Philanthropy & Social Sector Leadership at a Time of Crisis

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Philanthropy & Social Sector Leadership at a Time of Crisis
By: Dara Major, Independent Strategy and Management Consultant

Ralph Ellison, in the Invisible Man, wrote, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The entwined COVID-19 pandemic and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor have exposed anew the many ways that Black Americans, people of color, people of transgender experience, poor and vulnerable communities have long been forced to bear the brunt of invisibility in this country. Our nation’s social compact is in tatters as a result of conscious, determined, decades-long disinvestment that intentionally marginalizes and harms, and we simply cannot take it anymore. This while our President and a complicit Congress, under cover of social unrest, take action to shrink our civil liberties and debase the best of our democratic institutions. It is not a stretch to say that our national priorities are on the line today.

Do not look away, friends in philanthropy. We must stop refusing to see the disasters that are unfolding all around us. Now is the time for foundation and social sector leaders everywhere to embody mission like never before, and with a renewed sense of urgency. 

This is a moment to refresh our collective thinking and purpose: it’s a moment for courage.

Our national crisis of disparity and despair will not be healed through what has somehow become a normative disaster response in philanthropy, where foundations spend a little more and nonprofits struggle to meet a surge in demand. 

Further, as a sector we cannot remain stuck in “power over” dynamics and critiques, which both reinforce the current state and neuter the potential of collective action. In a surely unintended way, these critiques let foundations off the hook; they demand little of foundations relative to the wealth of field knowledge, civic capital and financial resources amassed over a century of philanthropic practice.  

We must, instead, put our distinct roles and capacities to work, and find ways to “power with” – to recognize and mobilize assets wherever they are – and quickly. We in philanthropy are being called in not just to support the movement for Black lives, but to join it.

Many foundations are already focusing on Covid-19 related rapid response grantmaking through special funds, increased spending, repurposing existing grants to general operating support – all of which is critical assistance to nonprofits struggling to meet the immediate needs of the vulnerable groups they serve. 

Helping to keep the lights on in these dark times is absolutely essential. But while these steps are necessary, they are far from sufficient.  

We must also come together and mobilize foundation stockpiles of knowledge and civic capital on behalf of the communities we serve in real time; to lift our voices in partnership with those of nonprofits, as advocates for the shared vision and values that are at the heart of our mission-driven work; to engage, inform and convene stakeholders and policymakers on the issues looming ahead.  

This is not lobbying: this is sharing high-quality nonpartisan analyses based on decades of investment, research and development in human rights, community-building, public health, human services, housing, arts and culture.

Disasters are unusual moments in time, in that we often see ourselves in the images of those most impacted, and are moved to act.  Several foundation leaders are doing just that: Wes Moore of Robin Hood; Betsy Dubovsky of The Staten Island Foundation; Robert Ross of The California Endowment.

These leaders are working in “power with” partnerships with grantees to synthesize insights, meet with editorial boards, give interviews and connect with elected officials to proactively share information about how current policies and proposed regulations impact the lives of their constituents. 

Now let’s take it to the next level. 

What if dozens of foundation leaders step up– not six months from now, but two weeks from now? Picture a televised crisis briefing that includes our nation’s diverse national, regional and community foundations, lifting up data on the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on our most vulnerable communities - and what decades of public health research suggests our federal government can do about it. Picture funders and nonprofits standing with their local and state officials, or with the Congressional delegations of every state, to commit to anti-racist policies and share information on food security, equitable access to healthcare, justice, love. Picture hundreds of funders and nonprofits standing together for mission to demand the Administration appoint an impartial Inspector General to oversee the $3+ trillion federal stimulus, or weigh in on regulations to ensure free and fair elections. 

Why should funders of all kinds consider taking their work to this next level? Because federal spending in response to Covid-19 so far this year, with little to no oversight, is already greater than all foundation giving over the last 25 years combined. There is looting happening in our country alright, but the worst of it isn’t being done by a few kids on the street. We need to get our minds right and we need to stand up for our missions and values, now. 

Let’s join together to make providing crisis funding and retooling internal grantmaking processes the floor, not the ceiling, of our philanthropic response. Let’s do the racial equity work we need to do inside our organizations – in staffing, governance, strategy and communications – and unlock and enable the mobilization of all of our philanthropic resources. Let’s move from public pledges of solidarity to a commitment to action.

For ultimately, we must ask ourselves: are foundations merely alternate sources of capital, or as a sector are we also capable of wielding our values and practical insights to inform the public policy issues that matter most? 

After decades in philanthropy, working for and with foundations of all kinds, I know full well what philanthropy in “power with” partnerships has and may yet accomplish. The lives of millions of Americans and indeed our national priorities are at stake now and for years to come. Whether you are a CEO or a support staffer in a foundation, I encourage you to take a hard look at the wealth of resources and capabilities you and your organization are sitting on – your financial, knowledge and civic capital – and find ways to put it all to use, today. 

Dara Major ( is an independent strategy and management consultant to foundations and social sector organizations. With a particular interest in philanthropy as a practice, Dara helps clients to align resources for results at the individual, organizational, and field levels.