Focus and Hope

03/22/2017 10:16 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2017

In recent weeks I’ve heard how foundations across the country are responding to policy changes enacted by the Trump administration. In fact, when a group of GEO members comes together right now, the conversation quickly turns how those decisions are affecting communities and grantees. Emotions are running high — grantmakers are talking about the waves of fear crashing through immigrant communities, the resurgence of antisemitism and other acts of hate based on religious beliefs and skin color, transgender kids feeling even more at risk and under threat, the peril to millions of people as their health care becomes more at risk. To many, it feels as if the most vulnerable among us are under attack.

One foundation leader says that this situation makes her feel like she is playing “whac-a-mole”. Sadly these threats are not as easily dispatched as the furry little creatures in the game. It’s hard to predict from where the next threat will appear. And it raises the question of how grantmakers can remain thoughtful and steadfast when our attention is repeatedly diverted to the next crisis.

Focus on What Matters Most. Philanthropy’s independence has never been more important than right now, but even more powerful than that may be our ability to focus on our own North Star. As the Liam Neeson character says in Star Wars: Episode I, “Always remember, your focus determines your reality.” Oftentimes in our lives and in our foundations, it is our lack of focus that determines our reality. But in moments such as this one, that just won’t do.

Instead, if we haven’t already, we must consider what is core. What does our organization care about the most? What values are we willing to defend no matter the cost? When this is clear, complex decisions become much easier. Public statements, internal policy adjustments and grants decisions that previously would have felt radical — when looked at through the lens of what matters most — emerge as the only and best way forward. This is not the moment to maintain distance and dispassion. This is a moment to focus, to set aside reputational risks, fear of reprisal or other concerns, and to stand firmly to protect what matters most to you.

Now is the opportunity for foundations to gain a clarity that has the potential to spark progress that will serve both philanthropy and the organizations that we support well into the future.

Work in new ways. In her recent piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Pamela David, executive director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, makes the compelling point that philanthropy must change in response to the external context in which we now find ourselves. She talks about focusing on what is feasible in the current climate, prioritizing general operating support, investing in nonprofit and community leadership and developing rapid response funds. Wise suggestions for these times.

Foundations are often considered risk-averse, however it might be time for that tendency to shift. Speakers at a recent Weingart Foundation gathering on equity made the paired observations that philanthropy should use its freedom from accountability to take risks and that of the point of having a strong reputation is to be able to leverage it to in service of things you care about. Both sentiments reinforce the need to work in new ways.

I’ve also been heartened by early examples of advocates, activists and grantmakers breaking through traditional silos to work in a more intersectional way. Clearly the philanthropic community is being led on this front by our grantees. Muslim groups are cleaning up vandalized Jewish cemeteries. Churches are raising money to rebuild mosques that have been burned. Many are beginning to act on the realization that we can protect multiple communities and agendas simultaneously. As Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink put it on a recent webinar, “Black Muslim Lives Matter”. Foundations can support this intersectional work by reconsidering their own program areas and boundaries to look more holistically at the challenges communities face and support the often boundary-spanning solutions that are required to make progress.

Cultivate Empathy. In the Washington Post, Representative Roger Marshall (R-KS) recently asserted that poor people “just don’t want health care and just aren’t going to take care of themselves.” My first reaction was to yell an expletive at my phone. But after a few calming breaths, I recognized that his response lacks any kind of analysis for the behaviors he must have observed from some of his low income patients when he was a practicing physician. An alternate interpretation is that some of the policies and practices in the health care system unintentionally exclude or discriminate against low income people, making it either difficult or undesirable to access. Cultivating understanding and empathy allows for a deeper understanding to emerge. Marshall’s comment plays into a well-established (false) narrative that poor people are somehow undeserving. Some in philanthropy also carry false narratives about who is and who isn’t deserving of grant support, narratives that can prevent nonprofits led by people of color from getting grants.

Empathy is a muscle that we as a society must build and on which nonprofits and foundations can lead the way. It is true that there may not be much hope that certain public figures will develop empathy, but it is completely certain that when we think about discovering and rebuilding common ground as a nation, empathy will play an important role. One of the best ways foundations can cultivate empathy is to attempt to get closer to community, for instance by hiring staff and recruiting board members with nonprofit experience as well as those who represent the communities the foundation serves.

Invest in Infrastructure. In a policy environment as unpredictable as the current one, it’s important to have savvy organizations like National Council of Nonprofits, state associations of nonprofits, Independent Sector and others paying attention to legislative and policy threats and opportunities as they arise. Groups like these are only possible when foundations decide it is part of their responsibility to tend to the commons and support their work. Such a case was recently made by a group of nonprofit leaders and the current climate makes this point even more clear.

The story of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees is a great illustration of the importance of a strong infrastructure for our sector, particularly in turbulent times. I’ve recently spent more time with Daranee Petsod, the group’s intrepid president. She is simultaneously keeping her network of grantmakers briefed on the latest executive orders from the administration that threaten her organization’s very mission, while also responding to a deluge of funders who are now more interested in supporting immigrant causes.

Daranee and I belong to the newly re-imagined Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, a network of philanthropy-serving organizations. Through this network I’ve learned that regional associations and national groups across the country are forming rapid response groups, convening interested funders and exploring the deepest questions of what it takes to ensure a functioning democracy. It’s not only these individual actions that give me hope, but also the coordination and collaboration that’s emerging across this burgeoning network of which we are all now a part.

Find our voices and back what we say with action. Just as leaders of most of Silicon Valley’s major tech companies came together in public opposition of the travel ban, philanthropic leaders have the opportunity to make powerful statements — and be heard — when actions taken by the Trump Administration run counter to our core values and hurt our collective work. Many are doing that this week as part of Foundations on the Hill where grantmakers will emphasize the point that philanthropy cannot fill the gap left by the current budget, which proposes to severely curtail the social safety net.

There’s an appetite for lifting up philanthropic voices individually and to support collective action. Several standouts have already emerged — Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of the Heinz Endowments, is making great use of his early career expertise as a press secretary and speech writer for Senator Heinz to construct several insightful blog posts exploring voice and foreshadowing how he intends to use his. I mentioned Pamela David’s piece previously — a great example of leadership and voice. Judy Belk, president and CEO of California Wellness Foundation, uses her Twitter presence to frame information, challenge orthodoxy and share data pertinent to advancing the health and health care of the people of California. The challenge — and the expectation from many nonprofits — is for philanthropy to both speak and to act in support of the values and issues we hold most dear.

We have a choice to make. We can succumb to the swirling and diverting streams of information that wash over us with every passing week. Or we can use this moment as a call to action, first to crystalize our values and determine what matters most to our institutions. And then to act in support of those values in new, bold and creative ways.

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