The Premise – Our Changing Field and Evolving Potential
I entered philanthropy in 2018. My trajectory up until then was shaped by experiences deeply and directly entrenched in “community” while navigating and mobilizing cross-cultural spaces, differing worldviews and ideologies and skills, activists, organizers, educators, and students of all kinds. I am no expert, but I am a community organizer. A background such as my own isn’t particularly unique to philanthropy these days, and that’s a very good thing.
Since entering this space, I’ve observed a trending evolution of collective language and goals within the philanthropic ecosystem; we are in an important moment and folks recognize it. In front of us is a growing potential to fundamentally reimagine the way our field interacts with, supports, and accelerates social transformation for the long haul. The general support advocates, the Edgar Villanuevas, collaborations like the Seeding Power Fellowship, and a popularizing recognition that leaders are most effective when they authentically reflect community all signal that philanthropy is shifting its framework. Foundation gatekeepers are thinking more radically, intentionally, and more willingly to invest in riskier (overused term, but important) opportunities. With fresh eyes within the sector (as opposed to the “partner side” where I’ve spent my organizing career), here’s one perspective on how we might consider catalyzing the momentum.
Community Organizing to Advance Our Goals
The sector’s fundamental transformation requires continual, consistent, long-term action that is based on the present and future. I often ponder what the future of philanthropy will look like as many of us do. My current inspiration: emergent and entry-level practitioners are learning and growing alongside the evolution of bold new visions. Shifting practices are causing shifted minds, and for a developing newcomer such as myself, learning in and through this moment carries the potential to produce invaluable and profound long-term results. Think about it this way: the next generation of philanthropic changemakers is being incubated in a radically evolving system.
In 2018 I joined Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), a community of early-career professionals focused on building leadership skills, knowledge, and agency. As a chapter leader, my goal is to empower, support, mobilize, and lead the next wave of transformation within our field. As a community organizer, I see potential to catalyze philanthropy’s shift by embracing an action plan that centers on intergenerational wisdom sharing, nurtures growing practitioners, and deploys strategies that mirror our “on-the-ground” grantee partners. About ten years ago, I heard a quotation that I’ve kept to this day. We’ve all heard the “if you give me a fish” line, but this takes it a little further…
“If you give me a fish you have fed me for a day; if you teach me to fish you have fed me for a lifetime… OR until the ocean is overflowing with garbage and the shoreline is seized for development. But if you teach me how to organize, then whatever the challenge is I can come together with my peers and we can fashion our own solution.”
Organizing strategies are adaptive. They can be employed contextually, strategically, diversely, and collaboratively. I apply them to my work inside philanthropy. For young people within EPIP’s network and other philanthropy “activists” out there, I want to name a few approaches that I use to push this moment I keep referring to forward –internally within our respective institutions, externally at the sector level, and most importantly at the systems change level. *Note, I’m not a fan of redundant information in the sector and I acknowledge that many of us are familiar with some or all of the below ideas. My goal for this is to suggest how we might think about utilizing these strategies more collectively across generations.
Mapping Power, Position, and Networks
- Power mapping and power analysis to identify who carries traction where, who’s influencing who, how leadership is thinking about the focus issues the foundation is addressing, and the many identities that are reflected inside an organization. I like to use this strategy to discern the difference between practitioners who are committed to maintaining their 9-5s and those who are deeply committed to freedom. Radical, I know, but there’s so much momentum bubbling around liberatory philanthropy I just can’t help myself!
- Anthony Wallace’s mazeways  – mental maps of how we relate to our world and the channels we’ve established in which our needs get met, and in this particular case the systems we’ve designed – is an effective tool to better dissect and understand roadblocks within our institutions and uncover alternative solutions to challenges we’re facing internally and externally.
- Internal examination of social positionality: taking ownership over our power and our role within the social sector. We must meet people where they are. That’s our responsibility as gatekeepers. Subject position is the place one can speak from and be understood from as a speaker, and I like to reflect on my own personal qualities and its intersections with Emotional Intelligence to identify how to craft space that is absent of transactional nature and based in reciprocity.
- It’s our responsibility as philanthropy practitioners to grow our cultural literacy and dissect the funder-grantee relationship in a way that builds REAL partnerships; i.e. we’re working towards the same future outcomes, but we’re playing different roles. Do our conversations and relational dynamics reflect that? If not… I’d think on that for a bit.
Movement Building Orientation
- Integrating movement analysis, history, theory, and practice to name truly transformative strategies versus gap-filling support.
- Building our work on legacies of social movements before us and educating ourselves on the dialogic connection to our work today. Contextualizing our actions under the umbrella of something deeper, longer, and more powerful.
