversation and movement toward making sure the story is being consistently and accurately shared.

Also, there needs to be an emphasis on relationship and trust building. That means taking care of one another and recognizing the roles that we each play in the broader effort toward realizing a healthier society. For too long, grantee organizations have been expected to learn the language of institutional philanthropy in order to receive funding, rather than foundations better understanding, and reflecting, the communities they serve. This type of transactional relationship is imbalanced, and it doesn't serve anyone well in the long run.

Native organizations work closely with the communities they serve, and they need to be appropriately resourced to do their work as effectively as possible. That means not only increasing funds but also increasing flexibility in terms of how foundations fund. It means increasing general operating support and trusting that we know best what to do with the funds. And it means reducing extensive reporting requirements — let us focus on the work rather than on writing detailed overburdensome reports. One thing it doesn't mean is that we don't have to communicate — we should be checking in, building relationships, and learning from one another.

PND: You've noted that Indigenous wisdom and ways of being are integral to the vitality of communities and the planet. How do you envision philanthropy's role at the intersection of racial and environmental justice? And what can it do, or do more of, to support Native advocacy for climate action?

CBHB: Philanthropy needs to increase support of Native-led environmental justice efforts — we will all be better for it. Native people are the original stewards of this planet, and the solutions to some of the most pressing environmental issues we are facing — such as climate change — can be found within the ideologies and practical applications of Indigenous wisdom.

Yet very little of the philanthropic dollars that go to environmental justice efforts go to Native-led organizations or tribes. That needs to change. A great majority of the wealth in the philanthropic sector was accumulated at the expense of communities of color, Native nations and people, and the environment. The extraction of natural resources, the removal of Native people from their homelands, the use of forced labor — these violent extractive and transactional actions have had a detrimental effect on our communities and on the environment. Philanthropy needs to hold itself accountable for the destruction that has taken place in our homelands and they need to support Native-led environmental justice efforts working to protect, restore, and heal this planet while we still can.

I'm optimistic of the future because I need to be for my son. Our work to restore the Dakota name of the biggest lake in Minneapolis, Bde Maka Ska, was and is important because we are the original people of Mnistoa Makoce (aka Minnesota, or Where the Water Reflects the Sky); I want him to grow up knowing where he comes from and to be proud of who he is and of his people. Creating a better world for him, and for future generations yet to be born, is what keeps me going. My ancestors went through a lot so that I could be here, and now I have the responsibility to carry that legacy forward. It's also past time for non-Native people in this country, including in the philanthropic sector, to listen to and act in support of our Native nations and our Native-led organizations and efforts. We will all be better for it.

— Kyoko Uchida

Supporting the South's small businesses is supporting an equitable recovery

March 26, 2021

Closed_due_to_coronavirus_sign_GettyImagesLike the rest of the nation, small businesses across the South have faced unprecedented challenges since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of them saw demand drop and had to close their doors as their reserves were depleted. The breadth of the impact has been staggering — from industries like travel, food service and hospitality, to dentists, artists, mechanics, and farmers.

While federal relief efforts have been helpful for some, they have been insufficient or inaccessible for many, especially women, people of color, immigrants, and other underbanked populations. To address the gap, a number of philanthropic programs have been launched in states across the country to help small businesses at the back of the line — or not in the line at all.

The South has long suffered from a lack of philanthropic and institutional investment, a trend that has continued through the pandemic. The region benefits from only 56 cents of giving for every dollar granted in other regions. And for every dollar given to address structural change in the rest of the country, just 30 cents goes toward these issues in the South, despite well documented challenges with economic mobility, particularly in communities of color. This lack of investment could mean a slower, more difficult recovery and a deepening of those structural issues in the region.

Now is the time to change that trajectory, and supporting small businesses, including small-scale farmers and critical community organizations, is a place to start. Small businesses create jobs, drive economic vitality in communities, and have a tremendous impact on the well-being of families: entrepreneurship is second only to home ownership as an effective means of building family wealth. Plus, we know that small businesses tend to provide higher-quality jobs and are active participants in their communities.

Given adequate resources to navigate and rebuild from the pandemic, these resilient, creative, and resourceful entrepreneurs can overcome the immense hardships they are facing; in fact, many are already showing their resolve to do so. For countless small business owners, there has been no other option.

Unfortunately, even pre-pandemic, many of these businesses lacked access to affordable credit. NextStreet estimates that the credit needs of un- or underbanked small businesses exceeds $80 billion — and that was before banks pulled back because of the economic uncertainties created by COVID-19. We saw bank lending decline 16 percent during the Great Recession; given the recent trends of bank consolidation and the loss of many community banks, we expect the pandemic-driven decline to be even steeper in low-income, rural, and already underresourced communities across the country.

Luckily, we know — and have seen throughout COVID — that nonprofit community-based lenders certified as community development financial institutions (CDFIs) take the opposite approach. In times of crisis, they lean in. CDFI lending increased during the Great Recession, with many CDFIs doing five to ten times more lending in 2020 than in previous years to support the immediate needs of the small businesses and community-based organizations operating within their footprint.

That is why we are building and supporting the Southern Opportunity and Resilience (SOAR) Fund alongside thirteen CDFIs across the South. The program was designed to support the needs of local community lenders so they have access to low-cost capital, a technical assistance ecosystem, and a centralized technology platform that helps them find small businesses, including small-scale farmers, and nonprofits who need their help.

The economic recovery from the impact of COVID-19 is going to be long, and support for small businesses will be needed well beyond the administration of vaccines. If we want the post-pandemic recovery to be more equitable than the last one — and be focused on the potential and opportunity in local economies across the South — we need solutions structured to support the scaling of organizations that have been built in and served these communities for decades.

If we want to create asset- and wealth-building opportunities while maintaining the critical cultural fabric of our communities, philanthropists need to come together to support CDFIs and the small businesses they were built to serve.

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

Beth Bafford_Jennifer_Gadberry_philantopic - CopyBeth Bafford is vice president of syndications and strategy at Calvert Impact Capital, which is acting as the arranger for the SOAR Fund. Jennifer Gadberry is vice president of asset management at Heifer Foundation, an investor in the SOAR Fund.

Empathetic leadership during the storm

March 17, 2021

Texas storm capture"Lead with an iron fist," said some.

"Never let them see you cry," others recommended.

"You were born to lead," many affirmed.

Countless people have offered advice and encouragement to me as a leader over the years. Yet the idea of empathy in leadership has rarely been addressed.

As a Black female nonprofit executive in Texas who earlier this winter found herself in a vulnerable moment, I feel compelled to record some of my struggles. First there was the pandemic, followed by the killing of George Floyd and heightened racial tensions, and then — boom! — a winter storm with near-zero temperatures that collapsed the state's power grid and left millions of Texans in dark, unheated homes. Even as it was happening, I knew it was going to be bad, and most likely deadly.

My first instinct was to reach out to my staff and inquire about their housing, food, and other needs. In my experience, employers in times of crisis rarely do wellness checks on their employees (other than to inquire whether the employee will be coming into work or not). While nonprofits are quick to respond to community needs during a disaster, how many organizations offer direct support to their own staff? As an empathetic leader, I was concerned first and foremost that those closest to me were safe and out of harm's way.

During the deep freeze, I considered my teams' mental health and reminded them of our EAP program and insurance plans that could assist with counseling. With a team comprised largely of women of color, I understood how responses to crisis and trauma live in our bodies. But in my role as executive director of Faith in Texas, I also knew I had to consider all the harms suffered by the communities my organization serves.

Where did that leave me? Self-care seems to be the rage these days, but it's much easier said than done. Infuriated by the lack of accountability on the part of Texas officials, ERCOT, and electric companies serving the state, I decided to take a break from the news. But within an hour, an employee texted me asking if we could help dozens of families that had been locked out of their hotel rooms and had nowhere to go.

