2020 has been the kind of year where even the extremely well-insulated sector of philanthropy has been forced to do a bit of soul searching. With that in mind, I was very interested to read CEP’s new report, Foundations Respond to Crisis: A Moment of Transformation?. It was fascinating to see this snapshot of what’s top of mind in our sector right now, and I’m looking forward to reading parts two and three of the series in the coming weeks.

That said, my reaction to the report’s findings was much the same as my reaction to the anecdotes that preceded those findings. There’s clearly some good news in here, but the overall context continues to be troubling. And so the question remains: why should it take a pandemic to bring out the best in philanthropy? If 2020 has truly been a “wakeup call” for philanthropy, then we must have been hitting the snooze button for years, if not for decades.

I have my own hard-won beliefs about how change can happen within the philanthropic sector (or, more often, why change doesn’t happen). And I’ll be going there! But first, I want to make sure that we’re underlining the right lessons from this moment.

There can be no real equity without shifting power and changing systems.

I was pleased to see that funder-grantee power dynamics were named not once, but several times over the course of CEP’s report. We should embrace this line of inquiry, and we should take it even further, fully exploring the implications for both what we fund as well as how we fund it.

We must fund organizations and efforts that build and shift power for transformative change. And we must prioritize organizations and efforts in communities that have historically had power wielded against them: Black folks, Indigenous Peoples, immigrants and refugees of color, and the working class overall — all with an explicit lens around gender, sexuality, and ability. For philanthropy to truly have a transformative impact, we must make building and shifting power consistent and fundamental criteria in our grantmaking — across all our various missions, visions, and issue areas. If there was one thing that I felt was conspicuously absent from CEP’s report, it was an explicit reminder that the question of what we fund remains as important as ever.

We must also name and address the deep power imbalances that define the philanthropic sector itself. For most of us, this begins with an exploration of how to hold power accountably. But we must also explore how to share power equitably and, ultimately, how to let go of power entirely. We’re all at different points in our own respective journeys — from building trusting relationships with grantees; to making long-term, unrestricted commitments; to co-designing tactics, strategies, and processes with grantees; to building processes and structures for democratized decision-making; to spending down endowments; and, finally, to supporting the creation of alternative infrastructure for resource allocation and investment.

I was pleased to see the question of how we fund receive some much-needed attention in CEP’s initial report, and my hope is that parts two and three will challenge us to take the conversation that much further.

We must both embrace transformative work and seek transformation for ourselves. Shifting power for transformative change means changing systems, and philanthropy is, after all, just another collection of interconnected systems. At Chorus Foundation, which I lead, we believe deeply in the concept of Just Transition as a framework for understanding the intersection of equity, power, and systemic change. And we understand that, if we are to support real transformation at scale, then we must also embrace the concept of a Just Transition for our own sector.

Read the full article about shifting power by Farhad Ebrahimi at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.