Equitable Opportunities for Effective Philanthropy

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Equitable Opportunities for Effective Philanthropy
By: Donita Volkwijn, Senior Director, Member Engagement, Philanthropy New York

When you first stepped into philanthropy, whether you have been in the field for a few months or for quite some, how did your race, gender, age, class, sexual orientation, etc. affect your experience? Was your voice respected? Did you feel trust in the organization? How did the answers to those questions determine your trajectory in the field?

My first job in philanthropy was in 2012. I remember on my second day in what was, at the time, a temporary placement, my boss took me into a client meeting. As the meeting was closing, he asked the family members if they had any final thoughts or observations and then he turned to me and asked the same question. I don’t even remember what I said, but I remember thinking, “this guy has no idea about how much I don’t know!”  

Afterward, I met with him and asked if he had been told (mistakenly) that I had a background in philanthropy. I’ll never forget his answer, which was, “I’ve seen your resume and know exactly how much experience you (don’t) have. But, I’ve also spoken with you and recognize that you have an internal bull [poop] meter. We can teach you the trade, but it’s much harder to teach good judgment.”

That kind of leadership is the reason I’m still in the sector. That boss and I worked together for two more years and I was included in every meeting. When we debriefed afterward, he found ways to teach me the craft while strengthening my confidence in my judgment as well. He also let me know if he thought I wasn’t ready for something and offered space for me to disagree. Although I was new to philanthropy, my boss was able to leverage my lived experience and see the potential of what I could offer to the sector.

On May 3rd, Philanthropy New York held its annual meeting: Purpose as Compass. During the meeting, we took a moment to reflect on the deep relationships and challenging conversations inside our community that were an expression of our commitment to racial equity and our values of leadership, learning, and community. 

As staff at Philanthropy New York had a chance to reflect further on how the organization has made room for those changes, it also opened an opportunity for us to recognize shifts in programming that reflect the more deliberate and thoughtful approach to ensuring a path toward racial equity. One of the most exciting and encouraging places where the shift is allowing dialogue and relationship-building to take place is in our Young Leaders Breakfast Club (YLBC).

How did YLBC come about and how has it evolved? In 2010, Philanthropy New York identified a gap in opportunities for members in their twenties and thirties to expand their professional and leadership capacity, build a strong peer network in the field, and navigate how they contribute to mission-driven work as younger professionals. YLBC was developed with the understanding that philanthropy is more effective when the field creates equitable opportunities for leadership and an inclusive space for relationship building, collaboration, and problem-solving.

As Philanthropy New York has been solidifying its commitment to centering racial equity, our programming and networks have evolved as well. One of YLBC’s intentions now reads, “building a more networked philanthropic sector dedicated to equitable, inclusive, collaborative and innovative philanthropy.”

Not everyone is as lucky to have the kind of boss that operated in the values stated above. Goodness, I haven’t always been that lucky and the unlucky moments have come about largely because of how I identify. At this point, most people (at least the ones reading this piece) recognize how racism can cut people off from opportunity.  What is harder to recognize is how racism denies members of the BIPOC community the opportunity to learn and grow. 

Imagine, for example, being given an assignment to do a write-up of a site visit or putting together a presentation. One of the things I’ve heard is “it needs to be more aligned with the voice of the organization,” which resulted in the piece being rewritten to the point that my voice was erased. So at that point, what goes through my mind is, “I guess there is a need for organizational branding, but also, is my voice not part of the organization?”

What if my assignment did really need work? And what if it didn’t?

That’s where networks come in. Especially if you’re in a small foundation, if you’re BIPOC, you probably won’t see yourself reflected in the leadership of the organization (92% of CEOs in philanthropy are white). And if you’re young or relatively new to the sector, you have to work that much harder to have your voice heard.  

YLBC offers the opportunity for these young sector leaders to find networks that reflect their lived experiences and to explore the nuances of their voices. These are the people to whom they can turn and ask, “Was this not done well, or are my leaders not seeing what I have to offer?” and get an honest answer.  That sort of experience is invaluable! 

The program is run about every two years, and based on the response from the young leaders, their organizations, and the mentors, the program is a resounding success.  

The boss I was describing practiced Conversational Leadership.  “What’s that?!” you ask.  You’ll find out in the next installment of this series, but in the meantime, I’ll give you a hint. The environment that he created was one in which trust and respect lived side by side. In which, by speaking with and listening to me, he helped me learn and grow and eventually be that much more of an asset to him and the organization.  I’d like to think that he took something from the experience as well.

For those just starting out, who don’t have access to that type of mentorship, programs like YLBC can make the difference in whether or not they stay in the sector. For those who are honored to act as mentors, our job is to help these young leaders create the platforms from which their collective and individual voices can resound.

This year, we decided to create a visual representation of what this cohort brings to the sector. Consider how much we’d be losing if we ignored or silenced them.

Thanks to Jim O'Sullivan who encouraged my potential before I even knew I had any.

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