Time to Reimagine What Foundation Practice Looks Like

Jennifer Vanica | February 12, 2019

Reimagining Foundation Practice

For the 40 years I have been engaged in the world of philanthropy, the landscape has not changed. There is a funder, a non-profit, and a client. In this ecosystem, the funder rarely talks to the end-user of the services provided. Our role as foundation leaders is to set the agenda, select who is at the table, and hold people accountable. We focus on a problem or a policy and go after people who believe like we believe to help advance that agenda. We maintain control, rely heavily on experts, and aim for detailed plans based on empirical evidence.

But it is time to let go of the old ways. We should no longer be developing strategies at arm’s length. Or trying to scale social change by focusing solely on gaps in services. Or aligning “stakeholders” defined exclusively as institutional partners.  Or investing in only those projects that have guaranteed outcomes or income. 

It is time to engage in a very different kind of conversation, first and foremost with residents of our disinvested communities, and re-imagine the foundation of the future — both strategically and structurally.

Courage Required or Do Not Apply

In reflecting on his years as head of the Abyssinian Community Development Corporation in Harlem, Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, noted:

Many of the so-called advocates and experts — people I respected and admired — would speculate about the concerns of the community without ever so much as visiting with local residents.” 

The “tragic irony” of this practice, he noted, was this:

If these experts had listened not lectured, they might have learned that the biggest issue on people’s minds was not the lack of some complicated, rights-based ‘theory of change;’ it was the lack of a supermarket.”

It takes courage to change the dynamic of how funders, non-profits, and residents in communities interact. Stepping out of long-established norms is just plain hard. Hard to change the power dynamic of money. Hard to let go of control. Hard to walk on uncertain paths. Hard to withstand the critics and detractors. And hard to stay the course when things get difficult, confusing, and messy.

But it is at the same time simple.

It simply requires us, as a field, to practice what we seek to instill in our culture — inclusion, human connection, the honoring of differences, and the ability to listen, even if we don’t want to hear what people have to say. 

This new philanthropic job description reads: courage required or do not apply. It is requiring us to be all-in. To be present and accounted for in the effort to build bridges across our country’s enormous differences. To be one of the “unreasonables.”

Who are the Unreasonables?

“There are satisfiers and maximizers. Then there are the unreasonables,” noted Amy Celep, CEO of Community Wealth Partners, in an interview I did with her. Community Wealth Partners is a strategy and capacity-building organization that supports change agents in “tackling social problems at the magnitude they exist.” It was launched as a specialized team focused on the larger dynamic of transformational change by Billy Shore’s Share Our Strength, which works to address childhood hunger.

These leaders are in every community, but they are alone. They are the ones that are willing to take big risks, who exhibit courage, try to look beyond what other people think, and despite their accountability to their own organizations, realize that the ‘big goal’ is first and foremost. They are ones asking why we are not breaking down large-scale barriers and achieving large-scale change. They are the ones asking whether or not we have the courage to do something even if we don’t know it will work.

The term ‘unreasonables’ was spawned by Billy Shore’s book The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men: Inspiration, Vision, and Purpose in the Quest to End Malaria. In this book, Billy shares an inside look at the fearlessly bold moral commitment by a handful of scientists who decided to break with the tradition of working in isolation, deflect nay-sayers, and defy reason in order to find — not incremental change — but a game-changer.

When Courage is Required, We Are More Courageous Together

It’s one thing to acknowledge there will be failure and critics and another thing altogether to live it. It requires a special way of being. In his book, Billy Shore writes:

It takes someone with persistence bordering on stubbornness, confidence bordering on arrogance, the long-term patience of a cathedral builder, and the immediate impulses of an emergency-room doc. It takes leadership. And it takes a boxer’s willingness to take a punch and come up off the canvas.”

It also requires a new way to organize our work and think about our partners and support systems.  According to Amy Celep:

They tell me — the unreasonables — that they feel more courageous when they are with someone.” 

The future we are being called to create is now demanding something very different from our philanthropic leaders. This change will require courage. But we have learned that courage is always easier to muster with someone.