It was then that the magnitude of the crisis became apparent. This wasn't a time for self-care. As a single mother, my heart ached for the displaced mothers and their children. I imagined them trying to survive the freezing cold, dealing with harsh conditions as they scrambled to find public transportation to the suburbs, where mutual aid groups could secure them rooms. I imgained them trying to find food to eat, water to drink, hygiene products, even underwear for themselves and their kids.

It was more or less the same thing the employee who texted me was experiencing. A Black woman and mother of small children, she, too, was scrambling to find temporary housing. And yet she was advocating for others in crisis; self-care would have to wait.

In the days that followed, family and business colleagues from around the country reached out to check on me and my sons. And my answer to their first question was always, "I'm fine. Grateful to be safe, warm and healthy." But I was numb.

Through my contacts, I began to hear about helpers on the front lines — heroic individuals, small nonprofits, and local Black churches that were doing crucial, in-the-moment work to help people survive. I knew their names wouldn't be mentioned during funder calls. And while local and national media outlets were making an efort to highlight the work they were doing and individuals around the country were responding to calls for donations, I realized I had a responsibility to elevate all the organizations and people who were selflessly neglecting their own self-care to provide critical services. Truth be told, I wasn't sure if every organization had 501(c)(3) status, but that hardly seemed to matter. They needed — and deserved — all the resources they coud get. And they deserved to be trusted to use the money — not just in-kind donations —  in an effective manner. Standing up for grassroots organizations is another role I embrace.

Leading with empathy probably isn't the best long-term strategy for a Black female nonprofit executive looking to impress large funders and donors, but, inspired by John Hope Bryant's Love Leadership, it's the legacy I prefer to leave. Like Bryant, I recognize that there can be no strength without suffering, no power without vulnerability. As Black women calling for equity and healing, my sisters and I speak out of love and respect, from a history of suffering, and mindful of our own vulnerability. All we ask is that you give us an opportunity to show our greatness.

(Photo credit: Mario Cantu/Cal Sport Meia via AP Images)

Headshot_Akilah Wallace_cropAkilah S. Wallace is executive director of Faith in Texas. This article originally appeared in the Opinions section of  Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy.

To save lives, fund syringes

March 15, 2021

SyringesWhen COVID-19 struck, the United States was already facing a number of public health crises, with national rates of overdose, HIV, and viral hepatitis rising due to increases in substance use linked with a surge in prescription opioids.

The pandemic has converged with these crises, worsening health outcomes for people who use drugs — a crisis that is likely to persist unless we change our approach to drug use.

Take overdose deaths, which increased some 20 percent in the United States between June 2019 and June 2020, to more than 81,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's the most fatal overdoses ever recorded in a single year.

And while national figures for new HIV and viral hepatitis cases are not yet available, it's likely they are growing, too, given reported spikes in injection-drug use. (Both diseases can be transmitted via the sharing of injection supplies.) From 2014 to 2018, HIV diagnoses increased 9 percent among Americans who use drugs overall, while some 2.4 million Americans had been diagnosed with hepatitis C as of 2016.

Such grim statistics underscore the need for the U.S. to adopt evidence-based drug policies that can save lives and improve outcomes for people who use drugs. The willingness of the Biden administration to think differently about national drug policy and the changing views of Americans present a critical opportunity to do that.

For decades, policy makers and medical professionals have addressed substance use in two main ways: demand reduction and supply reduction. Both approaches treat substance use as an immoral behavior to be eschewed, instead of as a personal response to social factors or difficult life circumstances.

Neither strategy has significantly reduced substance use or its associated harms. Even though drug arrests jumped 171 percent between 1980 and 2016, the price of most illicit drugs fell, while attempts to dismantle the international drug trade have resulted in extreme violence.

Indeed, America's War on Drugs has tyrannized countless numbers of Black and brown families with racialized policies like mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Such policies have resulted in the overcriminalization of minor drug offenses, the mass incarceration of Black and brown people, and fractured communities across the nation.

Meanwhile, Americans are still using drugs.

It is long past time for the U.S. to embrace the principle of harm reduction, which has proven to lower rates of substance use around the world. Harm reduction recognizes the humanity of people who use drugs, acknowledging that people's relationships with substances usually change over time, and aims to minimize the negative consequences of substance use by fostering the inclusion of those who use drugs in an ecosystem of interventions and services.

The most effective harm-reduction interventions are syringe-services programs (SSPs), which were introduced in the 1980s and '90s as a community-based response to injection-drug use amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Today, they provide syringes, overdose-prevention education, syringe-litter cleanup, infectious-disease testing, and — crucially — naloxone, the lifesaving overdose antidote. SSPs also connect their clients to treatment for substance-use disorder, as well as primary care and social services.

Despite this vital work, U.S. laws have long constrained service providers. In 1988, bipartisan opponents of syringe services prohibited providers from receiving federal funds until the government determined they were safe and effective. The ban remains partially in effect, even as reams of research have shown the benefits of syringe services, from reducing emergency medical costs to lowering rates of HIV and hepatitis C. SSPs still cannot use federal funds to purchase syringes, which help prevent infectious disease among people who inject drugs.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I've seen a dramatic spike in people receiving syringe services through my work managing AIDS United's Syringe Access Fund, which disburses about $1 million in philanthropic funds to SSPs annually. And it is happening at a time when public and private funding for harm-reduction services was already inadequate.

Although Congress has allocated billions of dollars to combat the opioid crisis, many of those programs stop short of addressing the complex health, psychosocial, and socioeconomic factors underlying chronic substance use. For instance, half of all State Opioid Response (SOR) grants — a major federal initiative designed to help states expand their opioid addiction treatment services over the course of two years — went unspent, a federal watchdog has found, by the time the program was wound down. At the same time, our Syringe Access Fund grantees are struggling to meet their clients' needs and pay their bills. This not only imperils lives and public health but strains local resources.

It is time Americans recognize that the best way to reduce the staggering number of lives lost to overdose each year is to invest in services that support people while they are using drugs. To do that, we need to reach people who use drugs where they are. Syringe services programs are a cost-effective way to serve communities that many see as hard to reach, but which actually are hardly reached, as well as an opportunity to invest in a more holistic and inclusive public health infrastructure.

Without greater investment in that infrastructure, hundreds of thousands of Americans are likely to slip through the cracks and die from overdose in the years to come. We have the tools to prevent these deaths, so long as we invest in the lives of people who use drugs.

Zachary_Ford_AIDS_United_philantopicZachary Ford is a senior program manager at AIDS United, where he oversees the Syringe Access Fund, a grantmaking initiative focused on improving health outcomes for people who use drugs.

[Review] 'It's A Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Fight for a Better New York'

February 11, 2021

Cover Its a Helluva TownIt's A Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Fight for a Better New York by Roberta Brandes Gratz tells the story of how one person and a small family foundation were able to create outsize impact in the nation's largest city and make it a more vibrant, equitable, and sustainable place to live and work. As cities across the country wrestle with unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, Gratz' "case study" on the power, and limits, of philanthropy could not be more timely.

Founded in 1945 by Jacob "Jack" Merrill Kaplan, the J.M. Kaplan Fund today distributes more than $6 million in grants annually and has approximately $140 million in assets, a legacy of the sale of the Welch Grape Juice Company, which Kaplan headed for many years, to a grape growers' cooperative in the 1950s. In 1977, Kaplan's oldest child, Joan Davidson, was named president of the foundation he had created. As Gratz details in the book, Davidson took the responsibility seriously and, with the relatively modest resources of the J.M. Kaplan Fund at her disposal, played an outsized role in transforming New York during the latter half of the twentieth century. 

