Loren Harris of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Don Chen at Ford, Weigh In On The 7 Deadly Sins of Philanthropy

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Loren Harris of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Don Chen at Ford, Weigh In On The 7 Deadly Sins of Philanthropy

Merriam-Webster defines sin in three ways—“as an offense against religious or moral law; an action that is or is felt to be highly reprehensible; or a serious shortcoming or fault.” On the dark side of global philanthropy, bad things do happen. The accumulation of wealth and advanced educational degrees does not always equal understanding of how to respectfully support social change in communities.

Whether these transgressions rise to the level of an offense against religious law is a debate best left to theologians. However, examining the worst sins of the philanthropic sector and possible ways to remediate these issues occupies the thoughts of many of those active in the foundation world.

From a survey I conducted of senior philanthropic leaders across all type of foundations—from the small and local to the large and global—I derived this list of the top seven deadly philanthropic sins.

Blindness to privilege
Dismissing community knowledge
Misplaced accountability
Poor partners
Failure to learn
Risk Aversion
Lack of transparency
Blindness to Privilege

According to a 2015 study by the Council of Foundations, some 75 percent of full-time paid foundation staff in the United States identify as white. Any discussion of privilege and power in the sector must also focus on the impact of white privilege in philanthropic giving.

“Most people that are in leadership have had a very similar life path. They have been taught that the rigor comes from researchers in a dominant cultural model that’s university based and uses very Western ideas and intelligence,” says Kara Inae Carlisle, vice president of programs at the McKnight Foundation. Loren Harris of the Nathan Cummings Foundation calls it a “knowledge hierarchy” where community knowledge is sometimes valued near the bottom. He contends that valuing some knowledges over others leads to a lack of faith in community understanding of a problem.

Carlisle observes that, “There are increasingly few places in the country where there’s not going to be significant racial and cultural differences…where people who have been very sheltered or in dominant culture settings are beginning to say, ‘Wow, we are fish in water. We didn’t know we were fish. We didn’t know we were swimming in water.’”

Don Chen, Director of the Equitable Development Team at the Ford Foundation, remarks that he wishes he “had a dollar for every organization that comes to me and says our board came up with a new strategic plan, and we are going to focus on equity. These same people aren’t talking about equity as a core value or a core component of their mission; they are often talking about equity as a topic. That’s a warning sign for me because it could be dropped like any other topic.”

“We have to always remember that we are operating within the public trust and with that comes profound responsibility,” says Harris. He said that, as sector, we are still not dealing with gender equality and racial injustice because many organizations are still funded, year after year without any real change in how they operate...

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