Fixing Philanthropy Isn’t Enough. We Need a New Way of Doing it All Together
- Essential Common Future
Let’s paint a scene:
A funder gets a grant request from an organization they don’t know about. The funder initiates a thoughtful discussion about mutual needs. Once they decide to support this organization, the funder offers a five-year grant with no reporting requirements, and asks how else they can support the work. They request suggestions for other organizations to support and partner with for collective impact, and then the funder spreads that list to their network. A new, deeply-rooted, potentially paradigm-shifting initiative emerges. Real change feels possible.
Never heard of this before? This is how things might work in what Common Future Director of Advancement Rakiba Kibria calls a “new operating system” for philanthropy.
It’s not just a pivot away from how things are now — it’s a complete rebuilding from the ground up, that addresses the structural issues of the nonprofit sector.
This reboot is crucial, she says, to create anything close to the transformation needed for addressing the structural issues that nonprofits seek to address: “Keeping this business-as-usual approach, maintaining the status quo, is risky, and it won’t affect the change we need to see.”
Rakiba has been a nonprofit fundraiser for over a decade and says that she’s always been “chasing the dollar,” spending her time pursuing short-term grants and then proving that the places she’s worked deserve to get them again. Not only does this blunt nonprofits’ work, it is more oriented around the needs of donors rather than the needs of changemakers — fundraising for the sake of fundraising.
This prioritizing of funders’ whims reflects the values of the oppressive system that created the funder class in the first place. Jessica Feingold, Common Future’s Chief Strategy Officer, highlights that the current operating system mirrors the behaviors named in Tema Okun’s influential framework about the values of white supremacy. Worship of the written word, paternalism, and urgency are some particularly relevant ones.
Jess gives the example of a funder demanding that a nonprofit produce a grant application on short notice before the board meeting where applications will be reviewed, a process that typically happens in the fall.
“They probably knew since the beginning of the year when this board meeting would happen, when they would need this information, and we’re expected to scramble to complete hours of work and piles of documentation,” she says. It exemplifies an attitude of entitlement, and in some ways, a lack of respect for and trust in the nonprofit’s track record.
Philanthropists only treat their giving this way — their approach to investing is the mirror opposite.
“Nonprofits need equity-like capital much like other sectors, invested upfront, to foster growth and innovation, and offset any losses,” Rakiba says, pointing out that startups have no trouble raising tens of millions of dollars from angel investors before they even have a product, let alone proof that it’s viable. Nonprofits, on the other hand, are forced to tailor their ideas to stringent grant requirements that prioritize individual programs, which Rakiba calls “productizing” nonprofits’ work. This reflects another value of white supremacy: progress is more/quantity over quality.
What funders don’t realize is that the programs they love so much come out of deep work. When organizations have the stability to explore new ways of approaching issues, the campaigns they create are more effective and get closer to being transformative, rather than the “run-of-the-mill” solutions Kibria says the current system produces. “We’re stuck rinsing, recycling, and repeating solutions,” she says.
This isn’t unrestricted capital, like the grant that MacKenzie Scott gave Common Future earlier this year. It’s R&D-specific funding that doesn’t require reporting explaining how it’s being spent. Jess points to the rapid, successful development of Covid-19 vaccines, which were funded partially by private-sector giving, as an example of the transformative power of research capital — and evidence that billionaires already have the capacity to instantly mobilize a large volume of resources, but simply choose not to do so in most cases.
Instead, they continue hoarding wealth and then redistribute a sliver of it via charitable giving. “It takes the collective responsibility away from public officials to tax the wealthy and provide a social safety net, and gives responsibility for taking care of people to nonprofits,” Kibria says. This type of “investment philanthropy,” relies on dividends from the same stock market that exploits workers, communities and the planet. That means it can’t solve the problems created by our current economic model.
Under the new operating system, things would look very different.
Funders would have an open door for proposals, rather than barring unsolicited ones as many do now. Multi-year grants would be the default. Funders would learn from organizers on the ground which other organizations they should be funding, and then recruit other funders to follow their lead. They would see themselves as underwriters of a transformation of the sector, rather than supporters of individual programs that reflect well on their charitable image. Multi-year grants would be the norm.
Jess says that fund officers have a particular role to play here, as most work first at nonprofits but then get stuck in the current operating system when they move into the private sector. “You’ve been on both sides,” she says. “Now that you have the power, how are you going to hold the power differently?”
The new operating system would also transform the interpersonal relationships between grantees and funders, bringing in more stakeholders and considering how decisions can benefit everyone — a true partnership. According to Jess, “It’s a firmer handshake built on trust, which comes from vulnerable, honest conversations.” It would also prioritize the wellbeing of everyone involved, especially by taking racism and other forms of oppression into account — a major part of a concept called “upbuilding” that has influenced Rakiba’s thinking
All of this would give fundraisers like her the space to collaborate with colleagues and community partners in doing transformational work. They would no longer be chasing dollars, but looking to the long-term, envisioning meaningful and ultimately impactful ways to address the entrenched problems that philanthropy has so far failed to solve.
“At the end of the day, our job as a nonprofit is to run ourselves out of business,” she says. A new operating system might finally make that happen.