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#334 – Confessions of an Old[er] White Guy: The Changing Faces of Philanthropy

March 4th, 2019

Richard Marker

Tsk, tsk. No, not that kind of confession. And even if it were, none of those youthful indiscretions would rise to the level of what in normal times should be the basis for appropriate exclusion from the Presidency or Supreme Court. Read on anyway.

In the close to 20 years I have been teaching philanthropists and foundation professionals, it has been rare indeed to find any session with more than a handful of men – of any age, race, ethnic background. And when one removes the principals, I.e., those who made or control the money, from the statistics, the numbers of older white men can probably be counted on one hand.

Over that time, it was never surprising to find a seminar populated only by women, and that is also true when I speak to or attend regional associations and other affinity groups in our field.

There has, though, been a noticeable change over those years: more people of color, or of differing national origins, etc. are visible, so from an optics perspective [both meanings of the term], the philanthropy field seems to reflect diversity – albeit a clear gender majority. It is no exaggeration when I report that I am often the oldest, and often the only, white male in a philanthropy room.

[Admittedly, when I have had occasion to work with foundation boards, the mix of trustees does not typically reflect that diversity, although gender balance does seem to be well on the way to parity.]

I write this as our field attempts to deal with an interlocking and complex reality – both internally and as to our larger societal role. By definition, those of us who are in a position to give money away are privileged. For those who have or control the money, that privilege extends far beyond the foundation or grantmaking space; but even for those whose background and resources may be less advantaged, the very roles we all play put all of us squarely in the privilege space. The challenge is how to properly, ethically, and effectively account for that privilege in our decision making, our empowerment of others, and in our relationship to the larger world, some of whom are grantees. If one reads the emerging literature from many others in the field, it will never be simple as long as one accepts that there is legitimacy to having independent funder entities. [Even if one advocates the elimination of those entities, as some do, it is not automatically obvious how one decentralizes and empowers decision making and resource control.]

A bit of autobiographical context. [if that is not interesting to you, please skip the next part.]

I am old enough that I grew up at a time when everyone was either a WASP or a WASP wannabe. There were Catholic WASPS, Jewish WASPS, Black WASPS, what used to be referred to in those days as “Oriental” WASPS. We all dressed, and often spoke, as if we were prepared to take our place in the Manor, or its representative law firms, clubs, and white shoe investment firms. And even if one didn’t quite make it into those circles, every one of the other firms and clubs acted as if they were of that class.

This was a reflection of a time when America was viewed as a melting pot leading to a desired homogeneity – the unstated ideal of which was upper class-ish, Anglophilic, sameness.

I graduated college in December 65, so my undergraduate experience fit that mold. But the culture changes of the mid-60’s challenged all of those assumptions about how we acted, dressed, and affiliated. Suddenly it was cool to be African American – so much so that lots of white males sported Aftros and spoke in Afro-slang. Liberation movements of all sorts – religious, ethnic, gender, national origin, led to changes of attire and décor. Alternative careers were celebrated, along with alternative life styles. Bras were burned, and jeans replaced 3-piece suits. Suddenly everyone was something other than that dreaded milquetoast WASP.

The halcyon days of everyone being an establishment alternative didn’t last long. Soon there was a palpable competition for whose group had the greatest historic grievance. “My group’s suffering was greater than your group’s suffering….” Anti-establishment morphed into siloed diversities.

It is no exaggeration to say that the USA was never the same. Mostly for the better – ]although some of the reactionary responses at this moment in history, emboldened by unconscionable words and behaviors of this administration, should make us all shudder!]

Laws have changed, Hiring has changed. Our vocabulary has changed. Our social realities have changed. And any further discussion needs to, at minimum, acknowledge those changes – even if nowhere near adequate or complete. Nevertheless, how to actually account for that diversity in the centers of power has been elusive. Tokenism, on the whole, has been the response of choice, and, even today, still is in too many settings.

Many well-meaning folks of privilege tried to compensate for that by developing approaches that, in retrospect, can only be called patronizing. To take but one personal example: When I was working/teaching at Brown University in the 70’s, the school had adopted – for want of a better term – Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Brown is as New England establishment Ivy as there is; Tougaloo is an “historically Black Southern College.” Many faculty, myself included, made symbolic visits to teach short term courses. All of us meant well, but were our efforts little more than patronizing exercises in privileged white folks modeling another life style? 40 years later one looks at things quite differently. [For the record, the Senior Chaplain at Brown, Charles Baldwin, did much more and deserves posthumous credit for it. He helped fundraise, coached top administrators, participated with their board, and exhibited a long-term commitment that rose above the self-critique I am applying to most of the rest of us.]

In any case, these times don’t allow that kind of tokenism or patronizing – certainly not in our world of philanthropy. Many [most?] of our field have progressed from know-it-all exhibition of power to an acknowledgement that we haven’t been as smart as we thought. After all, if we had been, illiteracy, homelessness, hunger, poverty, xenophobia and so much more would have become relics of a long-gone era. We have learned that there are lots of folks who know at least as much as we do, or more, about how to implement the kinds of changes we want to enable with our funding.

Over the years, our field has been trying to figure out the best ways of getting that knowledge into the decision-making rooms early enough to make a difference. Hire field of service expertise? Create slots on grants committees for representatives of the served population? Enable safe spaces for grantees to share feedback and assessment with and about funders?

Should that extend to governance as well? Can any funding entity credibly fund in a community or field of service or an at-risk population if none of those folks are in the rooms of decision-making power?

Notwithstanding the serious and cutting-edge work by several prominent organizations in our field, which I applaud, this is never easy. Empowerment of others is hard enough when there aren’t class or racial or ethnic or gender divides. [Ask almost any businessperson.] It is especially hard when our funding catchment includes many of these populations and there may only be space in the boardroom for a very few. The challenge is: can “privilege” be extended with surrendering it? It is not simply an organizational question: it involves social, economic, and many other divides and for all the “metrics” that we can develop, it will always be challenging.

Which brings me to my “confession.”

I have learned that age-ism is real.

I first experienced it when I was 57 years old and was being aggressively recruited by a search firm to be the next CEO of an organization. I was never interested in the position; it would never have been right for me. But I did know someone who was absolutely perfect for the job and told the head hunter of him. His response: “we know of him, but we are looking for someone younger”. That is an exact quote!!!

I told him that the person I recommended, and I were the same age; why was he pursuing me? His response: “Oh. We thought you were younger.”

While flattering, it was a surprising and pretty direct truth that slipped out. As I have become older, I see that the issue is real. There have been speaking gigs and advisory contracts where the choice went to someone much younger, and of a different gender – and have been told directly that age and gender were the reason. When that starts happening more than a couple of times one sees a pattern. If I once had the privilege of an elite education and background and a record of prestige positions, I was suddenly in a less desirable class.

But, before resenting those experiences, I do have to catch myself. Once upon a time I was the wunderkind and was the “youngest” or “first” to do lots of things and I was able to do so because of the advantages I started with. It would be wrong to resent someone else having that turn.

What I and we must never forget is that far too many have never had access to those positions to lose. My own experiences may enhance my empathy but must never be allowed to blind me to those who look at power, privilege, and position from the outside looking in and can only imagine what it is like. As philanthropists, we need to find ever more ways to open the doors and not just the drapes.

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