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#326 – Aligning Our Funding Strategy with Our Words and Intentions: The Case of “Equity”

January 7th, 2019

Richard Marker

This post is the first of a series on “Alignment” as funders – aligning our values, our staffing, our funding, and our intentions. Clients and those who have participated in our educational offerings are well aware of this thinking, but I have not previously published these practica. Please see #328 and #330 as the next installments.

The series focuses on three necessary preconditions for the successful implementation of a funding strategy. It assumes that readers already have chosen what kind of structure in which they are making these decisions – e.g., a private foundation or a DAF or an LLC, et al. For those readers who are still deciding among those options or when to use which, please feel to be in touch directly since those choices are beyond the scope of this series.

A quarter century ago, I realized that the classic strategy process I was taught, and the one still widely used, had real limitations. It called for developing and articulating an organization’s Mission and Vision as the first step in the process. Mission and vision are fine, but why was it, I wondered, that so many of the very same disagreements and misunderstandings that existed prior to developing a mission presented themselves in the decision-making board room only hours after that Mission statement was so carefully crafted?

The insight I had then, one now widely understood and used in the field and recently much disseminated by groups such as GEO and CEP, was that culture trumps strategy. So, the challenge, I felt, was to get deeply into the underlying cultural assumptions of everyone in the room PRIOR to the decision-making process. Surfacing those cultural assumptions had the power of legitimating differing inclinations regarding philanthropic behaviors. [Mission Statements still have an important place in the strategy process, just at a different stage.]

Over the years, as 100’s of foundation clients and those who have taken workshops with me can attest, I have added levels of sophistication about how to get at those assumptions and to lead directly into the next level of decisions that every funder at every level needs to address. Over those same years, additionally, I have formulated the subsequent elements: how to align all of the pieces of strategy – culture, values, focus, capacity, and style to develop an effective implementation. That requires careful alignment of all of the factors that inform those decisions. It is this alignment that makes it all work

As a way to understand this approach, this first piece in the series will address a very contemporary challenge to all of us as funders. While not new, it has never been so crucial as now, nor ever as present in our public discourse – the role of equity in our grantmaking.

To understand this, we need to decide what we fund, how we fund, and who makes the decisions that funding – in this case, about equity.

1. The “what we fund” question seems the easiest – on the surface. After all, social justice, correcting the systemic and endemic inequities that have defined our society for generations, seems to be a no-brainer. There are differing approaches about who should have what role in redressing these ills, but only the myopic or misanthropic deny it is an issue.

a. Compassion: The challenge for most of us is where along the continuum of needs we should use our resources. Compassion may inspire many to provide food, clothing, housing, and other services that provide immediate relief. Indeed, it is typically the first stop along the funding continuum. We see results for a visible problem. Those results may not be lasting, and they are certainly not systemic, but they work – and after all, the food, clothing, or housing is needed now.

For those who desire hands-on involvement, support for their local community or neighborhood, or who want the very legitimate gratification knowing that there is a positive result of one’s personal altruism, this may be a perfect alignment of values and funding.

b. Strategic: It doesn’t take long, for many, to realize that one cannot efficiently or effectively give every homeless person some food or money, so if those categories matter, compassion funding has genuine limitations. Many look for better strategies to leverage their compassion – to feed more people, to house more people, to clothe more people. When we ask the questions of effectiveness and efficiency [and they are NOT synonyms], it leads us to look for organizations that provide those direct services in better ways than we can do ourselves. Our motivations, to make a difference that goes beyond our own individual funding capacity, leads us to examine alternative methods and organizations. This process requires that we need and use additional skills and approaches to make our decisions and lead us to consider a variety of competing claims. For those willing to defer the immediate gratification of direct funding for the satisfaction of a broader and more comprehensive reach to address these same human problems, and willing to put more time and energy into making hard decisions, strategic funding is an important approach.

c. Systemic: Strategic approaches have the advantage of helping make good choices among competing organizations. Not every organization is equally adept at delivering services and not every organization does so in a way consistent with the approach of a given funder. But, for many, even strategic funding is insufficient. For systemic thinkers, the question is not which organization provides food or clothing or housing most effectively, but rather how to eliminate the need for those services at all.

Once one begins to approach questions of equity systemically, it becomes evident that most issues require a multi-sector approach and are not simply a matter of choosing between the best available option. If someone is homeless, it reflects a confluence of failures. A solution also requires a convergence of interventions. No single entity, indeed, no single sector, can deal with the large issues of homelessness, food insecurity, long term economic disparity, education, and, of course, poverty. Each requires public policy responses, private sector investments, social service expertise, and community development organizations – in addition to private philanthropy.

