When it Comes to Best Practices for Philanthropy, We Know What Works

by Edgar Villanueva

Originally published at Giving Compass.

Most people have a complex relationship with money. We either live in a state of perpetual lack, spend frivolously and without intention, or use it in ways that perpetuate harm. This is true for individuals and it is also true for institutions.

The way to change our relationship with money is to dissect and examine it. As the philanthropic sector, we need to be having frank conversations about where wealth came from, why it’s held back from public coffers, how it’s invested as an endowment, and who gets to manage, allocate and spend it.

As a Native American who has seen the ravages of colonialism and as someone who works in philanthropy, I know that understanding our historical relationship with wealth is not just a good idea; it is a moral imperative. No industry is immune from developing an unhealthy relationship to currency.

Even institutions that exist to do good must examine how they relate to money and how their actions impact vulnerable and historically marginalized communities.

In my book, “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance,” I document the many ways philanthropy has perpetuated harm by unwittingly advancing the legacy of colonialism. Many of the people managing philanthropic resources, including the people determining the process for accessing those resources, are doing so without deep relationships with the communities closest to the pain of social, racial and economic injustice. They are also doing so without a deep analysis of how their internal systems may actually perpetuate harm.

In addition to holding a mirror up to philanthropy, I discuss strategies for repairing the harm.

As you examine your own relationship with money, there are a host of examples of funders who are on the right track. The Potlatch Fund, based in Seattle, WA, is indigenous-led and focuses on reciprocity rather than transactional engagements. The fund serves impacted people with grants and leadership development training.

The Frida Young Feminist Fund operates in an unquestionably democratic way, allowing grantees to select future grantees. The Fund is also run and managed by the very people it seeks to empower and support: Young feminists. The fund wields power in an inclusive manner that allows the voices and experiences of impacted people to be heard and elevated.

The Baltimore Children and Youth Fund is also a model. When Baltimore City Council President Jack Young created the $12 million fund, his legislation determined that the distribution of the fund’s resources be made by a collection of community groups rather than solely by the fund’s fiscal manager. To ensure the community was able to direct and access grants from the fund, fund managers hosted capacity-building sessions to teach prospective grantees how to apply for funding, town hall meetings to solicit ideas on who to fund, and community design sessions to determine how the fund would be managed.

Finally, the Schott Foundation for Public Education is focused on advancing racial justice and deeply entrenched in the community. Schott focuses its support exclusively on people living at the margins and works to address the root causes of systemic inequality verses narrow, programmatic approaches to improve education. As a public fund, we are actively working to decolonize our approach to the work because we believe those closest to the pain should drive decision making. In fact, Schott’s founding family converted the organization from a private family foundation to a public entity in order to share power with community members on the board of directors.

From these examples, it is clear we know what works in terms of the best models for philanthropy.

The best funding models center and share power with impacted communities. They also address root causes of inequalities.

Now that we know what works, the question is will we follow the blueprint before us?

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Original contribution by Edgar Villanueva (@VillanuevaEdgar) is an author and social justice philanthropy expert. He serves on the boards of Native Americans in Philanthropy and the Andrus Family Fund, and is vice president of programs and advocacy at The Schott Foundation

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