The Space Between Intention and Impact

Monday, October 24, 2022

A CEO Message from Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

As a college student, I interned as a Victim’s Advocate in one of the nation’s first Domestic Violence units, established by the Violence Against Women Act. In my mind, this was the perfect opportunity to support people experiencing family violence, and I began the internship with a trust in the policy that created that support. I came to learn, however, that the “help” my position was intended for was more to bolster the legal case against the person accused of assault than to provide legitimate support to the victims of that violence. Pursuing charges against a partner often left survivors in a dire predicament, and most would have preferred access to help such as affordable housing, job security, and child care. In this situation, my intention to help survivors wasn’t reflected in the impact of my actions as a Victim’s Advocate nor those of the system in which I operated. Today, we still regularly see a fundamental disconnect between policies and structures intended to “help” and the actual, desired solutions of the communities they are targeting.

My colleague, Dwayne Marsh of Northern California Grantmakers, recently said something deeply resonant when discussing the ways that philanthropy must evolve to fulfill its purpose. He noted that we cannot fundamentally meet our shared missions without using equity as a guiding framework. Why? Because while the illusion of neutrality and objectivity that many institutions’ work takes on is comforting for some, starting with that assumption blinds us to the systems and policies that deprive people of the very opportunities that philanthropic dollars are often spent trying to provide. Dwayne named a tension that many in our sector are feeling— including our team at Philanthropy New York. Without a critical understanding of how structural racism shapes our institutions, philanthropic interventions can’t tackle the root causes of racial inequity.

A new compass for our work

Philanthropy New York’s newly approved Strategic Framework is our compass for bridging the gap between philanthropy’s intention to catalyze meaningful social change and our impact as a sector. The Strategic Framework articulates our belief that for philanthropy to truly earn the public trust, we must name, negotiate, and change the established ways that power operates in our field. It represents an intentional next step and deepening of the work we started many years ago.  And, it is the embodiment of our value of learning: a commitment to test assumptions, challenge conventional wisdom, and adapt and evolve our own practice — internally as a staff and board, and with you, our community.

What does this look like for us?

Our new Strategic Framework commits Philanthropy New York to become an anti-racist organization. This will require restructuring our institution and institutional relationships, including engaging our members as we reimagine a number of internal and external shifts in the way Philanthropy New York works. We undertake this work with an understanding that it will evolve as we try, fail, learn, and adapt.

One of the ways that Philanthropy New York is challenging conventional wisdom and adapting our practice is by developing questions similar to the questions that Anne Wallestad offered our Trustees earlier this year. For instance, our Public Policy Committee, which for years has operated with the unspoken assumption that we can advocate for policies that appear neutral on the surface, has added a line of inquiry that will help assess policy statements and our policy slate with questions such as:

  • Who does this policy build power for? Who does it block power from?
  • Will this policy help increase access and opportunity for communities of color? If so, how?
  • Does this policy counter racial discrimination in the issue area? How?
  • Does this policy promote the structural changes needed to increase racial equity within the targeted institution?

Testing assumptions is only a starting place. To truly change the systems that have upheld a racist status quo, our community must take actions that may at times be uncomfortable. It’s emotionally challenging to let go of things we love or that have made us feel “conventionally” successful in service to change. This process might in fact require us to rethink how we define success.

What does this look like for members?

Our Strategic Framework also envisions the work philanthropy can do to create a sector characterized by a “power with” approach – one in which foundations build power with communities and grantees, ensuring those with direct experience of inequity and oppression inform and lead strategy design and have the capacity and strength to implement or advocate for solutions.

There are already promising prototypes for this vision.

Baltimore’s $12 million Children and Youth Fund built a model that radically changed who held power to make decisions and how those decisions would be implemented. They created a 24-person review panel through a public application process, guided by selection criteria that ensured the panel reflected the racial demographics and community in Baltimore City. Informational meetings and “community capacity sessions” were held to support potential grantees in their application process. The outcome of this innovative overhaul was first-time funding of small, grassroots racial justice organizations led by and for youth.

Leaders of the program noted a need to address common assumptions and redefine what has value:

  • Small, grassroots organizations are often staffed by volunteers and may lack data and metrics, a key way that funders often judge “effectiveness.” Community trust was not often measured or requested as a metric of success.
  • When testing for “organizational sustainability,” sweat equity and volunteerism aren’t treated the same as robust individual giving or event fundraising programs.
  • Funding a program that doesn’t have a traditional staff, operations, and finance structure is considered taking “a risk.”
  • Assets and organizational strengths such as lived experience, community connections, and community solutions are not viewed in the same light as 501(c)3 status, a governing board, and audited financial statements.

I was startled to see so many of my own assumptions and practices from my grantmaking days reflected in these responses and was reminded of the counsel offered by Jason McGill and Anne Wallestad at our Trustee event. They said “adopting a posture of curiosity and self-compassion — not defensiveness — is key to our ability to surface new questions and acknowledge the ways that our established practices might not align with our purpose.”

An invitation to join us

Our Strategic Framework brings us, and our members, into a conversation about the ways we can close the space between our intention and our impact. We believe that together with our members, we have an opportunity to reimagine a philanthropic ecosystem characterized by trust and relationships. As I sit with the anticipation and excitement of this opportunity, and perhaps a little anxiety about the unknown, I wonder what shifts you think we need to make. I’m curious about the ways your organization is reimagining work to align intention and impact. I invite you to share your ideas, your experiences, and your hopes for the future with me and the rest of our team here at Philanthropy New York. And, I thank you for trusting us to be your community for learning, experimentation, and practice.


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