Going Beyond Lip Service About Inclusion in Foundation Practice

Jennifer Vanica | February 21, 2019

The Voice That’s Missing

At the 2014 National Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation, David Mathews (now the President of the Kettering Foundation) spoke about his term as Secretary for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. 

“When you are in an agency like that you are only going to be able to hear three voices,” he noted. “You can hear the voice of politicians, and you should; you can hear the voice of experts and skilled professionals, and you should; and you can hear the voice of those groups that represent special interests, and you should.”

“But what you don’t hear,” he continued, “is a public voice — the voice of people struggling with the tensions inherent in every decision. The tone of that voice is different from the other voices. It’s pragmatic, practical and not ideological.”

In foundations, the voices we hear are not unlike what Mathews expressed in his speech about government. A public voice is largely absent. We listen to service providers; we pay for arms-length research and aggregated surveys; and we listen to each other. Then behind the closed doors, a small elite group of people determines what will best serve the public’s interest without ever directly consulting the public.

In the world of philanthropy, we must stare in the face the conundrum of money, power and control, have and have nots, and propensity toward professional elitism. These limit rather than expand the playing field. We must ask if we have an obligation to hear what David Mathews calls “a public voice.”

An Unfortunate Disconnect

It is an unfortunate disconnect in the field of community change philanthropy that this “public voice” is rarely at the table for two reasons:

  1. because “there are things that a public voice can convey that no other voice can,” as Mathews noted in his address; and 
  2. because creating the conditions for a public voice to arise catapults understanding, grows our appreciation of differences, and mends a polarized citizenry — the fundamentals of an inclusive, empowered, and deliberative democracy.

“Our institutions are bound and determined “to ‘do unto others.’ No one would argue that people don’t need training and education or that there are no impediments,” Mathews remarked, “but it sends a message that ‘you are deficient.’ Often, we want people to do the work in the way we do it. But how do people engage on their own terms? Power is the ability to act. Power has to be in yourself.”

Doing Unto Others

Behind every foundation is an extraordinary story about risk-taking and wealth-building. A story about sharing what we have with those that have less or are challenged more. And a story about believing in our shared destiny.

At the same time, as a field, there is the embedded story of a class society controlled by the elite. A story about concentrated financial power behind spreading the values of a dominant culture. And a story about how this dynamic has often worked against the interests of minorities and indigenous people throughout the world.

Institutional philanthropy has functioned as a closed circle. While chartered to act in the public interest, the “do-unto” or “decide-for-others-approach” has largely dominated how foundations work.

The most significant asset for igniting inspired social change is the wisdom, creativity, and experience of everyday people. And yet, for the most part, our philanthropic and political responses to disinvested neighborhoods have been one of two approaches:

  1. to separate people from their historical communities in order to “change the place,” as we did with Urban Renewal, or
  2. to define the people who live there as consumers of social services and try to “change the people.” 

With the pioneering efforts of daring teams over the last 20 years, community initiatives to connect people and place were funded.  Market-based strategies for social change were introduced. Tool kits were diversified. Greater collaboration, spawned by “collective impact,” has gained momentum.

But despite these, we still largely discuss the need to scale strategies for social change by closing gaps in services and aligning “stakeholders” defined for the most part as institutional partners.

It is time for a new construct — one that raises the volume of the voice of everyday citizens.

What it Takes

Back in 1997, Prue Brown and Sunil Garg, in a Chapin Hall report on comprehensive community initiatives, called the field to address the “space” or “distance” between foundations and the players on the ground in communities. “This space,” they reported, “is too often characterized by lack of understanding and trust, dishonest communications, and struggles over power and accountability.”

After 20 years of working for a foundation attempting to figure out what this would take, we realized that our most important work was to step out of the safety of arms-length research and be willing to arrive in a community with only questions. We needed to support people in four important ways:

  1. dreaming big and re-imagining the future;
  2. building understanding across differences by working together on teams;
  3. connecting to strong networks that could support change while honoring resident vision and voice as central; and
  4. creating an infrastructure for coordinating action.

This was the work: Dream Work, Team Work, Net Work, and Frame Work. Here’s what we learned.

Dream Work
  • With a big dream, ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things. Faced with deeply entrenched barriers, residents describe caring but just wearing out. But a powerful vision of the future, which includes people working together across differences in a respectful and inclusive way, sparks inspired action.
Team Work
  • Long-term learning relationships provide the most fertile ground for innovation and impact. Trust takes time and can only be built by working in a direct relationship. A culture of learning, shared risk, truthful communication, real relationships, and equity in decision-making are essential. In addition, tackling the work in a way that is visionary, creative, and celebratory helps build an unwavering spirit and energy for action. By focusing on both long-term vision and rapid results, teams can adapt quickly, push the vision out, and give it space to become more and more dynamic.
Net Work
  • Careful network weaving — as Valdis Krebs and June Holley framed it in their piece on building smart communities — is essential.  There are plenty of examples of top-down funder-driven initiatives that didn’t work because of power dynamics. And same with bottom-up grassroots efforts that were not linked to resource networks. By being in direct partnership, however, it is possible to support people in weaving critical networks. From the outside in, networks can link the resources, information, and technical expertise residents request to help move action. From the inside out, important natural networks can be linked to keep the work multicultural, multi-faceted, and inter-connected. These community networks can also ensure the work stays culturally responsive and respectful, and they are particularly powerful in helping philanthropy own its own change.
Frame Work
  • Civic action needs support. Large groups of citizens working together on teams need participatory planning methods and flexible containers for action that help everyone see, name, frame, and do the work. This required building an infrastructure — a framework — to support resident mobilization, connect the work, push natural momentum toward short-term results and long-term vision, and provide a way for traditional funders to invest in neighborhood change.
Inclusion Starts with Us

These lessons about Dream Work, Team Work, Net Work, and Frame Work would become our four building blocks for supporting change through large-scale civic action. The process would change us. Most importantly, that resident participation and decision-making held a mirror up to show us our own contradictions about who we were as a structure of power and privilege acting in the public interest.

As we enter the next generation of community change philanthropy, we must end the limiting perspective of residents as merely consumers of services and see their power as citizens who are capable of taking charge of change in their own communities. And we should do this not as some touchy-feely idea that just happens to be getting better results but because we are bold enough to stand on principle.

It is time to stop giving lip service to inclusion by seeing it as “getting input” or by merely putting it in the category of what we fund. It should be how we do our work.

It is time to end the long-held practice of deciding what is in other people’s best interest and acknowledge that inclusion starts with us; appreciating differences starts with us; being willing to have our own world-views challenged and changed starts with us.

What are we waiting for?

For More on the “Public Voice” 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.”


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