How Foundations Can Grapple With the Reality That Their Wealth Was Accumulated Unjustly

Thursday, December 5, 2019

How Foundations Can Grapple With the Reality That Their Wealth Was Accumulated Unjustly
By Lori Bezahler, President, Edward W. Hazen Foundation and Lateefah Simon, President, Akonadi Foundation. This article was originally published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy on November 7, 2019.

Recent critiques of philanthropy strike at a fundamental question: How can an institution built on the unjust accumulation of wealth serve as a vehicle for justice?  

We believe that the first step is recognizing that philanthropy has a problem, and we commend those demanding that we confront this challenge. But we can’t stop there: We need to identify practices, already in place in some foundations, that can put philanthropy’s often-stated commitment to racial equity and social justice into concrete action.  

While we still have far to go, our two foundations have taken steps we believe can help others. Both of our organizations have worked to ensure that our policies and practices reflect our values and beliefs, with a particular focus on racial justice. Recognizing that philanthropy is just as much a construct of our elitist, white-supremacist culture as any other societal system or structure, we are reimagining how we do everything from board recruitment and hiring to grant making so we can truly place the leadership and voice of communities of color at the center of our operations.

Ours are different organizations with different histories and strategies. The Edward Hazen Foundation was founded in 1925 and the Akonadi Foundation 75 years later. Hazen has a national reach, while Akonadi is building a local racial-justice movement in its home community of Oakland, Calif.  Both recognized the critical moment we are confronting and have made the decision to increase spending to move resources into the hands of communities.

For Hazen, that means going all in, spending out the full endowment by 2024 to help build a movement for change centered on the experiences and leadership of youths of color.  For the Akonadi Foundation, it means investing up to $12.5 million over the next five years in organizing and movement-building to reform the juvenile-justice system in Alameda County. 

Our foundations may be adopting different approaches to the considerable challenges of the current moment, but our broader goals are the same. We want justice and healing for the communities at the heart of our work, and we want to make absolutely sure that our commitment to this goal is reflected in every aspect of what we do. One step has been to open up our offices, our boardrooms, and our decision-making processes to people and groups that traditionally have been closed out of philanthropy.

Balance of Power
For us, it all comes down to this question: Who has the power to make decisions about resources? If we are serious about challenging white supremacy, including in our own organizations, we must cede power and resources to the people whose lives are most affected by injustices.

Traditionally, philanthropy has relied on staff and board members with strong connections in business, philanthropy, academia, or government to guide our work and investments. Grant makers have embraced a definition of expertise that prioritizes the theoretical over the practical. We have forgotten that the real experts are the people, families, and communities that have first-hand experience with the problems we say we care about. We have forgotten that true power comes from self-determination — the capacity of human beings to make their own decisions about how to advance their collective interests.

Our two foundations haven’t figured everything out, and we are still wrestling with how to break down the power imbalances between philanthropy and communities. As we consider how to transform our organizations, we find that we are focusing on these three priorities:  

Hiring. Our foundations are trying to open up our staffing and hand the keys to others. In the hiring process, we are not always going to the same networks for referrals, and we are overhauling job descriptions to eliminate the unnecessary, elitist barriers to employment that too often keep people away. And we are building staff teams that truly reflect the people we serve.

For example, the Akonadi Foundation is led and run by women of color. Staff members have deep experience working for racial and social justice in Oakland and beyond. They connect to the work of the foundation’s partners not from an academic or theoretical perspective but also because they’ve been on the other side. They have worked in the community as organizers, nonprofit leaders, and activists. In many cases, they have faced some of the same personal struggles as the people and families Akonadi cares about.  

Board recruitment. Foundation boards are notoriously white and elite. A national survey of foundation board members found that 85 percent were white and 68 percent were over the age of 50. At a time of resurgent overt racism, when communities of color and immigrants are facing new challenges and new threats every day, the status quo in philanthropic boardrooms is unacceptable. 

In contrast, Hazen Foundation’s board is 77 percent people of color and 77 percent under age 50. Many are younger leaders of color who are active in their communities and in the national movement for racial and education justice. As longtime campaigners and community organizers, these board members provide crucial guidance to align the foundation’s grant making with insights from the field. 

Grant making. Of course, building more diverse board and staff teams is no guarantee that a foundation’s work will truly reflect community priorities. Both of our foundations believe deeply in investing in organizing and movement building as one of the most central ways to shift societal power and achieve systemic transformation. We also recognize that many of the traditional practices in philanthropy deny access to those doing the most important work so we are trying to challenge our own assumptions about how grant making is done. 

Following a listening process in which we asked nonprofits to tell us what creates obstacles for them, the Hazen Foundation has decided not to require written proposals. Instead we take information in whatever form is most relevant to the organization. That might be an online and media presence; conversations and site visits; video, newsletters, and materials used to communicate with their constituency etc. Then it is up to Hazen staff to put the information into a format that we can use for our own internal decision making and reporting.  

Akonadi believes in letting the movement lead and determine the strategy. Instead of deciding what campaigns groups should work on, we bring movement leaders together to tell us their vision and to design the strategy. Our job is to listen, invest, and mobilize the resources needed so that change can be realized. Through these and other steps, we are striving to build bridges and to signal that we are partners with our communities. 

One of the biggest barriers when it comes to persuading foundations to open their processes and truly invest in power- and movement-building is the misguided perception that this will mean there is less rigor in our work. But the truth is that moving intentionally with our values front and center is an exceedingly rigorous process. This is hard and strategic work. And in our experience, we have found one thing to be consistently true: No one is more invested in outcomes than a community organizer.

Lateefah Simon is president of the Akonadi Foundation, and Lori Bezahler is president of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation.  

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