2018 Highlight: Book Launch for “Courageous Philanthropy”

Jennifer Vanica | January 5, 2019

So what is courageous philanthropy?

In this time when power and privilege set the agenda for change and everyday citizens don’t believe their voices count more than money — either in the voting booth or in philanthropy — we need to shed the contradiction that those who control private wealth within foundations are building power in marginalized communities by determining what policies, what programs, and what opportunities are best for them according to research compiled at arms-length.

Courageous philanthropy acknowledges two important factors:

  1. Foundations are structures of power and privilege that — unless courageous enough to change the rule book — perpetuate white supremacy by creating a “have/have not” grantmaking framework, acting as an elite set of decision-makers deciding what is other people’s best interest, prioritizing outside professional expertise above indigenous know-how, and carrying forward its own worldview and values.
  2. People who live in disinvested communities aren’t just unfortunate; what is impacting their lives is unjust.

Although chartered to act in the public interest, those of us working in foundations rarely create platforms to truly hear the public voice. Since who deliberates and who decides matters, how do we change this and other historic practices that undercut real community ownership of decisions, action, and assets? 

It is time to forge a new, more courageous relationship between foundations and the communities we seek to serve. When we no longer work to sustain our own points of view and work toward community ownership of change as accountable partners, we will discover that what endures is the fire of inspired action.

This is more important than ever.

In order to change detrimental power dynamics, philanthropy in a new courageous era will:

  1. Regard residents as valued citizen-partners, central to the work of transformational change, not as passive recipients of expert knowledge and services;
  2. Practice active and ongoing community listening, conducted and interpreted by residents, as fundamental to foundation-community learning, as well as the framing and aiming of action;
  3. Recognize that inclusion starts with us by supporting the process of broad and inclusive deliberation and shared decision-making, and safeguard that process — calling our democracy back to health;
  4. Not mistake community engagement, surveys, and feedback sessions as community ownership and build intentional structures for sustained resident control over decisions and assets;
  5. Abandon historic practices that undercut communities’ can-do spirit, commitment to risk-taking action, and the broad ownership of planning, implementation, and assets, such as internally-focused foundation decision-making, silo areas-of interest that cause fragmentation within communities, and the need for proof that something is feasible before investing in helping to make it feasible;
  6. End our practice of working as individual funders on “our” initiatives,  practicing resource decision-making with the sense of abundance that comes from a figure-it-out attitude and the ability to partner, given that comprehensive change requires a matrix of resources and types of capital, both across and down social, economic, physical, and political development;
  7. Do not flinch in the face of confrontations that challenge our own change,  willing to stay open, attentive, thoughtful, and respectful partners able to honor other worldviews;
  8. Be all-in with long-term shared responsibility for success, entrepreneurial in stimulating opportunity that arises from the work, and courageous enough to risk failure.

In the book “Courageous Philanthropy: Going Public in a Closely Held World”, there are examples of what the Market Creek teams in San Diego tried, what worked, and what didn’t, as we worked over two decades to each own our own change and achieve a shift in the fundamental community control over decisions and assets.  During that time, we “went public” in every sense of the word — listening deeply to the “public” voice, igniting large-scale teamwork that honored residents in the central role, and achieving an innovative and daring IPO that created literal resident ownership of a community-planned income-producing asset.

Our biggest lesson?  When transformational change is needed, courage is required. 

It is time for all of us to take the dare.

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