Repeat after me: “It’s Not Your Money.” 

One more time: “It’s Not Your Money.” 

If you work in the world of philanthropy, have you ever said that sentence out loud to a foundation founder or board member? Probably not. Just thinking about saying it aloud in a boardroom might be causing you to squirm in your seat a little. The thought of voicing this unspoken truth in a relationship fraught with power dynamics and personal legacy feels uncomfortable for everyone, and completely contrary to self-preservation as a foundation staffer or keeping the peace in order to move existing grant requests forward.

But here’s the thing: When we incorrectly label the money in foundations and donor-advised funds as still belonging to the founders, we then also act like the money – and the foundation – belong to them, which perpetuates a concentration of power at odds with our sector’s aims. Words matter. Our words influence who holds power. 

And in the case of philanthropy, power is held by people who (for the most part) are furthest away from the communities served, spend the least amount of time studying the history, context, and data of issues being addressed, and are most likely to be involved in philanthropy due to family obligation, professional expectations, or the idea of "legacy." Ultimate decision-making power and board seats are most often not held by people who are from communities served, who spend their careers studying history, context, and data of issues being addressed, and who are most likely to be involved in philanthropy due to a personal mission to serve their own communities, or a deeply held belief in a radically different future reality.

At the Capital Collaborative by Camelback Ventures we have decided to say "It’s Not Your Money" out loud. Regularly. 

We say it multiple times a month through our LinkedIn Live series of the same title, where we feature leaders challenging the status quo plaguing philanthropy today and those who are demonstrating how we can collectively build a more equitable and just funding landscape – particularly for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, women, and non-binary founders. 

Here are some more "words that matter," paraphrased from our conversations so far:

Vu Le,, on "crappy funding practices:"

  • Fundraisers have been trained to be grateful for donors and treat them like heroes. This allows donors and funders to not think about where their wealth came from because they're constantly being thanked and are thinking that, yes, they are a hero, out there rescuing people and making the world better. When the reality is that so many issues we're trying to address are caused by hoarding of wealth.
  • Fundraising has been focused on: 1) ensuring that rich, mostly white donors are comfortable and treated like heroes, 2) getting as much money for your organization as possible, if necessary at the expense of others in the sector. We don't say this out loud, but this is what fundraising has been grounded on. It's been driving away fundraisers of color and perpetuating white saviorism and poverty tourism, where we have Black and Brown kids and families paraded around to tug at heartstrings. We have to do this differently. We can't keep perpetuating the very injustice we're raising money to fight.
  • The work of justice and equity can't just be therapy or a hobby or family bonding experience. There needs to be reflection on this at family foundations. 
  • No one really tells funders the truth. Especially about their crappy funding practices. But doing that is not a personal insult to anyone. It's just that you're doing some crappy stuff and you need to change your practices. 
  • A lot of funders are in denial. What are you saving for? They have all of this water and everything is on fire. They’re like, ‘"'m just going to use 5% of the water I have to put out these fires because I'm saving 95% for future fires."vBut future fires are caused by the existing fires they don't put out. And the more they don't put them out, the more they keep spreading and then they’re like, "well see, this is why we have to keep saving, because there's going to be fires in the future." You never put them out in the first place.

Dahlia Joseph & Bianca St. Louis, Village Capital & Black Innovation Alliance's Resource partnership, on the importance of funding entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) for founders of color:

  • The role of institutions is essential for a lot of undervalued founders, where things happen in community, like a vessel that activates folks. Funding goes to entrepreneurs that have gone through an accelerator. Capital flows to entrepreneurs of color that have passed through a Black or Brown-led accelerator – this is an integral part of the success of these entrepreneurs.
  • Entrepreneur Support Organizations (ESOs) led by people of color are not just copy and paste from Silicon Valley. As a funder, when thinking about why you might fund an ESO, keep in mind that curriculum and resources are very specific. They require a lot of nuance and cultural competency. They use proximity and understanding to source and find entrepreneurs that would probably be overlooked or lost in the filter of an ESO or funder who doesn’t represent their community.
  • Solutions provided by people with money tend to come out of extractive relationships. Funders go into a community, hear their problems and what they need, and then the funders take that credit as if they came up with it. Really it was the community that knew the solutions and have been trying to work on them, but didn't have access to resources to implement. And now those with the money come in and take credit for somebody else’s work.

Katherine Milligan & John Kania, Collective Change Lab, on how trauma shows up in philanthropy and what funders can do to understand trauma’s impact on communities:

  • Its glaring absence. There's still a lot of stigma and denial about its existence, and its prevalence. Especially when talking to those who are farther removed from communities in pain, people get uncomfortable pretty quickly and change topics or nod like they get it – but they don't really get it – then try and steer the conversation on to safer ground. 
  • A refusal to excavate the past. Moving systems towards equity and justice means understanding history. And then you need to understand the different ways that people have intersected with that history, and how that history has impacted the lived experiences of people who are dealing with the issues that you're trying to change. 
  • It can be performative. Many folks must demonstrate how their suffering is more worthy than other causes. Retelling can be harmful and re-triggering. There's an idea that those who have experience with an issue should tell their stories, and that feels righteous to those in power. But power is also not telling your story, to avoid re-traumatization. 
  • Support community engaging with the system. In the system, there are representatives of institutions and agencies that have caused their family or their group past or present trauma. We must support them in this. Where's the budget line item that helps them heal? So they can engage with decision makers and institutional power holders in a way that doesn't feel re-triggering while holding on to their humanity.
  • Ask "what does collective healing look like to you and your community?" Emphasize the collective, because investing in relationships is key. Collective healing allows us to tap the healing power of relationships. It takes time, it must be someone's job description. It's not a distraction from the work, it's a core part of the work. How can funders prioritize, invest in, and invite them to allocate resources to community collective healing? 

Thanks to our fearless guests, who speak truth and work to diversify power.

Join Camelback Ventures in building a more equitable philanthropic ecosystem. Camelback Ventures’ Capital Collaborative works with white funders and social impact investors who want to deepen their individual and organizational commitment to racial and gender equity — but may not know how. You can learn more by submitting an interest form for the Capital Collaborative’s 2022 cohort starting this fall or signing up for the newsletter.