The Philanthropic Trust Fall

By November 7, 2018 AmeriCorps*VISTA

While I was certainly conscious that I would be working at the Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota when I signed on to be C3’s VISTA Leader, I didn’t quite understand the extent to which I would be steeped in the philanthropic world as a result. Working at a foundation has opened up a world I never imagined, one which continues to inspire, frustrate, and intrigue me.

Last month, I found myself at a strategic development meeting meant to facilitate further engagement between community-based organizations and funders. When the space was opened up for discussion, a program officer at a major foundation lamented the struggles he saw in doing this work. He wanted to help, he assured us, but was thwarted by the lack of consensus over solutions. People angry at the system don’t have a cohesive vision for starting points and, as a result, make it difficult for funders to take action.

I found myself exasperated by this complaint because it resonated so much with lots of work I’ve tried to do in my life. I feel like I’ve been in a constant struggle in activist, nonprofit, and philanthropic spaces to find the right words to say, to find consensus, and to pick the right time to move. Potential actions have slipped through my fingers because I wasn’t confident in their viability or impact. I’ve had multiple group meetings in a row where we talk about what our next steps need to be to build support and elicit approval, to make sure we do things that are ideologically pure and non-offensive. This, unfortunately, has nearly always ended in one of two ways: a tepid, diluted outcome or, perhaps worse, absolutely nothing. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ve come to believe that wholehearted agreement is a myth in the world as a whole, let alone in the social justice sphere. There will never be a perfectly “right time” where we can just jump in without a care. No level of research, of scoping, of good intentions is going to please everybody. Moreover, idealized “consensus” is more than just everyone saying “yes.” People need to be literally trained in consensus because of how meaningful it is and the emotional and intellectual effort it takes to achieve. The consensus process requires an extraordinary amount of trust and faith in others. In processes working with innumerable actors and systems, we cannot develop consensus.

I see these kinds of insecurities and hesitations to move ahead as emblematic of a lack of trust in communities and ourselves.

The way I see it, we need to start doing a philanthropic trust fall.

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  1. Lack of Trust in Others (Will They Catch Us?)

If we assume philanthropy to be a necessary institution in a capitalist system, then let us look at the parallel corporate system: impact investing. Venture capitalists are getting on the impact investing train with the belief that making money and making a positive impact are not mutually exclusive (this, however, is an argument for another occasion).

We afford venture capitalists the opportunity to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. We allow their investees to fail and go “rich people bankrupt.” Then, we cheer them on as they start again.

We don’t afford marginalized people the same opportunity for “innovation.” There’s no opportunity to experiment or fail (if they do, we won’t fund them again). For instance, our solutions for poor people are straightforward, such as supporting career pathway programs for “workforce development” (instead of, say, supporting informal economies or offering no-strings-attached living support).

Progressive philanthropists believe that solutions to problems organically rise from communities facing said problems. These communities are the ones that best understand their history, are deeply committed to change, and know what they need. In our continued efforts to break down barriers to capital and institute more equitable grant-making systems, we are continuing to venture into uncharted territory. If we truly believe in those we fund, we should have no problem taking the fall, even if they may fail to catch us.

  1. Lack of Trust in Ourselves (Will We Fall?)

I believe that one of our largest barriers to altruism is that we don’t trust ourselves. Every time we reach out, we are reminded of the times we failed to reach out and forced to confront our inaction. Robin DiAngelo expresses this sentiment well in terms of anti-blackness: “the white collective fundamentally hates blackness for what it reminds us of: that we are capable and guilty of perpetuating immeasurable harm and that our gains come through the subjugation of others.” We reiterate oppression every time we perform it because we know our histories and don’t have faith in a future beyond our current system. In order to move forward, we need to trust ourselves and our intentions more.

Let me be clear about this. I am not saying that we can go ahead and do whatever the hell we want with impunity and full self-assurance. Rather, if there’s a nagging voice in the back of our heads making us feel strange about our positionality, it shouldn’t prevent us from taking any action. Instead, it should inspire us to take action to better analyze ourselves and our intentions.

Along with our lack of willingness to confront our insecurities comes our unwillingness to take more personal responsibility. If we’ve caused hurt, it is at those points that it is most important to loop back around and acknowledge it, rather than scurrying off in shame or giving up on making decisions. We want to remove ourselves as much as possible from our work – to reap our successes and wash our hands of our failures – and this, yet again, demonstrates our astounding lack of faith in ourselves and why we make the decisions we make.

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All of this is not written to say that existing, mainstream models of philanthropy cannot find success. This argument certainly isn’t predicated on the limiting factor of a defined resource pool (that is, the amount of money metered out per annum for charitable causes). However, these are not the complaints I observed during that initial meeting. The major concern was that we are stuck in our inability to find the “right solution,” and I am simply positing an alternative vision for the role funders need to take.

What if funders’ ultimate goal was a world in which philanthropy were no longer necessary? To get there, we need to work on more trust falls.

Max Geitz

Author Max Geitz

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