How do we conspire to shift philanthropy?

Thursday, November 2, 2023

How do we conspire to shift philanthropy? 
A Message from Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham, CEO, Philanthropy New York

Private philanthropy is a transitional form. If we seek to support transformational work, then we ourselves must be open to transformation.” – Farhad Ebrahimi, Executive Director, Chorus Foundation

Organizer Farhad Ibrahimi’s quote framed expectations for our members at Philanthropy New York’s annual meeting, From Possibility into Practice, earlier this year. Ebrahimi’s offering, and that of our annual meeting, is to explore not only what it takes to move “the field” but to also explore what it takes to move much more deeply contested spaces: our own organizations. This is not work that can be done alone.

While finally sharing physical space after three long years of virtual programming, annual meeting participants enthusiastically embraced the invitation to move and breathe together. I noted at the time that I hoped we could reclaim the meaning of the word conspire, derived from the Latin conspirare meaning, to be in harmony. Throughout the day, we explored how we can work together, to build relationships and practices in which we actualize multiple forms of power and shift the sector’s overreliance on the power of money.  

The Contours of Conspiring at Philanthropy New York 

I was recently speaking with a prospective new member who wanted to understand how Philanthropy New York is able to support change in grantmaking and operational practices given the diversity of member institutions and the wide range of PNY’s engagement with them. At the heart of my response was this notion of conspiring. While the 280 ‘members’ of Philanthropy New York are institutions, the true agents of change and transformation in our ecosystem are the 4,500 individuals who serve as champions, catalysts, and conspirators working to embody the true meaning of the word philanthropy. I genuinely believe that it is possible for PNY and these individual change agents to conspire to engage the sector’s power and privilege to dismantle inequitable systems. 

Here’s how: 

Philanthropy New York starts by creating a community guided by shared agreements and a clear set of values. We foster trust among our diverse community of members so that we can create conversations that allow individuals to be courageous, vulnerable, and accountable to new commitments and ways of working.  

Once members feel that trust and courage, we invite them into a deeper discussion about philanthropy’s purpose. We recognize that everyone enters at different times and at different places in their organizational journeys, and we work to identify the appropriate resources, coaching, and support needed at all levels. Within every Philanthropy New York network, working group, program break-out, and cohort, PNY cultivates the conditions needed for individual reflection and action. We equip the changemakers, leaders, and equity champions at every level within their organization, with the knowledge, tools, and peer community they need to conspire to transform the philanthropic ecosystem together.

Recently, we’ve had some significant opportunities to conspire as a community in support of sector-wide transformation and in alignment with the commitments in our Strategic Framework:

  • Designing learning spaces that name, identify, interrogate and reimagine power structures: Programming for our first cohort of the Racial Equity Working Group has ended but we continue to host bimonthly “office hours” for participants. Here, members are engaging in peer-to-peer consulting and knowledge exchange on organizational culture and their respective journeys to build racial equity practices. The group provides each other with support, creative problem-solving, and coaching to stay and evolve in their racial equity transformation. 
  • Growing our capacity to influence government actors in service to a strengthened nonprofit sector and an expansion of voices that inform public policy: Philanthropy New York allied with the #JustPay Campaign by amplifying A Day Without Human Services, centered on supporting the voices and economic security of a BIPOC human services workforce who often live and work in communities of color while earning poverty-level wages. PNY asked our member community — for the first time ever — to support their grantees in what was, essentially, striking. The simple act of emailing grantees to affirm their right to fair contracting and living wages positively reverberated throughout the health and human services ecosystem. This was a critical opportunity for funders to support their grantees with something very different from the power of the purse. 
  • Crafting leadership programs that interrogate and negotiate multiple forms of power: Philanthropy New York recently conspired with PEAK Grantmaking to bring a program, Leading Without the Title, to our membership. “Leadership” is often viewed in terms of hierarchy, but this program highlighted the ways those without positional authority can exercise influence and build their social support network for institutional change. 
  • Identifying ways that we can support our member community to respond to racial violence and harm: In the wake of the murder of Jordan Neely on a New York City subway, we produced a statement calling on the philanthropic sector to leverage its institutional power to advocate for and distribute resources to ensure no person is without the critical social safety net that was needed to prevent this tragedy. Additionally, we are conspiring with our colleagues at ABFE, HIP, AAPIP, and NAP who are developing narrative frameworks, legal defense funds, and resource banks to support philanthropic commitments to advance racial equity despite the backlash of the Supreme Court's Decision on Affirmative Action.

Discomfort, a Condition for Conspiracy  

In addition to our co-conspirator role in these actions and initiatives, Philanthropy New York is turning inward and examining our own institution against the commitments of our Strategic Framework. Our staff has conspired with equity-centered change management consultant, Sheryl Petty, to help us identify the culture shifts we need to make in service to operating as an anti-racist, power-aware organization. Some of the emerging areas that we need to re-pattern include the process of organizational decision-making, the pace of work, and accountability for addressing harms in a way that centers repair. These aspects of how we work are particularly relevant to the depth of equity work we are undertaking as an organization. 

Ours is not the first organization to undertake such a transformation. I am privileged to speak weekly to folks in our membership who are navigating shifts in their culture and practices. I recently read a report authored by Philanthropy New York member, the Commonwealth Fund, which outlines activities and learnings from the first three years of the organization’s racial equity journey. The report is a valuable resource for organizations starting out on a racial equity process, as it provides detailed information on the actions the Fund took and the ways they experienced the process. 

I was struck by two things in particular when I read the report. The first is that harmony does not mean freedom from tension. It means keeping focus on the shared goal — in the Fund’s case, becoming an anti-racist organization — and working through the tensions that will inevitably arise as you work toward it. The other thing that really struck me was articulated beautifully by (then) President David Blumenthal: the necessity of discomfort and the startling clarity for leaders (especially us white leaders) that results from it. In David’s words as penned in his opening letter: 

Three years ago, when the Commonwealth Fund launched its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative, I knew it was the right thing to do, but I had little concept of how transformative it would prove or how challenging, uncomfortable, and rewarding it would be. Our DEI process may be the most important event in the 103-year history of the Fund, and one of the most important in my professional life. And we are just beginning.

We, too, are just beginning our work to transform ourselves and support our members as we shift to a more just and equitable philanthropic ecosystem together. I welcome your thoughts and ideas so let’s talk about how we can conspire with you! 

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