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Editor's Note: Susan Sandler passed away in December 2022. We continue to share her story to inspire other donors.
Issue area: Community organizing; civic engagement
Geographic focus: United States
Giving vehicle: Susan Sandler Fund, Sandler Foundation
Years in philanthropy: 30
Time spent on philanthropy (weekly): Currently a few hours a week, previously 10-15 hours a week
Wealth story: Family inheritance
Recommended Resources: Advance Native Political Leadership, Texas Organizing Project Education Fund, Asian American & Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Fund, New Georgia Project, Arizona Center for Empowerment, PICO California, Florida Rising Together, New Virginia Majority Education Fund, The Carolina Federation, The Equity Alliance
Recommended by: Julita Eleveld, Senior Program Officer, Gates Foundation
Philanthropic culture so often revolves around writing white papers and reports, with the hope that decision-makers will be influenced by them, or around winning short-term political campaigns. Yet community organizing by people of color is the way long-term, transformational change truly happens. I think of my strategy as power, not persuasion.
I grew up in an affluent family. When my parents became interested in an issue, they would spend hours talking to experts and would learn all that they could about the challenges, best practices, and gaps in the field. Their approach to achieving impact really stood out, so much so that people have termed it "The Sandler Way." They identified underfunded leverage points and strong leaders, conducted extremely thorough due diligence, and provided long-term general operating support. I'm extremely fortunate to have had them as philanthropic role models.
I hope to both carry my parents' legacy forward, and to continue to deepen it. Over the years, I have supported multiple progressive campaigns and institutions. [In 2020], I was feeling urgency to invest in longer-term efforts to change our political landscape. I have come to understand that politics is most effective when those impacted by racism and inequality have decision-making power over their own lives.
So in September 2020, I launched the Susan Sandler Fund to focus specifically on building power amongst people of color and on fighting against systemic racism.
I give flexible, multi-year general operating support to build long-term resiliency among movements led by people of color. A lot of funders have shifted towards general operating support because of COVID, and it's really important to continue to fund in this way. When grantees receive unrestricted funding, they're able to allocate dollars to the areas and projects where they will be most impactful. They're able to be flexible and resilient in times of crisis. How we fund is as important as what we fund.
On the importance of funding grassroots and community organizers
I have always been very interested in issues around education. Early on in my philanthropic career, I read a lot of books about the field, and kept up with all the latest studies and theories about the latest teaching methods and solutions. I went to a lot of education-related conferences, and knew all of the experts in the field. I considered myself well-informed and up-to-date, and I thought I had a sound understanding of what it would take to advance the field.
Later in my career, however, I started actually working in a school. And that was such an eye-opening experience for me, because the day-to-day interaction with students and putting teaching methodology into practice was so different than reading about theories from 50,000 feet away. In some ways I felt like I was learning about the field entirely from scratch! The experience really showed me the importance of being on the ground to fully understand any issue. I would have been so disconnected and ineffective had my only understanding of educational issues continued to be from reading books or conducting site visits.
I say all this to emphasize why it's so important to prioritize the decision-making power of people who possess that on-the-ground, lived experience of confronting racism and inequality. These community organizers are the ones with the most expertise. We need to be funding them. It's quite simple. Additionally, as much as possible, we as donors need to get out into the field. We need to be willing to get our hands dirty and learn for ourselves.
On being mindful of power dynamics
I have been a grant seeker myself in my career, which can be a rare experience for individual donors to have. So I understand what it's like to be sitting on the other side of the table, and that really shapes how I relate to grantees. I am aware of the power dynamics that exist between funders and grantees, and of the pressure on the nonprofit to say the right words and make donors feel good. I try to be mindful of that dynamic by being transparent about my funding decisions, and not raising people's expectations. It can be tricky because, especially with grassroots organizations, I want to be a true value-add to my grantees -- but at the same time I don't want to be overbearing. It can be a lot to negotiate, but clear, open communication goes a long way.
Final Thoughts: I envision that progressive philanthropy will build a deeper relationship to social justice and community organizing. For too long, we have shied away from fully embracing long-term power building, whereas conservative philanthropy has been quite effective at it for decades. It's time for us to really consider the long-term legacies we want to leave for our political landscape.
I also envision greater leadership of people of color in the philanthropy sector. Foundations have long been white institutions, and if we as a sector are going to meet the demands of our time, we need to be led by people of color.
Read other stories about donors centering equity.
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