For Gratz, Davidson and the Kaplan Fund embody an important philanthropic principle: solutions to some of our most urgent social problems do not necessarily have to come with a big price tag.  Indeed, because foundations and philanthropists tend to be risk-averse, moving early and decisively to address a problem can yield impressive results. By way of example, Gratz quotes Aryeh Neier, a co-founder of Human Rights Watch, who credits the Kaplan Fund as  "the first significant funder of Human Rights Watch at $200,000 a year before [the] Ford Foundation came in" and goes on to say "[the fund] was crucial in launching us." To put that in perspective, HRW today has a budget of $75 million, a staff of four hundred and fifty people, and is widely considered to be one of the most effective human rights organizations in the world.

In an entirely different arena and on a smaller scale, the fund awarded a $1,500 grant in 1992 to the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association in Far Rockaway, Queens, to plant thirty trees and other site-appropriate vegetation as protection against potentially devastating storm surges. Twenty years later, when Superstorm Sandy devastated the Rockaways, the area's bungalows and their residents were largely spared.

One of Davidson's most remarkable accomplishments as leader of the fund was her willingness to support institutions and social movements unafraid to question the paradigms and narratives that others took for granted. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, for instance, the fund supported the efforts to landmark and save the Helen Hayes and Morosco theaters in Manhattan's Theater District from demolition. Legal action seemed to be the only way to save the theaters, and for help Davidson turned to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a young environmental organization and an unlikely ally. Davidson had been a board member of NRDC, however, and understood how it could be useful in this particular fight. Though getting NRDC to take up the cause was a "hard sell," it eventually agreed. Ultimately, the theaters fell to the wrecking ball, but the case was pivotal in defining the strategies employed by the organization as it grew to become a leading player in the environmental advocacy movement — and, as Gratz writes, expanded the boundaries of that work so that "[e]nvironmental issues would never again be limited to the natural; the built and the natural were seen as symbiotic and forever joined." Today, cities and the urban ecosystems that grow up around them are widely regarded as critical components of the "environment," and NRDC has gone on to build an important and impactful urban program focused on putting resilient, sustainable cities at the center of the climate change conversation.

The success of an initiative often is judged by the extent to which it prevents harm. By empowering grassroots activism, philanthropy can play a critical role in stopping projects that pose threats to the environment, communities, and/or the very fabric of society — an idea that has significantly shaped both the historic preservation and environmental movements. As Gratz writes, "Preservation is never about historic buildings alone; it is about urbanism — preserving the whole city — which is simply the sum of its diverse and very interconnected parts." In the 1970s, she adds, "intelligent people had good reason to think that New York was doomed, and that making it more accessible to suburbia (and cars) and easier and safer as a venue for nighttime entertainment (via Lincoln Center) was the way to save it."

One of the linchpins of that vision was Westway, a proposed twelve-lane highway to be built from 42nd Street to Battery Park on land partly reclaimed from the Hudson River. The project, if completed, would have ceded primacy to the automobile in Manhattan — at the expense of mass transit and the ecologically important Hudson River estuary. Thanks to successful litigation supported by Davidson and the Kaplan Fund, however, the project was defeated, and the federal funding that had been allocated to it was used instead to support the city's public transit infrastructure, a critical building block of New York City's comeback in the 1980s and '90s. The book details several such fights against pernicious projects and proposals, some of them more successful than others. But the common thread in all is the emerging power of grassroots activism, which Davidson and the fund were critical in nurturing and sustaining.

More recently, the economic model that propelled New York City to new heights in the opening decades of the twenty-first century has been overturned by COVID-19. Every day during this seemingly endless pandemic, New Yorkers have been challenged to re-conceptualize how they work and live. At the same time, the virus has highlighted the unequal, unjust, and often-racist systems that marginalize communities.  The lesson is clear: now is the time to develop new models and paradigms for cities that give all people who call them home a chance to flourish. It's A Helluva Town reminds us that this isn't the first time New York has found itself at such a crossroads. But, as in the 1970s, headlines like "Is New York City Over?" and "400,000 people flee from the city" obscure the fact that major urban centers like New York are hard to keep down as long as visionaries like Joan Davidson call them home. She, and the people who supported her at the J.M. Kaplan Fund, are proof, as Margaret Meade famously said, "that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Nick Opinsky is a senior development officer for institutional giving at American Jewish World Service.

Growing pains & possibilities: planning for growth in your foundation

January 29, 2021

Your-money-growingLet's imagine a typical foundation started by successful businesspeople in order to make charitable contributions each year to a small constellation of nonprofits in their community.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and the founders have achieved more financial success than they ever expected. While undertaking their estate planning, they have ascertained that even after they take care of their children and grandchildren, there will be a substantial amount left from their holdings to donate to the foundation. In fact, the founders anticipate that upon their death the foundation's assets will increase from $3 million (current value) to approximately $40 million. The founders realize that this eventual windfall merits advanced planning to best meet the opportunities that come with such a large increase.

If, like the founders in this hypothetical example, you should find yourself confronting an almost-overnight jump in your foundation's assets, what should you do? How should you plan for such an event and carry your foundation into the future?

The Challenge of Growth

One of the immediate outcomes of explosive growth is a dramatic increase in a foundation's 5 percent minimum distribution requirement (MDR). The MDR is based on the average value of foundation assets in the previous year, so as assets grow, foundations are required to increase their charitable activities accordingly. Although the increased MDR won't impact the foundation immediately, a major infusion of capital provides ample reason for the foundation to develop a plan for programmatic growth alongside its financial growth.

Let's go back to our example above. The foundation had an average of $3 million in assets throughout 2020. Therefore, it has an MDR of $150,000 for 2021. If the foundation were to receive a contribution of $37 million in January 2021, bringing total assets up to $40 million, the MDR for 2022 would be $2 million that would have to be distributed by the end of the year.

Gearing Up Grantmaking

Even though foundations are given some time to ramp up their distributions as a result of sudden growth, they eventually need to bring their grantmaking strategy in line with their new assets. These are questions to guide the development of such a strategy:

What do we want to accomplish as a foundation? This is an ideal moment for board members to consider the foundation's history and explore the increased opportunities that accompany financial growth. With additional financial assets, the programmatic possibilities open up to tremendous innovation, creativity, and potential impact.

What are our unique qualifications for making a difference? When it comes to achieving impact, dollars aren't the only important asset. As board members contemplate the foundation's future, this is an ideal time to take stock of the entirety of resources that the family and its network of contacts might be able to command. Specifically, the board should ask:

  • What expertise, skills, and special talents do we bring to the table?
  • How much time and energy do we have to devote to our cause?
  • What important contacts and connections do we have that can help us?
  • What's our name recognition/credibility/reputation?
  • What level of assets can we afford to commit?

Should we expand our scope? With increased assets, some foundations choose to continue supporting their existing areas of interest but expand their geographic focus. So, instead of restricting funding to their hometown, they adopt a statewide or even national agenda. Other foundations have opted instead to widen the scope of their areas of funding. So, in addition to funding a program that provides meals for homeless individuals, a foundation may choose to start fighting homelessness itself by funding research and advocacy, thereby increasing the opportunity for impact.

Where can we achieve the greatest impact? As your foundation ramps up its grantmaking, devoting resources to research and analysis would be money well spent. If you want to build on your foundation's previous work and expand locally, you might invite local funders or community leaders to help identify unmet regional needs. If you want to pursue an entirely new area of interest, you'll want to know who else has been working on the problem, what has already been done, and what impact that work has had. In that case, you could hire an outside expert to undertake a "field scan" detailing what other funders and nonprofits have accomplished on that issue to date, whether their efforts have met with success, and where your foundation might achieve the most impact going forward. Not only will this help you avoid directing funds toward ineffective approaches or duplication of other efforts, it might also reveal potential new partners and allies. Because the IRS recognizes that private foundations incur expenses in the pursuit of their charitable purposes, tax law allows foundations to count such expenditures toward fulfilling their minimum distribution requirement.

Can we fund things that fall outside of our mission? With a growth in assets, you can have a separate bucket of funds for grantmaking outside your stated mission. This would enable the foundation to fund exciting programs that either present themselves or are uncovered in the course of executing the planned grantmaking strategy. Setting aside a portion of funds can also serve as a laboratory, enabling the foundation to experiment with promising programs before making a more significant or enduring commitment.