- I like to use my community organizing skillset to align with allies committed to justice. I like to be human in the space, void of transaction, to build trust: trust that we share goals together, and trust that we’re here for the same reason. One issue I have noticed at philanthropic conferences, meetings, etc. is a tendency for practitioners to show up with the question, “how does this benefit the foundation I represent?” I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting several weeks ago where we all showed up with the question, “how does this benefit the work?” You will know the difference.
We talk at great length about ways to reimagine and reframe the power inequities embedded in philanthropy and build mutually beneficial relationships. What would it look like if our field centered aligned vision, aligned practices, coordinated steps, and collaborative alliances?
Bringing this back to EPIP, youth in the field, and collaboration, these are perhaps questions that are as much about the future as they are the present. Are young practitioners involved at any level in shaping this emergent agenda? I’d like to think so, but I also need to name a few challenges hindering our fullest potential from being realized.
Our Field and Our Age-Related Obstacles
Young philanthropy practitioners face barriers to exercising causal power and learning by doing. EPIP conducted a member survey in 2017 titled Dissonance and Disconnects. As referenced in the report, 48% of the survey’s respondents feel they have an adequate level of influence in their workplaces. Entry and mid-level staff were significantly less likely to report feeling seen as leaders or having autonomy to do their jobs.  These responses reflect a question that hinders the growth and longevity of young people inside the sector to grow alongside its evolving objectives. Am I able to create the kind of impact within my institution that I want? Am I able to contribute to the work our foundation accomplishes in any sort of meaningful way – connecting the dots to the role of the foundation and its impact on pushing social change forward?
Another crucial question focuses on emergent practitioners’ perceptions of their institutions. In the report, only 40% of respondents believed their institutions were in touch with the needs of the communities they support, and respondents generally rated their institutions low with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Half of the survey respondents perceive philanthropy to be an effective player in social change. 
As a field, we need to be more responsive and cognizant of both of these barriers. Yes, an entry-level position will oftentimes necessitate unsexy work, but our generation needs to be nurtured for the long term. I encourage folks in power positions to think critically about how to manage emergent talent, not just as an investment in an institution but as a lever for our future. The expectation is not that entry-level positions will enable practitioners to engage in all the kinds of projects or activities they want. But, this challengeposes a barrier to emergence that is also dictated by the scarcity of philanthropic jobs and general lack of upward mobility within institutions. If we’re discouraged during our growing years, how might they impact our commitment to continuing in the field?
Empowering and building space for the next generation to take charge is critical for the continuation and evolution of the transformative trends in philanthropy. Young people in the field today are more diverse, reflective of the world we live in, and developing in a reality where social change discourse is more normalized and practiced day-to-day. There’s a strong passion, but it may be unrefined. To incorporate and adopt the next generation into the decision-making moments is to forge even more cross-cultural alliances that align young fire with experienced wisdom and sector brilliance. *Hint, hint, movement building community organizing strategies, and intergenerational power building.
These are questions that young people within our EPIP community are asking, and these are questions within our field that perhaps aren’t being asked enough.
Turning a Philanthropic Moment into a Movement
A mentor of mine recently reminded me the dictionary definition of radical, “(especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.” He said that I shouldn’t be hesitant to use the term despite the stigma that oftentimes surrounds it. We have a unique opportunity to catalyze radical momentum, and simultaneously face a danger that our moment will be short-lived. As a young person in our field (and I don’t just mean philanthropy the sector, I mean cross-sector entry points, organization types, positions, and roles), one of my most pressing responsibilities is to think about this moment and what it will take to make it a movement. Our identities empower us to understand that we need to show up in authentic ways, and our adaptability and fresh lens support magnifying the solutions to the issues veteran and seasoned grantmakers are embedding in practice. AKA, the needs of our time are so dire that there’s simply no space to mess around! No more space to “start the conversation.” The only thing that matters right now is action, impact, and outcome.
Our thinking process is evolving with the times.
Our practices, ideologies, and visions are being shaped by the current ecosystem. What does it actually mean when we say community led? When do overused sentiments, catchphrases, or ideas become void of meaning? Let us help answer these questions!
As we grow older, build our resumes, learn from each other, learn from our mentors, support the evolution of the field, etc., we will advance in our roles and in our institutions and beyond. I’m not suggesting that we occupy program officer positions for 20 years (I disagree with that anyway), but we will be in and out of the sector and implementing influence in so many ways. We will be the ones implementing the new practices, ideas, values, and structural shifts. We will be the ones shifting power, chartering a new direction, and carrying the historical legacy of this emergent agenda. We need trust reciprocated to us that we’re believed in to carry the moment to a movement. How far are you willing to go to help us get there?
- Wallace, Anthony F. C., and Robert Steven. Grumet.Revitalizations and Mazeways. University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
- Tompkins, Francis, et al.Dissonance and Disconnects: How Entry- and Mid-Level Foundation Staff See Their Futures, Their Institutions and Their Field. Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, 2017.