What’s at Stake and What’s at Play: My Reckoning with Philanthropy

Friday, December 2, 2022

What’s at Stake and What’s at Play: My Reckoning with Philanthropy 
By: Travis Baird, Program Officer, Maverick Capital Foundation

I entered this sector because I wanted to be a driving force of change and create a different reality for the next generation of people that looked like me. As a black man who grew up in a single-parent household in ungentrified Brooklyn, I poured into my work because I believed that in the wealthiest country in the world, your destiny shouldn’t be decided by the circumstances you were born into. No matter how many times my mom was told what would happen to me and what I could or could not achieve because she raised me by herself. The “American dream” should be available to all Americans, regardless of their appearance or the house they were born into. I knew I was more than the labels other people assigned me. I didn’t want others to feel ensnared or ashamed by them either.

Since starting this journey in philanthropy in 2021 after watching how the pandemic devasted communities of color across the nation and the racial justice movement after George Floyd’s death, I find myself in constant conflict with my younger self. There were so many aspects of my identity, like how I talk, what I let offend me, and what I wear I had buried or repressed to thrive in corporate structures. I gave up even more of myself to adapt and assimilate: code-switching, postulating, and mimicking the behavior of others was what I learned to do to ensure economic mobility for myself. Even as I write this piece I feel like I have to use terminology or intellectualize my current self to be heard and seen. I keep seeking ways to permanently escape my past just for the chance to have the agency to live out the American dream.

As I began my work as a Program Officer, however, I was inundated with all the trauma I had tried so hard to flee from. While researching outcomes for every label once used to describe me and my friends – “under-served,” “low-income,” “students of color,”– everything I had spent so long trying to disassociate myself from because of how traumatic it was at times, came flooding back. This still happens, even over a year into my career in this field. All the pent-up anguish and anger of my adolescent self, forced to navigate a system that wasn’t built for people like me, would rush back into my head. It was a visceral and personal experience that often left me heartbroken to execute “due diligence.”

I’ve been incredibly heartened to collaborate with some great organizations and leaders doing their best to create opportunities for individuals that society often overlooks. Witnessing this sector from a different vantage point, this time from the inside looking out, I’ve also seen firsthand how philanthropy can mirror and fall prey to the same systemic inequities it seeks to alleviate. As we come together as peers and include new voices, however, I still believe in the potential for philanthropy to lead and abide by its mission to serve communities across the country.

Through Philanthropy New York's Essential Skills and Strategies for Program Officers (ESS) course, I collaborated with my peers and was given space to reflect on my work and goals. This has directly impacted the day-to-day tasks in my multi-faceted role as a Program Officer, and my takeaways don’t just include the technical skills of financial analysis or funding structures. As a person of color, I have also been able to confront the ghosts of my past self during this time, and wrestle with the very soul of philanthropy’s mission. Here are three takeaways that I have spent time reckoning with and encourage my peers in this space to take time to reflect on as well:

Tension: Philanthropy was born from inequity. While sometimes funders can overlook the slew of systemic reasons why this sector is necessary to redistribute vast amounts of wealth, it is usually evident who needs the money and who has the money.

As funders, we are constantly juggling our attempts to find practical solutions for lasting change, despite facing an inequitable system. We must think critically about the programs we fund and the landscapes they operate in, even if they may be foreign to what we are familiar with. Awareness and recognition are the first steps; we must challenge conventions and norms if they are at odds with our goals of creating change. I find myself grounded and humbled as a Program Officer by naming these tensions. It allows me to communicate more effectively what’s at play, and what’s at stake with organizations I’m considering funding.

Accountability: The question of who we are here to serve, and who we need to hold ourselves accountable to, came up early in our coursework. I immediately would conjure up my community, all those images of Black and Brown faces we see on websites, pamphlets, and galas that are being used to garner donations. I know that even though I’m here today there are so many people who grew up where I’m from that never had the chance or weren’t given the opportunity. I think about what I’ve seen and been told my whole life, that the people that look like me tend to have the worse outcomes. I feel guilty that I’m an outlier and hold myself accountable to everyone who isn’t here with me.

Philanthropy can move capital resources quickly and with less friction than the public sector. The pandemic exposed how essential our work is to help countless communities stay fed and housed and maintain access to vital services. This type of unilateral decision-making, however, can also be disruptive. Disruption can be good, but funders can easily veer off track from their original goals if the community has no agency or ability to impact decisions. If funders don’t have members of the community they are working with represented on the inside, there is no real accountability other than pats on the back from industry peers. Through reflective practice, bringing people with diverse backgrounds into our grantmaking, and developing equitable strategies, we can begin the necessary work of making grantmaking more egalitarian.

Impact: Impact is often the most obsessed-over, yet narrowly defined term that I’ve encountered as a funder. I often find myself at odds with my lived experiences and the scope of the issues “on paper.” With ESS, we’ve turned off the knee-jerk definitions that seek to define impact in a maximalist and capitalist way. Instead, we employ reflective practices that look at issues holistically. Uncovering the concept of a theory of change was one of the most liberating experiences I’ve had in my career. I can use this practice to frame my arguments and ensure they remain rooted in something powerful and personal to each institution. Viewing impact through this lens can eliminate the pomp and pageantry within the industry and help us stay focused on the core issues we hope to find solutions for.

My career in philanthropy has shown how we cannot escape who we are, as much as we might try. Being forced to confront all the emotions and anger of my youth, while a difficult process, has allowed me to face my work with greater urgency and purpose. I humbly hope to continue collaborating, reflecting, and pushing myself and the sector further as we tackle what the past 2 years have revealed, and the work we all have left to do.