There should be no mistake that the traditional narrative on philanthropy and civil society — including the wide array of organizations from unincorporated grassroots groups to multinational non-profit establishments, and everything in between — is true: they are essential to filling gaps the private and public sectors cannot or do not fill in today’s society. Yet there is another truth we have come to discover: Genuine relationships between philanthropy and civil society that extend beyond the transactional and into the transformational in order to permanently fill societal gaps are possible, yet few and far between. Some believe the lack of transformational relationships is an effect of the non-profit industrial complex. Some believe it is an unwillingness to take an anti-racist approach, forcing organizations to default to the perpetuation of systems of inequity which they allege to erase. When it comes to the relationship between philanthropy and civil society in the food justice space, cultural disconnects between philanthropy and community-oriented organizations prevent permanently overcoming disparities in food production and food access.

The differences in ways of living and working are so great that good intentions are lost in translation as the “haves” unsuccessfully fling their intentions over the curtain to the “have-nots.” On one side we see people accustomed to heavily resourced organizations steeped in elements of white supremacy culture — think: “efficiency”, “productivity”, and “impact metrics.”[1] On the other side, food justice advocates adapt their behavior to do more with less, as they bear the responsibility to support the needs of their communities that always seem to outweigh the resources. These vastly different environments make it nearly impossible to internalize the realities of those on the other side of the aisle, making it very difficult to create effective relationships.

Since the racial reckoning of 2020, society has become more resolute in exposing philanthropy as a culture spending excessive time and money on strategies that over-intellectualize problems, over-engineer solutions, and over-burden grantees. Meanwhile, many food justice organizations across the United States found themselves with less time, money, and tools to improve internal organizational efficiency or develop strategies to help them focus their increasingly constrained resources toward mission fulfillment. It is a great irony: philanthropy is criticized for spending so much time “getting their house in order” that the dinner gets colder, and guests grow hungrier. At the same time, under-resourced organizations are muffling the sound of their fire alarms as they ceaselessly hand out hot meals.

This criticism has raised the bar for what it means to be an effective organization, and has brought the food movement to an inflection point: powerful organizations within philanthropy and civil society must commit to making significant, sustained adjustments to how they approach relationships by confronting a legacy of racial inequity within our food systems, or continue to perpetuate our history of exploitative food practices over and over, and over. There is no Switzerland — no neutrality — in this dichotomy.

So, what can be done to make meaningful strides toward enabling more equitable food systems? An extensive study was recently released citing that friendship between rich and poor is an important indicator of determining upward mobility. So, too, for philanthropy and civil society. As a social sector consultant who straddled the divide between philanthropy and civil society, I’ve observed several traits of effective relationships that create advancement towards collective goals.

Read the full article about food justice by Michaela Crunkleton Wilson at Medium.