A New Way of Operating

A growth in assets provides you with an opportunity to deepen your commitment to the funding priorities your foundation has previously championed. But such an event also affords you an opportunity to break with the past and chart a new course. Regardless of the path you choose, you would be well served to assess whether the moment necessitates a new approach to foundation operations, including:

Guidelines and applications. To attract more targeted and relevant grant requests and to meet an increased MDR, you may want to solicit proposals from more nonprofits. You also might want to develop funding guidelines and a grant application form.

Detailed budgeting. If your growing foundation ventures into a new funding area, implements a new grantmaking strategy, and incurs additional expenses, an ad hoc approach to budgeting may no longer suit the organization's needs. With increased size and complexity, it will likely become harder for your foundation to simply make grants until the MDR is fulfilled. At this point, you may want to create an annual budget, allocating specific dollar amounts to key funding areas, ongoing historical interests, and administrative costs.

A growth in assets provides an opportunity to deepen and expand your philanthropic agenda. Establishing clear objectives and taking the time to plan will help you successfully meet that opportunity.

Headshot_Elizabeth WongElizabeth Wong is national director of philanthropic advisory services at Foundation Source, which provides comprehensive support services for private foundations.

Prioritize public education in our philanthropic COVID-19 response

January 12, 2021

Children_sky_square_GettyImagesWith the arrival of effective vaccines against COVID-19, the end of the pandemic may finally be in sight. Yet the crisis in public education, one deeply exacerbated by the virus, will continue to wreak havoc beyond 2021.

If they have taught us anything, the last ten months have taught us who and what is essential. As people who work in philanthropy, who care about the future of the country, and as moms, we know that our kids and those who teach them are essential. And yet we as a country are not paying nearly enough attention to the public education crisis unfolding before our eyes — or responding to it as the emergency it is.

Here is what we know: More than fifty thousand students in the Los Angeles Unified School District never logged in to online learning during the spring, and there was a dramatic increase in middle and high school students failing classes in the fall. In Montgomery County, Maryland, almost 40 percent of low-income ninth-grade students failed English in the fall, and McKinsey estimates that Black and Latinx students will lose an average of eleven to twelve months of learning by June if the current state of affairs persists.

Here's what else we know: While learning remotely is not easy for any child, the learning losses from school closures and distance learning are not evenly distributed. As working mothers, we've seen first-hand the difficulties distance learning imposes on children and families, even those with significant privilege in the form of economic security, reliable broadband Internet access, quiet(ish) spaces to study, and parents who are working at home and can help their kids with schoolwork. Most children are not so lucky.

Nationally, nearly sixteen million school children lack adequate Internet service or don't have a device that connects to the Internet. In Los Angeles, where we live and work, at least one in four children in high-poverty schools lacks reliable high-quality Internet access, making it functionally impossible for them to participate in a meaningful way in school. Parents who risk their health every day in essential low-wage jobs have no realistic way to support their children through the daily challenges of distance learning. Meanwhile, students from wealthy and upper-middle class home have been able to resume in-person schooling even as high-poverty schools in the same city remain shuttered. The result is that students from poor and working-class families — kids who deserve and most need quality public education — are falling ever further behind their more fortunate peers.

While this is not a problem that philanthropy alone can solve, those of us with access to resources must find creative and strategic ways to show up for kids. All kids.

In the early days of the pandemic, we saw the difference philanthropic dollars could make. While federal stimulus funds and federal emergency funds allocated to the states took weeks and, in some cases, months to reach those most in need, public-private partnerships in many places were able to move quickly and efficiently to distribute funds. Here in Los Angeles, a group of more than thirty nonprofit organizations came together to form One Family LA after it became clear that low-income and immigrant families would be the most vulnerable to both the health impacts and economic devastation caused by the virus. In the weeks after the One Family was created, and before federal stimulus funds were fully disbursed, the organization was able to move quickly and distribute over $2 million in emergency relief funds to more than forty-five hundred families in need.

But the emergency is far from over. So what can philanthropy do to make a meaningful difference? How can it encourage and support educators and school district leaders to take the longer view that will be needed to recover from the pandemic even as they struggle to manage a seemingly endless list of day-to-day challenges?

First, philanthropy can use its greatest assets — nimbleness, creativity, and the freedom to take risks — to amplify the bright spots that already exist in public education. Chicago Public Schools recently partnered with philanthropists and community organizations to launch a $50 million program aimed at bringing free, high-quality Internet access to every student who lacks it. We know that things like intensive tutoring reliably help students from lower-income households make major academic gains. Philanthropy should partner with schools and school systems to get tutoring pilot programs off the ground, and efforts like these should be replicated by local leaders in communities across the country, with philanthropy providing seed funding and helping to disseminate best practices across city and state lines.

Second, in the months ahead, philanthropy must use its platforms to promote and fund advocacy work that keeps education at the forefront of the state and federal funding conversation. If we believe that creating a more equitable education system is critical, we need to make investments that articulate and put that priority in front of our elected officials. With so many health and economic challenges facing the country, this year's elections barely touched on the topic of education. Public schools across the country are doing the best they can, but they can't shoulder it all on their own. Ignoring months of learning loss and looming budget crises at the state and district levels is asking educators to do too much with too little.

In his book Our Kids, writer and political scientist Robert Putnam explored the many ways in which housing segregation and growing economic inequality have dissolved the social fabric that used to support poor and working-class children. And while most communities used to have a sense of collective responsibility for all children in the community — all kids were "our kids" — now when we speak about "our kids" we usually mean only the kids in our nuclear families.

We will never build the public-school systems we need or the society we want to live in unless we recapture that sense of collective responsibility for all children. While philanthropy is not an appropriate long-term substitute for robust city, state, and federal funding, it needs, at this moment, to prioritize public education in its COVID-19 response investments. At Fundamental and Great Public Schools Now, we are doing just that, because we know it's the best investment we can make for our families, for society, and for all our kids.

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

Ana Ponce_Rachel Levin_philantopicAna Ponce is executive director of Great Public Schools Now, and Rachel Levin is president of Fundamental.

DAF donors showed us who they were in 2020 

January 11, 2021

Money_seedlingGrantmaking from donor-advised funds (DAFs) is up — and it's up enormously. At National Philanthropic Trust, our grant dollars doubled in 2020. Other DAF sponsors reported a similar pattern. What is it about DAF donors that makes them respond so robustly to a crisis? And is this pattern of giving sustainable?

Here are three important lessons we learned about DAF donors in 2020 and why they should matter to nonprofits in the coming years:

1. DAF donors mobilize quickly. Americans have always had a giving impulse; they want to help in the face of challenges such as natural disasters, community emergencies, and neighbors in need. Giving in 2020 was marked with a different kind of urgency and qualifies as the most widespread and sustained form of "disaster giving" I've witnessed over more than four decades working in philanthropy.

The first COVID-specific grant recommendation at NPT came in early March. Within days there were dozens more, and after a few weeks we'd sent out millions of dollars in grant checks. The ability to recommend grants quickly has made an enormous difference in our donors’ philanthropic response and their willingness to support more causes than ever before.

Why it matters to charities in 2021: Swift and impactful grantmaking is certainly a credit to our donors' generosity, but it's also a testament to the organizations that are effectively communicating and addressing critical community needs.  Anecdotally, we know that donors respond to appeals that help meet a specific need — the more hyper-local or hyper-targeted, the more donors understand the impact their support will have.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw unrestricted grants flowing to emergency funds at community foundations, hospitals, and research institutions. Those organizations were communicating specific needs: assisting out-of-work hospitality workers in the community, providing childcare for nurses, funding treatment and prevention research. The summer surge of grants in response to calls for social justice mirrored the same sense of urgency, whether it was bail funds at established organizations already engaged in social equity work or racial literacy programs in schools. Organizations large and small continue to communicate what they need and highlight the impact donor dollars are having, attracting even more of those dollars and earning donors' trust.

