Privilege is a blind spot that we need to recognize and confront to do philanthropy well

08/11/2016 10:20 am ET

We all have blind spots. Our blind spots may cause us to change lanes when it isn’t safe to do so or ignore a pattern of negative behavior from a loved one that is obvious to others. Regardless, blind spots impair our judgment in meaningful ways. For many in philanthropy, privilege is a blind spot.

“Privilege” often refers to wealth, but other aspects of privilege might be a bit harder to identify and therefore harder to address—like being socially advantaged merely based on your gender, the country of birth, sexual orientation or the color of your skin.

By their nature, donors are people of economic privilege (though some did not grow up in those conditions). Many of us with careers in philanthropy also come from various forms of privilege or at least experience it now.  Yet for centuries, privileged people have engaged in philanthropy that is, at times, less than effective. It’s clear that — in order to do philanthropy well — we must recognize and confront privilege.

First a bit of self-disclosure. I grew up in privilege. Not the car on your 16th birthday, ski chalet in Vail kind of privilege, but I had everything I needed (and many things I wanted) growing up and my parents paid for my undergraduate degree at a state university as well as the college educations of my three siblings. I have a job that pays well (and that I love), I’m able-bodied, white and heterosexual. My privilege has enabled me to get out of traffic tickets, to be above suspicion at stores even when I put items in my purse before I pay for them, and to access internships and job opportunities that sped the pace of my career advancement.

Privilege can be a barrier to good philanthropy in a number of ways. It often shows up as attempts to do for instead of with those most affected. Minnesota state Representative Peggy Flanagan who recently spoke at GEO’s national conference talks about building power with not over. It shows up as a lack of understanding — one that often borders on suspicion — as to why it is so hard to break the cycle of poverty. It can show up as exacting standards around evidence and evaluation that often mask a lack of understanding about the type of work required for social change. Unconfronted, privilege can prevent us from feeling true empathy for the people and communities we hope to serve.

Importantly, privilege comes into play not only in how we operate in our roles, but also in the ways in which we analyze and address the challenges in our communities. Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk note in their article Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege: A Missing Link to Advancing Racial Equity that, “The racial disparities driven and maintained by public- and private-sector policies that many foundations seek to address not only disadvantage communities of color but also over advantage whites. But processes aimed at racial equity can overlook the privileged side of inequity.” Privilege means that we’ve benefited from policies that were designed in a way that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, disadvantage others.

When I think about philanthropy leaders who model the best ways to be in this work, they operate from a place of humility, gratitude and service, not privilege. Many of these foundations leaders have not always experienced the privilege that is clearly inherent in their current roles. Which leads me to wonder: What would change if philanthropy broadly prioritized hiring people whose life experiences provide them with fewer blind spots and with the hard won, gut level empathy that comes from a lack of privilege?

Leaders like Starsky Wilson, president of Deaconess Foundation and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, who grew up poor and personally affected by gun violence. As he thinks about how to move the community forward after Ferguson, he hopes more people of privilege will ask those in the community: How may I serve you?

And Judy Belk, president and CEO of the California Wellness Foundation who has written about growing up in a black neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia that didn’t have running water because of prejudicial policies about how service extensions were determined.

And Peter Long, president and CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation, who grew up in rural Maryland in a family that no one would characterize as economically privileged, though Peter fully grasps that a person can be privileged in some ways and not in others: He often notes how he has benefited from the privileges that being white and male certainly afford.

And Darren Walker, president and CEO of the Ford Foundation, who also grew up in poverty and exposed to violence, is using his current position to attempt to dismantle the role of privilege in career advancement starting with the way interns are selected and paid.    

These are leaders who practice philanthropy not from above or apart, but from within and often behind those they intend to serve.

My father helped me recognize my privilege at an early age. His family was nearly destitute during his childhood. My grandfather, an Irish immigrant who worked as a grave digger, became too sick to work and ultimately died when my dad was young. So my dad’s family lived with relatives and scraped by. As I was joining the soccer team or going to theater camp, my dad never forgot to remind me of how lucky I was. I didn’t appreciate it then, but I certainly do now.

And still, I have blind spots based on my own privilege. I hope that those who work closely with me will help me continue to spot and neutralize those blind spots so that I can be most effective in my role. We will never defuse the role of privilege, however many with careers in philanthropy could benefit from being actively introspective about the role privilege plays in shaping our world views and the barriers it presents to our ability to be truly empathic. Then we can use our privilege to promote equity. Because when people in philanthropy confront privilege, those in our communities will be better served.

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