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Q&A: What would it take for funders to advance reparative philanthropy and share power? 

General Foundation News

The Convergence Partnership, a national funder collaborative working to advance racial justice and health equity, is partnering with the Decolonizing Wealth Project to interrogate and disrupt the existing systems of moving and controlling capital. The goal behind this partnership is to persuade philanthropy to share power and resources more authentically with grassroots partners.

In this Q&A, Communications Officer and Equity Task Force Co-Chair Kaniqua Welch spoke with Kresge Senior Health Fellow Chris Kabel to share insights on how to advance reparative philanthropy and decolonize practices to share power.

Q: During this year’s CHANGE Philanthropy Unity Summit held in October, you joined a panel discussion titled, “Advancing Reparative Philanthropy: Decolonizing Practices to Share Power.” How would you describe the purpose of the panel and the collective goals of the panelists?

A: The goal behind our panel discussion was to candidly share reflections and lessons learned about the power dynamics in philanthropy, with practical guidance on how to dismantle those dynamics and replace them with more equitable practices. Many foundations are on this journey – leaning into trust-based philanthropy to disrupt power hoarding. It takes time and collaboration, but I believe it can be achieved through reparative approaches and new structures in our grantmaking processes.

Q: What major challenges are getting in the way of sharing power and advancing a reparative framework?

Let's stay in touch Sign up for our newsletters SubscribeA: Few philanthropies are structured to support multi-issue, multi-racial movements for the long haul. Across the sector, we have finely honed, intricate strategies and theories of change – but these strategies can serve as a constraint rather than a guide. There are some amazing nonprofit organizations doing incredible work. And unfortunately, we can’t support them if they don’t fit or conform within our programmatic silos. Within our own foundations, we need to explore this potential harm. To have a conversation with an amazing organization and say, “You’re awesome. The work you’re doing is great, but unfortunately, it doesn’t fit into our finely honed strategy” – that can cause harm. We have to address the impact of this potential harm. While we may think we’re doing the smart thing with our elaborate theories of change, they could cause more harm than good to the very organizations that are doing the critical movement work in communities where we want to have an impact.

Q: What would it take for philanthropy to ‘get it right’ – as in, how can we truly shift power to grantees?

A: There are many things we need to change to do this work well. The first step is realizing our role as funders in determining goals and strategies should be much smaller than it has typically been. Our expertise does not matter as much as the expertise of those in the community. When it comes to identifying solutions, philanthropy should not be at the center of the conversation. We shouldn’t even be leading these conversations. We should be listening. Our grantees and community partners should be leading, and we should lean in to help determine where our funding power and platform can be best utilized in service of community-driven solutions.

When we do it right – meaning we listen to our partners, lean into trust, and fund at the scale of the problem with long-term support – community organizers are enabled to do mission-based work more effectively.

We don’t need to hold onto the power and resources so tightly. We need to work more in partnership and dismantle the power dynamics inherent in the sector. When funders can cede power and resources to do this work of repair, then that is when we get it right.

Q. With this form of radical listening – being very intentional with providing the space for our partners to identify solutions – how does this drive trust-based philanthropy?

A: As a beginning, we need to make it evident that our perceived expertise doesn’t matter as much as community residents and community leaders working on the frontlines of social change. Those with lived experience have the answers. They have the solutions. Not philanthropy. We simply have the capacity to fund those solutions. This is where the power dynamic must shift.

Q: In addition to leading with trust, what other recommendations would you offer to colleagues in the field?

A: We also must play the long game. This means making long-term investments and grants that span several years. One thing we can learn from the conservative right is they are so much better at playing the long game and creating durable narratives that make their proposed policies easier to adopt.

When we talk about narratives, it’s important to understand that negative narratives are deep. They are so deeply embedded that no one has to say them out loud – they simply shape everyone’s ideas about what is possible or impossible, or whose lives are worth more than others. Narratives are stubborn… difficult to replace. And there is a reason for that. It’s because people and institutions have invested mightily with a lot of time, effort, and money to create and embed these narratives. We’re seeing this with the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision and its aftermath. Their agenda is so deeply embedded into our belief systems that it has become core to the fabric of our country. It’s tied to decades of racist systems and policies and will take decades to unravel.

Q: What should philanthropy not do – in terms of supporting partners?

A: Here is some advice we received directly from Heart of the City Neighborhoods Executive Director Stephanie Simeon during our panel discussion:

“Do not expect grantees to right a wrong that was created decades ago within a matter of two to three years. For instance, harmful housing policies and redlining can’t be fixed in two years with a $100,000 grant. Do not ask your community groups to do the impossible. Philanthropy should not be issuing one- to two-year grants with the expectation that grantees will quickly change policies with so little time.”

“Do not make community organizations compete for resources with a scarcity mindset.”

As Stephanie said, that is a major trigger for organizations coming from cyclical poverty. During our panel discussion, she even compared some of our grantmaking processes to The Hunger Games. Let that settle in for a second – one of our community leaders has compared the competitive process of applying for a grant to The Hunger Games. Something must change.

We expect too much from our community partners. We expect them to change policies. To change systems. To change mindsets. All within short periods of time. But what are we doing within our own institutions to disrupt outdated systems and create change ourselves? We have that power. We must use it equitably.

A panel of four people sit at a table with a screen to the right that reads: Change Philanthropy Unity Conference | Advancing Reparative Philanthropy: Decolonizing Practices to Share Power
Speakers at the Change Philanthropy Unity Conference panel on Advancing Reparative Philanthropy: Decolonizing Practices to Share Power, included (left to right): Chris Kabel, The Kresge Foundation; Graig Martinez, The California Endowment; Stephanie Simeon, Heart of the City Neighborhods; and Sheena Brown, Decolonizing Wealth Project.

Q: How do we get there? For others in the sector who are interested in reparative philanthropy and seeding power, where should they start?

A: Within many organizations, you can find an overall organizational culture as well as micro-cultures on specific teams. We must be very intentional about the organizational culture we’re building because it will affect our relationships with external partners. We must interrogate the grantmaking and reporting procedures we’ve adopted, assess who is benefitting from them, and who may be getting harmed. Every organization has room to improve in this space. We need to clearly articulate our values and ensure that those stated values are reflected in our practices.

Q: What is your advice for taking the first step to shift the culture within your organization toward reparative philanthropy?

A: Find your allies. I guarantee within your organizations, there are people who share the same frustrations and the same aspirations. Find those people. Build the case. Build your network. And then find the moment. There’s a saying that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Many of us radically changed our practices after the COVID-19 pandemic, after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. Has there been some backsliding? Certainly. But there are also some changes that have endured because people organized thoughtfully and seized the moment. And that’s still possible.