A year-end message to my friends in philanthropy:
Where do we find the truth? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between these two narratives of philanthropy? Perhaps it is time for me and for us to reflect on the critique levelled against us in a more thoughtful and more deliberate way if we wish to move forward in 2016. Perhaps we need to also engage with those other tricky “P” words called Power, Partnership and Patronizing…
So, as I attend another wonderful end of year celebration, I need to ask myself some hard questions and perhaps have a heart-to-heart with all of you as well.
At a time when social change is at its messiest; where the words ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ have become tenuous, selectively used phrases devoid of meaning – where does that put those of us working in the social justice philanthropy space or the “do-good” space? We all know that the course of justice does not flow in the straight lines of outputs, outcomes and indicators of success. It deviates course, runs amok, causes chaos. It’s the stuff of life and death, violations and remedies, where inequality and justice collide in an ugly way when we fight for democracy. It’s unpredictable. It does not happen over a one year cycle or two year cycle but over a long period of time. Yet we persist in asking for neat little boxes, with neat little outcomes and indicators, so that we can tick the box that says we did 10 workshops and now everyone is “free from domestic violence” – thanks to the good, old intervention from civil society and philanthropy! And then we all pat each other on the back and comment on how well we all do our work, maybe we even give a few awards to each other… as we praise our very own efforts.
I wonder if we can break through this cycle of log-frames, outputs and results that constrain and suffocate us internally in our philanthropic institutions. How does it permeate externally when we interact with the world? How does all that power infiltrate our social justice mission and corrupt it?
“P” is for Patience and Power
Patience is something I have had to learn about, slowly and painfully. There are no quick fix solutions to social justice problems. And in the global south we have seen the devastation of structural adjustment programs and foreign aid, donor driven agendas and unintended harm. So how does one navigate a path of social change that is unpredictable – that refuses to be log-framed, but also desperately needs funds and support? What is the appropriate role of philanthropy? And more importantly, what is inappropriate for private philanthropy in a context of impact investing and making every dollar count? How patient should we be? When do we cut the cord and when do we keep breathing life into a half dead horse? How do we decide these issues? Is it in the gut? Or is it in the art of what we do and in our complicated organizational diagnostic tools? More importantly, I remain concerned about how we ‘check’ our own power and keep it in check as private philanthropy?
We, private Foundations and individuals working within, sometimes believe we have amazing power to change the world. And let’s not be naïve about this, private Foundations and donors do wield enormous power in a game where the power differential between the group seeking funding and the donor giving funding is as huge as between state and civil society. But we need to place this power in its relative context. Yes, we do have power that comes with financial resources but money does not equal social change, the size of the Office for Southern Africa’s budget does not equal the extent of our contribution to social justice causes.
What happens in the corridors of the Ford Foundation in any of our 10 field offices or in HQ is important but it is not determinative of social justice. Social justice happens on the ground – far away from the offices of the foundation and far away from other offices of private foundations and bilateral agencies, no-matter how close to the ground we claim to be.
The rich, like Mark Zuckerburg and his wife, and those who work in philanthropy have a role to play but that role is as a supporting act… we are not and should never be the main attraction – we are but mere catalysts for change, offering resources so that others may thrive and develop their own solutions to their own well defined and articulated problems. As catalysts who take ourselves way too seriously we spend too much time talking to ourselves and to others about social justice and way too little time listening to others tell us what they think of social justice and whether or not it even resonates. I have often heard the leaders of institutions, such as Ford Foundation, speak of how we have changed the course of history and how we have done social justice and it perturbs me – we do not do anything, it is our partners that do the work, we only facilitate that work by giving them resources.
More and more philanthropies have endeavored to hire social justice activists from the ranks of civil society organizations to work in philanthropic institutions. We are meant to know more, understand the sector, relate to the sector and we espouse the principles of justice and “do no harm.”
But do we really? How many of us bring our turf battles, territorial issues, egos and baggage along with us to the new foundation offices we inhabit? And do we do harm as a result? Yes, we do. Our stature tends to over-shadow us and our public critique of each other has added a soap-opera scandalous flavor to the local and international philanthropy space in South Africa.
So, as I bid 2015 good-bye and grapple with power and philanthropy in my life, here are some lessons that I hope we can all live by in 2016…. especially me.