2. DAF donors are committed to the long-term viability of nonprofits. DAF donors are committed philanthropists. We see this in the grants they recommend. In the aggregate, DAF grant dollars have increased nearly 100 percent in the last five years. We also see it in the payout rate from DAFs. Grant payout, which is a function of how much donors grant from their DAFs relative to total assets, has been above 20 percent for the last fifteen-plus years. This means DAF donors give generously and consistently — across economic cycles, election cycles, and in the face of great challenges.

This was true in 2008 when charitable giving writ large dropped but DAF grantmaking increased, and we are seeing it again in 2020-21. Other signals of long-term commitment? More donors than ever plan recurring grants — whether monthly, quarterly, or annually — to their favorite organizations. Over 15 percent of grants from NPT in 2020 were part of a recurring grant structure, a 34 percent increase from 2019. Recurring grants are a sustainable and predictable way to support nonprofits over the long term. Donors are making unrestricted grants more than ever, too. The number of unrestricted grants  NPT made was up 56 percent in 2020 and the dollar value of those grants jumped a whopping 254 percent. These increases are elements of what is known as "trust-based philanthropy," in which donors understand that charities know their constituents and causes better than anyone and trust them to do what is best to meet their immediate needs.

Why it matters to charities in 2021: To keep those regular, unrestricted dollars flowing, charitable organizations have to continue making their case for support. Communicating with donors — not DAF sponsors — to thank them and keep them engaged is critical. Although DAFs can technically give anonymously, the vast majority (at NPT, it's 97 percent) are made with the donors' names included. It's also good practice to engage every DAF donor, regardless of the size of the grant you receive. The most recent data shows that the average DAF account size is around $166,000, meaning today's sustaining donors could be tomorrow's major-gift donors.

3. DAF donors are "AND type people." DAF donors don’t look at their philanthropy through an either/or lens. They don’t choose either their longstanding favorite charity or a new one; they tend to support both. They don't have to choose either giving today or leaving a legacy tomorrow, they recommend grants now and invest for more grantmaking later. This year has highlighted exactly how important flexibility in philanthropy can be. Instead of making trade-offs, our donors recommended more grants — by volume and dollar value — in every interest area.

Why it matters to charities in 2021: If DAF donors are part of your donor base already, keep them informed and continue to solicit them for support. If they’re not, include them in your regular communication. DAF donors are open to supporting new charities and are upping their grants dollars in the face of today's challenges. The two most important ways to appeal to DAF donors are:

Make it easy. Include DAF language on your website and in your appeals like "send a check or recommend a grant from your donor-advised fund." Not only does this remind donors that your organization is eligible for support from DAFs, but it also suggests sophisticated fundraising knowledge and strategy.

Don't feel constricted by time or season. DAF donors have already signaled their commitment to philanthropy just by having a DAF — every dollar in their fund must go to charitable purposes. They've also already received their tax deduction when they made a contribution to their DAF. This means you can appeal to them whenever your organization's need is greatest. They're positioned to respond and often do so quickly.

DAFs are sometimes called the "rainy day funds" of philanthropy because DAF donors actively use their DAFs to support today's charitable priorities while saving for future needs. Dominated by a global pandemic, a renewed and intensified fight for social justice, and a deeply polarized political environment, 2020 was a year of great need. DAF donors, once again, stepped up to address those simultaneous challenges in creative, generous ways.

Headshot_eileen_heismanEileen Heisman is the CEO of National Philanthropic Trust, the largest national, independent donor-advised fund public charity. Heisman is one of the authors of the annual DAF Report. More at NPTrust.org.

3 ways to decolonize philanthropy right now

December 23, 2020

News_globe_africaThe events of 2020 reinforce how desperately a paradigm shift is needed in philanthropy if it hopes to create more durable solutions to the world's most complex challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed how important it is to have agile, innovative organizations capable of responding quickly to shifting local contexts. At the same time, the reawakening of the social justice movement in the United States crystallized what happens when people are chronically underrepresented and left out of decisions that affect their lives.

While addressing these challenges can seem overwhelming, it's clear that one of the most effective ways funders can contribute is to support organizations built around community-driven solutions. Why? Because solutions for the people created by the people have the greatest chance of successfully changing the status quo.

While this may seem obvious, it entails a major shift in the way donors currently approach their giving — indeed, nothing less than a desire to "decolonize philanthropy." Decolonizing philanthropy, a term introduced by writer and activist Edgar Villanueva, requires philanthropists to assess to whom they choose to give as well as how their giving perpetuates the very problems they aim to solve.

Whether in the U.S. or in Kenya, where our organization, RefuSHE, operates, we see countless examples of well-intentioned donors pouring money into solutions they think should solve a problem — without checking whether the solution was created with input from the community most impacted by the problem. In the global development space, this often manifests as NGOs working in the Global South being led by leadership that sits in the Global North, far from the realities of the work and with only an anecdotal understanding of the local context. Too often, this modus operandi funnels money into short-lived solutions that feed an organizational culture of dependency rather than one of sustainability.

The approach itself is rooted in the imperialistic origins of "international development." Following World War II, the U.S. launched the Marshall Plan, introducing the building blocks for the international and humanitarian aid structure we see today. During the long decades of the Cold War, the U.S. awarded aid to other countries with the understanding that those countries would play by our rules and that the aid itself would be used in ways we approved of. At the other end of the spectrum, private philanthropic giving was driven, in part, by a "savior" mentality and the need to "lift up" poor people in other countries. In both cases, financial assistance was "given" from a place of control by people who thought they knew what was best for the communities they were trying to help. Solutions were parachuted in, communities were forced to adopt new ways, and, in many cases, the improved quality of life that was promised often failed to materialize.

To ensure greater progress toward a shared prosperity, decolonizing philanthropy presents an opportunity to make every dollar go further by centering investment in community-driven solutions. Here are three ways funders can ensure their investments are more efficient, effective, and equitable.

Invest in local leadership and programs co-designed with the communities served

Time and again, we've seen that lasting change arrives when communities have ownership of the solutions to the challenges they face. Interventions that feel forced not only tend to have a short life span but often yield less impact. The stories of PlayPumps and READ Global illustrate the difference well. The PlayPump system, a merry-go-round-like wheel that pumps water from wells as it is turned, was heavily endorsed by the international aid community and quickly scaled to more than fifteen hundred pumps in Zambia without much research or surveying of communities in advance. Not unpredictably, within two years a quarter of the installed pumps were in need of repairs. PlayPumps, it turned out, were fragile and cost four times what a traditional pump costs. What's more, many local women where the pumps had been installed reported feeling embarrassed every time they had to get water for their families, while a report by the Guardian found that children would have to "play" on the pumps twenty-seven hours a day to meet the per-pump target of delivering water to twenty-five hundred people. In short, the pumps failed to improve clean water availability in communities across Zambia, and much money and time was invested with little to show for it.

By contrast, READ Global embraced a community-driven approach that has stood the test of time. For more than twenty-five years, the organization has partnered with rural villages in Nepal, India, and Bhutan to establish community-driven libraries, resource centers, and social enterprises known as READ Centers that are owned and operated by the local community. There are now more than a hundred self-sustaining centers spread across the three countries, and not one center has closed since the first one opened in 1991.

Locally driven solutions are most effective when an organization's leadership team understands the local context first-hand and is strongly connected to the local community. Local leaders have a better understanding of how to create culturally relevant programs, how to optimize operations for the local context, and how to build trusting relationships with and beyond the community. All of which creates more opportunity for partnerships between those providing the service and those using the service.

