Don’t Be A Stranger: Tips for Philanthropy on Distancing vs. Building Solidarity

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Don’t Be A Stranger: Tips for Philanthropy on Distancing vs. Building Solidarity
By: Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez, Program Officer, Edward W. Hazen Foundation. This article was originally published by GEO Funders on March 1, 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic made social distancing an imperative for public health. Despite the necessary precautions, the physical distance between us should not result in an even greater divide between philanthropy and the communities we serve. As in person visits continue to be put on pause, I worry that prolonged distancing might push philanthropy towards more individualism and isolationism, precisely at the moment when collectivity and solidarity are so desperately needed. Looking to the years ahead, I wonder how foundations will relate to grantees and what our communications practices will look like as we emerge from the pandemic. I believe we should use this time as an opportunity to examine the relationships we hold and consider ways we can emerge from the pandemic with a greater commitment to creating stronger and healthier avenues of communications – in both directions in order to achieve positive change.

As the Program Officer at the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, my thoughts on communication and building strong, trusting relationships draws on 12 years of grassroots organizing experience prior to becoming a funder. Growing up undocumented, organizing taught me to build community power through collective action rooted in shared values. My training and political education highlighted the importance of building relationships grounded in mutual accountability and shared power in order to achieve systemic change. This training challenges me to both question and reimagine the function of philanthropy, particularly by acknowledging the ways that philanthropy has been built on white supremacist inequality and therefore on an unequal distribution of power. It compels me to be accountable to the communities the Hazen Foundation supports and to be certain that I am not, intentionally or otherwise, simply replicating systems that benefit those with wealth and power. To accomplish this, organizing teaches that we must build trust and solidarity with the most oppressed members of our society. While developing authentic relationships takes time and hard work, it is essential. We must follow the lead of grassroots leaders to invest all necessary resources – including our time – to build a more equitable world.

If you work in philanthropy, here are some things we can do better:

  • Spend time with grassroots leaders and learn from them. Be flexible around their capacity and availability. Be open to hybrid virtual/in person meetings, as appropriate, to ensure accessibility regardless of income, language or physical ability.

  • Work against imposing the power of your position. Funders have work to do in challenging systemic inequality, particularly as we control the necessary resources to affect change. We must find ways to be accountable to grantees. Make reporting on the progress toward change mutual rather than one-sided. Gather feedback or recommendations from grassroots leaders for how to improve your philanthropic practice. Invite questions from grantees and answer them with transparency. Shift “power over” to “power with” the communities you fund by ceding and sharing decision-making, and co-creating goals. Respect when it is your turn to step back, listen, or follow. If you seek honesty and vulnerability from others, be prepared to model this.

  • Create continuous opportunities to learn, grow, and evolve. We can learn and grow together. Be open to recognizing the ways that the status quo is failing us and explore bold new ways of thinking and collaborating.

Two key things to avoid:

  • Don’t script exchanges with grantees with rigid agendas, webinars, powerpoints, or panels that discourage dialogue, relationship building, and deep exchange.

  • Don’t seek praise or credit for funding a body of work. Funders should help uplift the communities doing good work so that they get credit for the legacy they’re building. Focus attention on the lessons of the work of grantees and how others can contribute to them.

I invite others in philanthropy using anti-oppressive frames, tools, and practices to join in this reflective learning and practice so we can all do better as a sector. The nonprofits many of us fund can teach philanthropy so much about how we can be accountable to collectively dismantle racism and oppression. For this, we have to commit to listening, learning, and doing our part.

While social distancing has been and is still essential for public safety, I do hope that we don’t remain too distant from each other forever. I look forward to all the ways we can safely and authentically reconnect to deepen relationships in 2021. Together, by making philanthropy more accountable, we will make significant progress toward the racial and social equity that is long overdue.