Accountable to Community, Not Donors
As a former leader of a foundation and now a grantee, I know that things must change. Funders and the organizations they support are still too distant from each other. The ever-changing priorities of funders are still driving our actions over what’s needed for our communities and the world.
More often than ever, I have had to give money back to foundations because they wanted us to engage in strategies that we know cannot work in the current racialized political, social and economic climate. We must have authentic conversations where we can roll up our sleeves—funders and field leaders together—to examine the problems we are trying to solve and jointly design funding strategies that move the needle in nimble and powerful ways. Boards and program officers are designing funding and technical assistance strategies and giving resources to communities when what is really needed is a complete shift to collaborative design and grantmaking with funders and leaders at the table side by side.
Community foundations, the very foundations that should be directly accountable to local communities, are engaging in practices that fundamentally go against their values. They are not funding grassroots organizing while avoiding discussions about structural racism and dominant preferences in philanthropy, and decreasing the power of unions. It’s hard to challenge these practices without the necessary accountability mechanisms. Even the best boards of community foundations cannot play an effective accountability function because of the often implicit preference to preserve their donor’s needs (often wealthy, older, and/or white donors) over community needs. The media could potentially call out problematic foundations but they don’t care about philanthropy. It’s not considered sexy nor newsworthy.
So what should we consider? I am recommending three changes to the field:
Convene discussion forums with donors and community leaders that lead to participatory grant-making practices in which leaders and their communities, particularly from communities of color, choose what and who can receive funding, not the funder. Foundations can start by dedicating a percentage of their overall funding for participatory grantmaking.
Encourage foundations to support their grantees to use a portion of their funding to satisfy their grant guidelines and the other portion for anything that will support the organization’s needs.
Set up a national board that can respond to anonymous and identifiable concerns and complaints from nonprofits and leaders. They could report on trends and possess the power to convene conversations and mediations between funders and aggrieved grantees and applicants.
Kelly Bates is president of Interaction Institute for Social Change and former executive director of Access Strategies Fund, a private foundation in Massachusetts. She has consulted for foundations for over fifteen years.
We encourage you to send an accountability letter to any foundation that is using inequitable practices or misusing its power and share the impact. We encourage you to meet with them and discuss changes in practices and develop accountability structures. And we invite you tell your story. We must work collectively to share our stories to lessen the consequences on every organization. Keeping our voice unheard leads to the conclusion there is no urgency for the philanthropic sector to be transformed. We must disrupt philanthropy, intervene against inequitable practices, and transform the sector by redistributing wealth so we collectively end racism within our lifetime
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