Lesson number one: “Shut up and Listen!”
To borrow from what Ernesto Sirolli so eloquently says in his TedTalk on the dangers of donor aid in Africa. May we bite down hard on our tongues and learn to listen to what civil society is saying to us before we start sharing what we would like them to do to solve the problems we have identified from our ivory towers. It’s been more than eight years since I got my hands dirty doing work within a funded human rights NGO – so do I really know what’s best for that large international human rights group in terms of the change they want to see or should I take some time out to listen more and talk less?
Lesson number two: Speak Truth to Power
When we do speak up we need to be speaking truth to power infusing values of social justice, humility and integrity in everything we do. We cannot let hierarchy, headquarters and titles get in our way. Some wise person said that the art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes and to agree with everything your bosses say – it is much harder to say no and to be the only person (of a certain gender, race and geographic location) saying “no” in a room full of templates and outcomes.
Lesson number three: Culture eats strategy for breakfast!
They say it takes years to change culture in a single organization, so I wonder how long it will take for us to change the culture of philanthropy so that philanthropic endeavors are infused with respect, dignity and truth-telling as opposed to self-congratulatory, back-slapping, egos, competition and power. Can we all try (including me) to act decisively, with integrity and transparency and not based on whom we like or dislike – will be a true test of our time. Are you funding those who think, speak and sound like you or are you supporting diversity of voice and thought leadership? The biggest test for us is to boldly support the work of those we may disagree with or whom we do not understand – for therein lies chaos and innovation. They say an excellent leader is one who knows where she has a role to play and grapples with her own inherent bias and baggage. So as I pack my bags for summer vacation I need to think of where and how I carry my baggage as a global south black women’s rights activist!
Lesson number four:
Free at last, Free at last!
When I was a recipient of grant funds from private philanthropy the one thing I appreciated most was when I could fly and be supported in a way that the NGO I worked at really needed to fly at that particular moment – when a funder trusted that we knew what we were doing, even when we didn’t know what we were doing! When we were allowed to make mistakes and when the proverbial poo hit the fan we were not abandoned or dumped for the next big thing. So are we unlocking people’s potential with our enthusiasm for social justice? Are we espousing the principles of leadership that take people on a journey with us when they are frightened, unwilling or afraid? Are we setting NGOs free or shackling them to us in a complex web of dependence?
Lesson number five:
If I were ever asked to write a book for new Program staff or new leaders of philanthropic institutions, I would emphasize this one thing: never forget what this work is about and who it is about. It is not about you and how you may feel, it is not your money, it is not our money and we are not God wielding power over a sector in desperate need of funds. We must build partnerships with humility and respect for the cause of social justice and not our egos. We must call each other out when we start to slide down a slippery slope of self-congratulatory backslapping.
So I guess my final message is a simple one: if you love something, set it free…and if philanthropy is the love of humanity then we should be striving to set civil society free from the throes of abusive philanthropic relationships and perhaps even free ourselves and our imaginations.
We need to keep reminding ourselves what it is like to be on the other side of the table: principles of dignity, respect and equality should permeate all we do, not only our theories of change and grant making strategies, but our interactions with the world around us, our fellow philanthropic institutions, and even those large global human rights institutions, whom we do not always agree with… As we all try to valiantly contribute to solidifying democracy in times of uncertainty, where the battles are ugly, sometimes dirty and the victories are slow and hard to come by – we must be vigilant in our effort to partner, in a non-patronizing way. The new era we find ourselves in where donors are accused of funding regime change, where the challenges in the US and around the globe run parallel to and intersect and collide with South African challenges – in times like these, we need to all act in partnership with each other minus the turf and the drama.
Let’s build bridges before we burn them down, build partnerships beyond our “friends” or the traditional sector and navigate the complexity of working with philanthropy and within philanthropy. Let’s find partnerships within diverse sectors, across philanthropic divides and without shying away from speaking truth to power and holding those in power accountable. And last but not least to my friends in philanthropy – let’s talk less and listen more… Break through the noise and remember we do not have all the answers – may we all be humbled in our ignorance and unforgiving in our quest for new knowledge and just maybe we can actually start inspiring the sector to dream more, learn more, do more and become more in 2016.
If we manage that we will really express our love for humanity and reclaim the P word. DM
In other news...
July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.
In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."
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