We are living in a singular moment, one with little precedent. A global pandemic followed by an economic recession followed by nationwide protests against police misconduct and systemic racism — all of it occurring in the span of a few short months. In many ways, philanthropy has responded nimbly and creatively to the moment, setting up response funds, easing application and reporting requirements, and even tapping new models of funding.
But what of philanthropy's response beyond this moment? Will the response we've seen translate into fundamental changes in foundation practice — changes in the way philanthropy shares power and thinks about sustainable community change?
One of the most meaningful changes foundations can make in their practice and decision-making is to directly engage those impacted by racism and race-based inequity.
We know that Black, Latinx, and Native communities have been particularly hard hit by the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. Likewise, the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd are shining a light not only on inequities in policing, but on racial inequities in every area of American life.
By failing to tap the expertise of the people it is trying to help, philanthropy — which remains largely white and unrepresentative of the communities it serves — risks overlooking much-needed solutions and insights that could catalyze the transformative social change required in this moment.
Indeed, foundations that have engaged community constituents in their decision-making say that doing so helps them get better results, enabling them to center their work in the realities faced by the communities they seek to serve and heightening their accountability to those communities. Community input also helps foundations identify critical funding priorities, infuse cultural competency into program design, and enhance their communications and evaluation and learning processes.
While foundations often engage grantee partners in their work, research shows they are far less likely to engage community members themselves. Here are three steps foundations can and should take on their equity journeys:
1. Take a close look at your existing practices and protocols. Is there room to be more inclusive? Can you engage community members in grant reviews? Is it possible to conduct a brief survey of community priorities before making final decisions about resource allocations? If you're working on an evaluation, are there ways to engage community members in data collection and/or in helping make sense of the findings? Reinventing processes from scratch can feel like a mountain too high, but tweaking existing practices can be a way to test out new ways of doing things, learn from missteps, and build on those learnings over time.
2. Determine whether it would be helpful to have intermediaries or partners broker relationships with constituents. Many foundations, especially larger ones that work nationally, do not have particularly strong community-level relationships and may not have made an effort or had the time to establish trust among community members. By partnering with a trusted local or regional organization (e.g., a regional association of grantmakers, regional foundation, or community development finance institution), foundations can get closer to the ground, develop stronger relationships with community members, and gain a better understanding of the priorities in the community.
Articulate organizational values for engaging those directly impacted by inequities in decision-making. As foundation embark on their equity journeys, it's important they not only articulate their organizational values but are clear about how those values will be operationalized. To the degree there are shared expectations about how to partner with communities and create more responsive philanthropy, organizational culture will follow.
To be sure, there are no shortcuts when it comes to partnering with a community. It is not easy work, and for many foundations it will require a fundamental shift in how they operate. To get started, we've provided a roadmap as a resource for foundations, one that recognizes that short-term shifts in practice coupled with longer-term changes in culture are both needed to truly embed shared decision-making in foundation practice.
We hope funders have the clarity and courage to challenge the status quo. This is the moment for philanthropy to reflect on how it can share power and, in doing so, make a deeper impact on the communities it strives to serve.
Seema Shah, PhD, is founder and principal of COMM|VEDA Consulting, which provides research, evaluation, writing, and project management services to mission-driven organizations. She is the author of two recent reports, Partnering with Community for Better Philanthropy and A Foot in Both Worlds: Working with Regional Organizations to Advance Equity, both developed with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.