At RefuSHE, we witnessed this first-hand when we invested in bringing on Geoffrey Thige to lead our Kenya operations as executive director. When COVID hit, having that executive presence in Kenya enabled us to navigate the public health crisis much more quickly and effectively. In fact, we were the first organization serving refugees in Kenya to move to virtual learning. And despite initial concerns that some donors might balk, seeing the tangible benefits of Geoffrey's presence in Nairobi gave us the courage to restructure our leadership and shift the majority of our executive functions to Kenya.

Funding is the biggest hurdle facing NGOs looking to similarly restructure. Donors need to trust local leadership and stop supporting organizational infrastructures that are built to cater to them more than the beneficiary communities they are intended to serve. Having an organization's CEO and "top brass" in the West is a relic of a twentieth-century donor model that has lost much of its relevance. Good intentions do not necessarily lead to good solutions. If they truly want to support effective, long-lasting solutions, donors need to move away from creating cultures of dependency that too often are perpetuated and reinforced by a "white guilt" mentality.

Fund collaboration rather than competition

The current donor incentive structure is rooted in competition. Organizations in the same field are constantly competing with one another to secure funds they need to survive. Competition for funding among NGOs working in similar spaces also stifles their ability to share information, data, and learnings. This scarcity model disincentivizes transparency and pushes organizations to keep lessons learned to themselves in order to stand out in the quest for funding.

Real, tangible impact requires collaboration. Our NGO, for instance, equips girl and women refugees with housing, education, counseling, and the vocational skills they need to reestablish some semblance of stability in their lives. While our services are rooted in a holistic approach to the plight of refugees, we don't work on resettlement cases (where refugees are formally resettled to a country like the U.S.); instead, we partner with organizations like HIAS and Refuge Point that specialize in refugee resettlement cases. When funding streams disincentivize an ecosystem of NGOs from collaborating, it is a disservice to the very communities we aim to serve.

Funding — and rewarding — organizations that work together to address the root causes of multifaceted issues enables communities to walk through all the doors of opportunity at once, rather than one door at time. Collaboration also fosters a culture where service providers share learnings and don't waste precious resources repeating mistakes. Above all, it means the people we aim to serve can more easily navigate the various services they need to establish productive, fulfilling lives.

Award unrestricted grants

All too often, funding comes with restrictions on how, when, and where it can be used. This assumes the donor knows best just because they have the money, rather than acknowledging the hard-earned insights of organizations working on the ground every day. Unrestricted funding requires trust in the organizations in which you invest. Unfortunately, this kind of trust too often is awarded to organizations led by leaders in the Global North with whom donors feel most comfortable. While many have good track records, the practice cuts out organizations that may be smaller in scale but that have more depth and experience collaborating with the communities they serve.

It's an open secret in Kenya that if you set up a nonprofit and are hoping for funding from the West, you'll have much better luck if your leaders are white and/or of Western origin. Whether in the U.S. or other developed countries, data backs up the observation that Black and African leaders are not awarded the same kind of trust. This leads to nonprofits where white, often well-connected Western leaders earn the top salaries, sucking up resources that could otherwise be used to attract top local talent that is much better suited for the job but too often undervalued.

Unrestricted funding also has the power to build more durable institutions. It allows organizations to balance how much is invested in program implementation and how much is invested in competitive salaries, technology infrastructure, and/or new facilities that can enhance the organization's operations over the long term. (We should all toast Mackenzie Scott for shattering the philanthropic establishment glass ceiling with her unprecedented giving in the form of large unrestricted grants.)

The time for change is now

As with any change, there will be those who resist it, those who say there isn't enough local talent to fill the available leadership positions, and those who say local leadership team won't get enough face time with donors if those donors are based in far-off countries. We ask those naysayers to take a critical look at how that critique is rooted in an imperialist mindset that blames communities in need for their problems rather than seeing them as the solution to those problems.

The movement to decolonize philanthropy is a big step forward in terms of making the most of every dollar invested in social good and creating inclusive, durable solutions to economic prosperity. We can make the choice to stop wasting money on short-sighted solutions. The time for change is now.

Thige_adly_refuSHE_philantopicGeoffrey Thige is the current executive director and incoming CEO of RefuSHE. Jailan Adly is the organization's outgoing CEO and incoming managing director.

5 Questions for...Starsky Wilson, President and CEO, Children's Defense Fund

December 18, 2020

In September, the Rev. Dr. Starsky D. Wilson was named president and CEO of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), succeeding Marian Wright Edelman, who in late 2018 transitioned into the role of president emerita of the organization she founded almost fifty years earlier. Wilson started his tenure as president and CEO of CDF on December 7.

Wilson previously served as president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, a faith-based philanthropy focused on child well-being in St. Louis, and as pastor of Saint John's Church, an interracial, inner-city congregation. In the wake of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, Wilson was asked to co-chair the Ferguson Commission, convened by then-Missouri governor Jay Nixon; the report issued by the commission, Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity, called for sweeping reforms to policing and the criminal justice system as well as a renewed commitment to child well-being and economic opportunity for all.

Earlier this month, PND spoke with Wilson, who serves as board chair of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and as vice chair of the Forum for Theological Exploration, about the intersection of faith, racial justice, and philanthropy; the rising generation of racial justice activists; and Marian Wright Edelman's legacy.

Headshot_Starsky-Wilson_childrens_defense_fundPhilanthropy News Digest: As the former co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, what was your reaction to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the nationwide protests that followed? And have we made any progress toward racial justice since Michael Brown was shot dead by a Ferguson police officer?

Starsky Wilson: The video of the eight minutes and forty-six seconds in which George Floyd was killed by Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck in Minneapolis was a triggering reminder of the four hours Michael Brown, Jr. lay in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, after being killed by Darren Wilson. Six years passed between those tragedies, and yet so much was the same: the days waiting for the responsible police officers to be arrested, the outpouring of pent-up rage and pain from decades of oppression and brutality.

Six years have passed and little has changed in the response of these systems. On the other hand, much progress has been made in the activation and mobilization of community leaders on the ground, and in building the capacity to change narratives and organize people for long-term impact.

The only way to stop police violence is to address the root cause directly and deeply. Racist oppression and myths of criminality lead to public lynchings of Black people by those sworn to protect them. We need effective leaders who are not afraid to stand up and speak out about racial injustice. We must lift up and listen to the voices of impacted communities that for decades have been crying out about police brutality, violence that endangers our children and youth. We must take meaningful action on a systemic level: removing the police presence from our schools, ending the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and investing in programs that allow marginalized children and their families to thrive.

PND: As an early supporter of and participant in the Black Lives Matter movement, you're seen by many as a bridge between Marian Wright Edelman's generation of 1960s civil rights-era activists and a new generation of millennial and Gen-Z racial justice activists. As the new president and CEO of the Children's Defense Fund, how do you see your role in the movement for racial justice?

SW: Child well-being and racial justice are intimately and forever interconnected. Many people don't realize that 2020 is the first year in American history where the majority of children in this country are children of color. This makes the civil rights legacy and child advocacy vision that the Children's Defense Fund has woven together for nearly fifty years even more vital.

That's also why I am honored to join the organization built by Marian Wright Edelman. She has understood since she founded the Children's Defense Fund in 1973 that it is essential to weave together the struggle for civil rights and the fight for children in order for both movements to succeed. That means any action we can take toward providing opportunity, relieving social and economic burdens, and expanding healthcare access for the nation's children helps build a safer and more equitable society for people of color. At the same time, any action we can take to dismantle the policies and structures that uphold systems of racism in this country creates a better nation for our children.

Holding and earning the trust of leaders within the Movement for Black Lives is just as high an honor. I have been pleased to stand with, beside, and behind them on the streets and the public square, to invest in their work, and to strategize with them. At CDF, I look forward to working with these same leaders to extend the movement for justice that so many are inheriting at about the same age that Mrs. Edeleman was when she planted the flag of her work for justice.

PND: CDF recently was awarded a $1 million grant by the Thriving Congregations Initiative at the Lilly Endowment. As a pastor and a nonprofit leader, how do you see the relationship between faith and social justice advocacy? And how will the organization use the grant?