To Go Fast, Go Alone; To Go Far, Go Together

So how can philanthropic leaders muster the courage to shed historical practices that enable charitable foundations to rationalize power and privilege?  Practices that further marginalize the residents of our disinvested communities by adding barriers to their participation?  Practices that limit the use of residents’ vast expertise and motivation for change?

By seeing ourselves as whole-heartedly “in this together.” By having the courage to ask people what is in their own best interest. By not predetermining everything— which kills innovation. By not thinking that degrees are the only smarts needed for this work. By not equating the hard histories that many people have experienced with a lack of capability. By stopping all the ways we buttress the narrative of an urban underclass in need of our help, keeping control of decisions and assets. 

There is no doubt that communities need outside experts working on regional market-driven opportunities and federal policy. They need people within systems to challenge and change them. But the residents of a community must be central to any community change process. Foundations working in community change must be public and go public because all citizens have the right to be engaged planners of their neighborhood’s destiny. Their gifts, talents, ownership, and energy for action are vital. 

We must go together.

To Lead In This New Era

To lead in this new era of broad public deliberation and community partnership, we must carry with us the perspective that everyone is capable of participating in civic life.  Recognize that what typically stands in the way of that — time, children, language barriers, discomfort, fear, and isolation — are problems that can be addressed.

By implementing outreach strategies that are culturally specific and make people feel welcome and comfortable; holding meetings in locations that are familiar and easy to get to; selecting hours that are convenient; providing support by way of food, childcare, transportation and translation; co-creating  agendas that are relevant to them and to their families; asking people to put their boldest dreams on the table; and engaging in real relationships — we begin the change.

It is time to think beyond the program grant and become directly engaged in strengthening civic capacity. We can help build the conditions and platforms for people to find common purpose and connectedness simply by how we shape our philanthropic process and practice.

Lessons For Changing Foundation Practice
  1. Model an inclusive society, making it a moral imperative to “not do about me without me.”
  2. Listen carefully so that healing can happen and learning can be embraced.
  3. Aim, not at a problem, but at the need to move collectively toward a redefined vision of the future.
  4. Practice collaborative leadership and be comfortable as one leader among peers, with a strong enough process to be comfortable letting go of control.
  5. Work in teams – where all people own the results.
  6. Build networks with extraordinary reach.
  7. Risk action with imperfect plans.
  8. Learn at a high rate of speed and apply that learning in real time.
  9. “Resist structural containment” (as the Rensselaerville Institute framed it) and build flexible evolving structures as containers for action.
  10. Create intentional structures for community ownership — both figurative and literal — to unleash innovation, feed endurance, and raise expectations for change.
  11. Practice profound respect by being uncompromising in the need to be attentive, thoughtful, open, and trustworthy in how you engage in a community’s agenda for change. Be especially cautious in how you start, stop, or change direction, given the work’s deep roots in relationships, emotional ties, and hard-earned trust— all needed for the work to be enduring.
  12. And last, but not least, let go of the intuitive belief that efficient is more effective and remember the African proverb “to go fast, go alone; to go far, go together.”
Be Ready

Today’s daring philanthropic leaders must carry a mindset that is unconstrained by how things have always been. Have the heart necessary to listen and embrace learning, survive critics, and endure the change process itself. Be bold and muster the courage to step up to the plate and swing without guarantees by working together. And remember — to quote William Stafford’s poem “You Reading This, Be Ready” — that you can never “bring a better gift for the world than the breathing respect that you carry wherever you go.”

It is time for each of us to become one of the “unreasonables.” To reimagine what foundation practice looks like.  To muster the courage for change. To go together.

For More on Courage in Philanthropy

This article is excerpted and adapted for this blog from my book Courageous Philanthropy: Going Public in a Closely Held World. For more on these and other lessons about philanthropy and community change, the book is now available at iUniverse Bookstore, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.  You can also join the conversation at the VanicaCummings Blog “Speaking of Change.”

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

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