Aligning these efforts is no small task – failures far outnumber successes. Funders need patience, mediating skills, advocacy, a willingness to surrender some autonomy, and a tolerance for failure. A full self-awareness of the elasticity and parameters of one’s funding culture and style are preconditions. If these larger systemic challenges align with your comfort level, it opens up the possibility of addressing and perhaps making a permanent dent in society’s more resistant challenges. If, though, you don’t bring those attributes to the table, it is likely that this kind of funding will prove frustrating and unsatisfying. Alignment matters.

All three of these funding approaches legitimately count as equity funding but not all will work for every funder. Thus “alignment.”

2. How we fund is about the methods we use to get the information we need and then how we make our choices. After all, any subject as big as “equity” has many players, and at many levels, and there are very legitimate competing claims for our resources..

[There is no end to information we can gather about potential grantees, but much of it is not useful, or won’t really be used to make a decision. If you would like further advice about how to understand and effectively utilize the kinds of information that can inform our choices, please be in touch directly. That is beyond the scope of this series.]

Depending on how open or controlling we wish to be in our grantmaking, how competitive or funder pre-determined our method, will help lead to our approach for getting proposals in our docket. As we will see in #330, much of this directly relates to our preferences or choices about staffing, but it also reflects different preferences about how we wish to spend our time, how open we are to innovation, how committed we may be to certain organizations, and what relationship we wish to have with grantees.

There is no single correct/right way to do this, and indeed many funders use multiple approaches. What is clear, though, is that if we are never open to new ideas or explorations from organizations we have never funded, our own knowledge can easily become stale. And since equity has historically been so elusive to achieve, it would be quite shortsighted to presume that our past approaches are sufficient or our knowledge complete.

The implications for equity funding are very real. Those who are committed to established organizations are more typically [not always] more risk averse, and more likely to want to establish or maintain direct involvement with a limited number of organizations. Their confidence in those organizations makes it more likely that core support will be provided, or that new projects will be developed collaboratively. They are more likely to use evidence-based criteria, and it is likely that any projects they fund will succeed albeit in a strategic and not systemic way.

Except for the deepest pocketed funders, this also, typically, leads to organization that are either geographically or ideologically very close to the funders. Very very few funders have the in-house expertise to determine organizational effectiveness all over the place. Similar to the above, it leads to a likelihood to provide operating grants or core support and to be committed to the strength of the organization as a necessary precondition to reducing inequity in the field in which that organization works.

However, as we have stated above, we also know that there are problems that can only be addressed systemically, at scale, and with equal parts guts and patience. Funders open to partnerships and collaborations, willing to take big risks, and accept uncertainty are more likely to fund this way – and therefore will customarily choose to use a more varied process for obtaining potential grantees and projects. If one wants to get at the underlying causes of poverty or the seemingly ineradicable racism in American society, equity issues if there ever were any, we will likely broaden the sources of information, expand the scope of the thinking, and look for intersector opportunities before proceeding. This will usually demand a much longer time frame for decision making and be much more committed to using a not yet proven theory of change.

The alignment issue is quite clear in these examples. At different stages along the way, a funder is in or out, has comfort or doesn’t, considers the challenge within their scope of focus or not. What matters is being sufficiently self-aware to make the choices that will work best.

3. Who makes the decision: For those who have been on the funder side of the table for more than a while, this may seem to be a strange question. After all, one of the hallmarks of private philanthropy is the autonomy it allows. All sorts of people might be invited to have opinions or share their expertise, but the decision about who makes the decision where to give the money is [was] clear – and not terribly negotiable.

The “equity” question, though, forces a different reckoning – and it is here where debate is rampant in our field. And for good reason. Philanthropists and foundations are reflective of the haves. There is an implicitly patronizing element to our work – no matter how genuine and beneficent our affect and intentions. We traditionally give TO those who need it – or, more accurately, to organizations who know who needs it. How often are our recipients in the room, in any of our decision-making rooms?

If one wishes to reduce the divide and responsibly work toward social justice, it means, many now say, that funders need to take seriously the new mantra “nothing about us without us.” They would argue that the real change that must take place is not that money needs to be allocated with care, but who actually makes the decision.. This equity argument has both a practical side [“who knows better than we…”] and a justice side [“who are you to decide what is best for me…”].

Even if one fully endorses that empowerment should be a given, it is far from a given where in the continuum of decision-making that empowerment ends. The arguments range from full surrendering/delegation of decision-making to the impacted stakeholders to making sure that they have seats at various tables along the way.

From a philanthropy perspective, it is far from easy. Succession and surrendering control have proven hard enough when the successors are family. To go so far as to say that the only true social justice philanthropy is surrendering decision making to what had previously been the “recipient class” is a profound and radical leap.

Yet if one is committed to addressing systemic inequities, and eradicating destructive class and financial divides, it is a discussion that one must have.

Alignment in #1 and #2 above are making sure that our way of being funders works best – for us. #3 reminds us that none of our decisions is made in a vacuum. Each has implications not only for how we do our work, but what our values and funding stand for. That is never easy…but always important.

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