SW: Only faith in some idea, expression, or being greater than ourselves gives us the capacity to see justice in the face of injustice and to sustain strength to pursue it. Faith leaders like Rev. James Lawson and the late Rev. C.T. Vivian taught me that, at critical moments, we must win locally with spiritually grounded activism before we can win globally with on-the-ground activism. My job as a faith leader is to stir our collective imagination, encourage moral action, and pursue justice and righteousness as I encounter those themes in sacred texts and communities. When we bring our beliefs and bold action into the public square, we nurture the change that can transform a nation and help children flourish.

The Children's Defense Fund has a long history of working with faith leaders and communities to activate champions for our children through programs like the Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry and the annual National Children's Sabbath. The generous grant from the Lilly Endowment will take that work to new heights by allowing us to pursue a focused partnership with a small group of congregations to help strengthen the connections between the teachings and actions of their places of worship with the challenges facing children in their communities and across the country.

PND: Over the course of your career you've been focused on the well-being of children, and that includes your work on the CDF Freedom Schools summer literacy program and the Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry. Have you had time to determine what your top priorities for CDF are over the short to immediate term?

SW: There was already so much work to be done to make sure our most marginalized children can flourish — and that was before the COVID pandemic set those children back even further in their learning, their development, and their safety and well-being. The top priority at CDF will always be to be a strong, effective voice for the more than seventy-four million children who cannot vote, lobby, or make campaign donations to the lawmakers with the power to help them. Our immediate focus right now is urging Congress to pass robust COVID relief that will help our children and their families stay housed, fed, and safe in the difficult weeks ahead.

More broadly, we will continue to push those in power to take a holistic view of our children. They are not just students and future employees; they are entire human beings who need to be supported mentally and physically to lead joyful lives. We must be proactive in supporting children in all aspects of their life, not just working on the back end to dilute the damage after they have experienced a traumatic experience. We will not solve the complex, interconnected set of challenges facing our most vulnerable children unless we as a society adopt that kind of approach to serving them.

PND: Many foundations have come to the realization that they need to do more to address systemic racism and support efforts to advance racial justice. What are the one or two things foundations could do in 2021 to really accelerate progress toward a racially just society?

SW: First, foundations must make good on their public statements and commitments made in response to the reckoning we saw in 2020, from COVID-19 to racial uprisings to the presidential election. To truly and faithfully advance racial justice, they must invest in an equitable recovery from the pandemic, including supporting responses designed to correct the disproportionate health and economic impacts on Black and brown children and families. That will require higher payouts, the application of a racial equity lens to their grantmaking, and the adoption of a systems-change approach to everything they do.

Philanthropies must invest in Black-led social change and listen closely to leaders and organizations in impacted communities. Just before coming to CDF, I led the Deaconess Foundation's work to invest $4 million into Black-led pandemic response and racial healing initiatives. That type of deliberate, focused action is what is needed to produce the results foundations say they want in their mission statements and theories of change.

Finally, leaders of foundations can lift their own voices to amplify the demands of those whose voices are too often drowned out or ignored. The freedom to advocate afforded to foundations and their leaders is a powerful tool when it's used to shift narratives and educate the public. And I am truly glad to hear some of these leaders already speaking out loudly and forcefully.

Kyoko Uchida

Challenging ableism through language justice

December 03, 2020

Disability_word_cloud_GettyImages

Social justice movements have long recognized the power of language. The idea of language justice — "the right everyone has to communicate in the language in which we feel most comfortable" — has helped bridge the equity gap when people who speak different languages work together. Multilingual spaces can connect movements across language barriers and build shared power across language differences. Below, we argue that the concept of language justice needs to be enlarged to other contexts and forms of communication — in particular, that by and about disabled people.

In 2017, we launched the Open Society Community Youth Fellowship Program, with a focus on engaging young people as individual grantees through a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) lens. Through this experience, we learned that certain words can have unintended and damaging consequences and can reinforce stigmas related to oppression and ableism. We also learned what it means in practice to apply language justice to all stages of grantmaking, centering disabled people in these processes. Here we want to share these lessons, which both involve listening to and learning from disabled people, in accordance with the disability movement's key principle of "Nothing about us without us."

Shifting power through word use

Discriminatory and stigmatizing words are often used in everyday exchanges. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and with the current political instability in the U.S., there has been widespread use — in emails, tweets, and mainstream media — of expressions such as "You're not nuts. This is a really crazy time!" or "I hope this finds you well during these crazy times," "falling on deaf ears," and "interrogating our blind spots." Politicians are referred to as "mad," "psycho," or "narcissistic." These everyday uses of language can reinforce stigma, implying, even when it is not the intention of the speaker or writer, that people with mental health conditions never make sound judgments, that being deaf means being stubborn, or that being blind means being unaware. Terms like "crazy," "nuts," and "insane" can be especially discriminatory and offensive, particularly when metaphorically used to mean "bad," "bizarre," or "very unusual" (as in "these crazy times").

In applying a language justice approach as funders, we also learned to be intentional in analyzing the words we use to talk about disability. In some parts of the world, disability rights activists tend to prefer "person with disability" to "disabled person," which, they argue, can suggest that one's identity is wholly defined by one's disability, perpetuating stigma and discrimination. In the United Kingdom, however, "disabled person" is widely used by activists due to the stronger prevalence of the social model of disability, according to which a person is disabled not by their sensory, motor, intellectual, or other impairments but by physical barriers, gaps in provision, and social attitudes that marginalize or exclude them. Adherents to the social model prefer "disabled person" because it emphasizes the disabling effects of society and they do not see such phrasing as discriminatory. It needs to be recognized that both of these naming conventions — "person-first" and "identity-first" — are widespread.

The example of autism highlights a different dimension of this debate. The term "neurodiversity" stresses that all people are different in terms of their expectations and identities, and moves us away from pathologization. It was once considered appropriate to say "people with autism," using person-first terminology. But some with lived experience have stated that autism is part of their identity, not an addition, and therefore prefer "autistic person." Disability activists often emphasize a point that Tom Shakespeare has succinctly stated: "[I]t is a good principle to call people by the names they themselves prefer."

Judgments about what terms are acceptable or discriminatory change over time. Many words referring to people with intellectual disabilities that are now regarded as highly stigmatizing were once used in scientific communities, as well as in official medical and educational policy documents, as legitimate descriptions of certain individuals and their genetic conditions. This does not mean that those words were not already problematic; it just means their connotations and the extent of their social acceptance changed over time until they eventually became unacceptable and taboo.

The word "cripple," and in particular its shortened form "crip," is a particular case. In the last two decades, disability activists have reclaimed "crip" and "cripple" as positive terms, as a badge of identity, flipping their connotations against their oppressive usage in much the same way "queer" was reclaimed by the LGBT movement. As an article written early in that process explained, "by reclaiming 'cripple', disabled activists take the image in their identity that scares outsiders and make it a source of militant pride." It remains problematic, however, for non-disabled people to use the term, even if their intention is to express solidarity with the disability rights movement. Here, too, people with disabilities must be in control of decisions about language that refers to them.

The point is not to "police" or "cancel" certain ways of talking, to ban certain words and elevate others, but to argue that we all need to be aware that expressions like these carry considerable power and can reinforce negative narratives, stereotypes, and discriminatory attitudes. Prejudiced language is endemic in society. As funders working through a language-justice approach, we need to recognize this and be guided by what disabled people themselves feel and say is discriminatory, stigmatizing, offensive, and/or hurtful. This is a basic principle of language justice in relation to disability.

Shifting power with language justice in grantmaking practices

In a grant-giving context, as elsewhere, a language-justice approach can help shift power and challenge ableism at each stage of a grant cycle. We learned that implementing these approaches meant rethinking timelines and systems based on notions of urgency and perfectionism. It does take longer to create the conditions and the spaces where people can exercise their power in their own language and in ways that are accessible for them. Looking, even inadvertently, for conventional kinds of "perfection" in applicants or our own operational processes can reinforce existing power relations and made us reflect on the intersections between ableism and other forms of discrimination, as highlighted by the Disability Justice movement. Based on our experience, we offer some suggestions on how language justice can be implemented through grantmaking practice.

