Within our Lifetime's Truth Telling
This is an accountability intervention and its purpose is to disrupt how we typically relate to each other and speak truth. We hope to collectively transform these relationships as well as the resource distribution system. This is also a wide-loving invitation to our colleagues, friends, and comrades in the racial justice movement saying: enough, let’s share our stories, let’s organize together in the philanthropic sector to demand a just distribution of resources, and commit to racial justice that is reflective in all funder practices.
Our story is being told, not just the story happening between grantees and foundations, but as one of the many stories with devastating impacts for numerous organizations, especially people of color-led organizations, and communities of color. Though our story describes exasperating funding practices, more than inherent racially inequitable practices, as a people of color-led network, we experience differing impacts. Following this blog, other organizations and individuals will share their stories of inequitable practices, some sharing the funders’ name, others not. If you are interested in sharing your story, scroll to the end of the blog for more information.
In the spring of 2012, a group of about 20 people met in New Orleans to discuss the formation of a new network. The Within Our Lifetime (WOL) network is now a national network of 100+ racial equity and racial healing organizations with an audacious vision: to dismantle racism within our lifetime.
As #45 was about to be inaugurated on January 17th, 2017, we shared this letter with 80 foundations and funders’ networks on what foundations can do to deepen movement building and work for justice. We received responses from members as well as funders thanking us for our leadership and signaling their alignment with our recommendations.
For a nine-month period last year, we were in conversation with a long-term funder who was with us at the launch of the network and participated in our initial convenings with activists. We met with our program officer in February to discuss our next grant before she transitioned into a new role at the foundation and she invited our new program officer to join our call. This is a good practice for passing on institutional information between colleagues. Afterwards, we transitioned to two program officers who we met with twice, and then transitioned to one of the program officers who we met with two more times. At each meeting, we were asked questions about our work, our methodology, and our contributions to the field. Though most answers could be found in our reports, we appreciated the time to build a relationship with our new program officer.
When the conversation turned to next steps, they told us, “let’s continue to build the relationship and ‘co-learn’.” We were then asked to submit a concept paper in May. At our June meeting, we discussed our concept paper with two program officers who told us it would be only 90 days after we submit, and “we should have a grant by the beginning of fall or sooner, after it is approved.” At the next meeting in July, our program officer asked us to submit a draft proposal. After discussing the draft proposal in August, our program officer replied, “Let me talk to my supervisor and find out what type of proposal to submit and the amount. I will get back with you in one week.” A week later, we learned staff were not available but our program officer informed us she was working on getting us answers about submitting a formal proposal. A couple of weeks later, we sent another email and received no response. We had already lost one part-time staff person, and we were about to lose our second part-time staff person. We will take responsibility for not doing more development work. We believed what we were hearing was true.
Throughout this process each program officer along the way told us we are “part of our family.” We believed this was time for a family intervention. A month and a half after our meeting in August, with still no communication from our program officer, we wrote an accountability letter to share our frustrations about this experience and the impact of this long process. Then our program officer and supervisor invited us to meet with them. We had high hopes about the meeting since we were part of “the family” for the past five years. Best case? Submit a formal proposal. Worst case? A tie-off grant especially considering the core funding relationship and how the interactions evolved over this now 9-month process. At the meeting, we shared our story and we did indeed receive an apology for how these practices “fell below expectations.”
The supervisor then informed us the foundation had gone through a strategic review process, and there was a “new funding regime” (their words, not ours) in which WOL got caught in the “vortex,” and that we could no longer contribute to the foundation’s strategy. They told us the new portfolio included investment in several communities and we would be included on a list of technical assistance providers which would be shared with the communities. Since we might be contacted by a community who had a grant from the foundation, a tie-off grant would not be appropriate since we would then be receiving funding twice from the foundation. We checked to see if a bridge grant would be provided since during this 9-month process we were encouraged about receiving a grant. The bridge grant could help us conduct development work to address our loss of core funding and support our part-time staff person for a few more months. The supervisor told us that the immediate response was no but would consider it and let us know later in the year. This was in 2017. We never heard from him.
We were in shock! This was a major loss to WOL, though more importantly, this major shift in strategy meant a significant loss of grant monies to the racial justice field and an immediate impact on the work for an array of organizations at the national and local levels. There has been no warning to grantees regarding this changing strategy. Learning about this decision for WOL was devastating in terms of this five-year relationship ending and the loss of core funding. The greater loss was the impact to racial justice and healing organizations and communities.
In our communication with the foundation, we provided advice about grant-making practices, especially when there is a change in strategy. We said it is critical to have an accountability off-ramp with grantees.
When ending a funding relationship, give your grantees sufficient time for them to conduct the level of development work needed to replace funding, especially if you are a core funder. Grantees are doing urgent critical work that needs to be continued. Sudden losses in funding also put people’s livelihoods at risk and funding needs to be replaced so they can continue to provide for their families.
When ending a funding relationship, best practices include:
Support your grantees with technical assistance or capacity-building on how to diversify their revenue and funding streams.
Provide support to your grantees to make a transition to other funders, especially if you are a core funder. Introduce them to your foundation colleagues. One foundation we know of, when changing their strategy, supported their grantees’ transition by making videos of their work and sending them to their peer funders.
Provide transitional grants while the grantee is conducting development work so they can ensure the work continues.
Reach out to peer funders if you are making a major strategy shift in a sector. You supported your grantees’ work for the impact it is making and presumably you still want it to strengthen and grow. Share information about your shift in funding in a timely fashion so peer funders can determine if they are interested in continuing funding. This is systemic work so if one area of the work is losing a significant investment of resources, it can have a devastating effect on the movement.
Be open and honest in your communication with your grantees. That means sharing major changes with grantees in timely, personal fashion. The relationship trumps a press release.
As mentioned in the last blog, we communicated with our funder prior to the launch of the #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW campaign and informed them we would share our story. They invited us to meet with them to discuss our second accountability letter. We learned through communications for this meeting about the grant dollars they made to WOL’s member organizations. The numbers (which they shared with us using their own methodology) showed a radical plummet of 98% between 2017 and 2018 second quarter. This drastic change in resources overnight has a major ripple effect in the racial justice field. We appreciated the opportunity to meet with a few staff from the foundation and share our feedback which included applying a racial equity lens to their policies, practices, and relationships that we and our members experienced. It was a candid conversation with the staff and they were thoughtful, supportive, and understanding as well as apologetic. Yet, we know the issues we raised are mostly structural and they will need an institutional wide response for transformational change as it does for most foundations.
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
This blog series will be continuing next week, with a youth-led social justice organization in Baltimore sharing their story.
What can you do NOW…
TELL YOUR STORY: If you are an organization that has experienced racially inequitable practices with a foundation, and you are interested in sharing it - please use this google form and someone will contact you. And we also now have an encrypted email address: DisruptPhilanthropy@protonmail.com. Your information will be confidential until you are ready to share your story. You may choose to share your story anonymously.
SIGN ON for Courageous and Collective Action: #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW HERE.
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Share this #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW Blog Series with your networks.
In future blog posts and on this site, we will share with you some of the work already happening to transform philanthropy. Please share your examples and ideas with us, along with stories of effective racial equitable grant making at email@example.com