First, reduce barriers and widen participation, calls for proposals must be accessible. This means application materials should be translated into the languages used by potential applicants' communities and also re-worked into Easy-to-Read, a format that conveys information in short sentences with widely used and easily understood words in combination with images, or Plain Language. Word, PDF, and Power Point documents should use accessible document formats. Informational webinars or events should be conducted in the languages used by applicants (with interpretation for the funder, if needed), as well as offered with sign language interpretation and Communication Access Real-Time Transcription to enable better information access.

Second, applicants should be given the choice to submit their materials in different communication formats (written, video, audio, etc.). No one method of communication should be imposed. For example, requiring only written submissions — even for only one part of the application — could exclude some signing Deaf people. If interviews are conducted, simultaneous or consecutive interpretation should be made available.

Third, once the successful applicants have been selected, welcome documents and other important information should be provided in Plain Language, and in the languages and formats used by the communities they represent. The same applies to reporting requirements, which are often daunting and technically complex. Grantees should have the option of submitting reports in their language or format of choice (video, audio, etc.). In our case, this then meant transcribing reports to meet the required formats of our institution. When grantees come together for virtual or in-person meetings, they must be asked well in advance what accessibility and accommodation supports they will need. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network and European Disability Forum offer excellent guidance for accessible meetings.

Final thoughts

Language justice is about challenging a widely accepted and internalized reality of exclusion and the dominance of institutionally powerful cultures and people. For us it has meant checking our own privilege as people holding particular kinds of institutional power. It has also meant acknowledging that we need to learn from the communities we want to support. Listening carefully is just as important as speaking.

Rachele_tardi_zachary_turkRachele Tardi is the director of and Zachary Turk is a program officer with the Youth Exchange at the Open Society Foundations.

To help communities survive crises, trust and invest in their leadership

September 08, 2020

Kresge_fresh_lo_initiative_2Amid multiple ongoing crises, foundations are struggling with how best to support the nonprofit sector — in particular, community-based organizations working to address a raging pandemic, police violence, and systemic racism.

Led by people with a wealth of lived experience, community-based groups have long been a critical source of support for under-resourced neighborhoods struggling to rise above interconnected challenges, including insufficient access to fresh and affordable food, clean air, and safe, healthy housing.

By listening to and investing in local organizations, philanthropy has helped accelerate resident-centered collaborative approaches that have made it possible for such groups to pivot to meet immediate COVID-related needs and maintain their financial footing during an economic downturn that has forced many nonprofits to shut their doors.

One such group, the Memphis-based Binghampton Development Corporation (BDC), which works to promote people-first property development, support affordable home ownership, and train new food entrepreneurs in English, Spanish, and Arabic, hasn't missed a beat since COVID emerged as a public health crisis earlier this spring. Although the virus forced the organization to pause its regular programming to ensure proper social distancing, it is still hard at work making sure the small food businesses it supports have the resources they need to navigate these uncertain times and sustain themselves in a post-pandemic world. Recently, for example, it secured a catering deal for one local entrepreneur to prepare food for emergency medical staff, helping that small business owner earn the income needed to survive while supporting critical frontline workers.

And BDC isn't alone. Montbello Organizing Committee, a group of community organizers and developers based in Denver’s multiracial Montbello neighborhood, responded to the pandemic by immediately organizing emergency food distribution and working with partners to distribute meals to more than eight hundred people a day. In New Brunswick, New Jersey, resident-led nonprofit Elijah's Promise has provided twice-daily meals to locals out of its community soup kitchen and is serving more than three times as many meals today as it did before the virus became a concern. And through its Corner Store Witness initiative, the Chicago-based Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) and its community partners recently held a virtual convening to discuss the challenges immigrant-owned corner stores in inner-city neighborhoods are facing and what can be done to provide a path forward to long-term healing and the building of real community power. All these organizations are working locally to meet the needs of the communities in which they are embedded and are examples of the idea that in times of crisis, hyper-local investment is essential for community survival.

About five years ago, the Kresge Foundation developed a grant program, Fresh Local & Equitable (FreshLo), to support resident-led approaches to community challenges that prioritizes cultural expression and food as a social determent of health. A joint initiative of Kresge's Health and Arts & Culture programs, FreshLo intentionally integrates food, art, and creative approaches to community building to drive neighborhood revitalization equitably.

One of our top priorities is raising up resident-centered, collective action that includes the voices of those who live and work in the community. During the grantmaking process, we intentionally looked for neighborhoods that have lacked access to foundation funding — especially those in the South and Midwest. We knew that groups on the ground were already doing important community-driven work and we hoped the funding we could provide would help seed new networks, bring resident-led projects to life, and develop infrastructure that could support their neighborhoods over time.

The twenty-three community-based groups we selected were already doing the work needed to drive long-term neighborhood change — the type of work Kresge has been exploring for nearly a decade through its Creative Placemaking efforts, which are based on the idea that progress depends on a more nuanced understanding of urban inequality and how arts, culture, and community-engaged design intersect with strategies to expand opportunities for residents in low-income communities.

It was the social cohesion and vision shared by residents in these neighborhoods that excited us and created, in our view, the essential pre-conditions for long-term change. That vision also served as a vital ground wire for the collective action needed to mitigate some of the impacts related to the pandemic and structural racism.

Over the past six months, we've seen these organizations evolve their programs and services to meet emerging needs of their communities. We had a hunch that investing in resident-driven collective action and cultural solutions would help strengthen communities that had been neglected for decades; the pandemic has proven that hunch right. The results of our grantees' efforts show that place-based, culture-first investing is critical in times of crisis.

In Minnesota, Native-led community organization and FreshLo grantee Dream of Wild Health has tripled its farmland with support from Kresge. During a pandemic — when food sovereignty is paramount — the organization's sustainable farming practices, informed by Indigenous knowledge and traditions, have proven key to meeting the growing food needs of its community. Not only is the group cultivating its land to yield more fresh produce for current and future generations, it's also delivering food to elders who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill with the virus and supporting other members of the community impacted by COVID and ongoing protests against racial injustice.

Similarly, In Oakland, FreshLo grantee Planting Justice has spent decades mobilizing people impacted by mass incarceration to work toward neighborhood revitalization and food sovereignty. Since the pandemic began, the organization has shifted work at its plant nursery to provide critical produce and smoothie distribution to more than a thousand neighbors a week. As its community faces job loss and economic challenges, it also has taken on forty paid interns, creating new opportunities for professional development and routing money to local families, supported by additional COVID-response funding from Kresge.

Like Montbello, Elijah's Promise, and IMAN, the organization's ability to quickly pivot and use resources where they are most needed is a testament to the trust it has built up and its commitment to its neighbors. Investments in social infrastructure and the leadership of groups like Dream of Wild Health and Planting Justice can only strengthen their work.

For historically underresourced and marginalized neighborhoods, and the people who live in them, responding to crises is nothing new. But they are more likely to survive a crisis when strong community connections already exist and they receive the support needed to take neighborhood-level action. The lessons from the FreshLo initiative suggest that investments in social cohesion, local leadership, and community enterprises can yield huge dividends.

The crises we are grappling with today — and those to follow — require that we lean on our neighbors. The strongest safety nets are constructed out of local knowledge, relationships, and community action, and philanthropy should do what it can to support them.

(Photo credit: Kresge Foundation Fresh Local & Equitable Initiative)

Stacey_Barbas_Regina_R_Smith_PhilanTopic

Stacey Barbas is a senior program officer in the Health program and Regina R. Smith is managing director of the Arts & Culture program at the Kresge Foundation.

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  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."


    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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