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#337 Localism need not be Isolationism: A Mandate for Philanthropy

May 26th, 2019

Richard Marker

I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t observed it on a number of recent occasions in philanthropy settings. [As readers know, I try to write these pieces so that individual funders or foundations are not easily identified, so the examples below will be, purposely, devoid of identifiable specifics. But they are real.]

In our field there has been a very healthy discussion about the best ways to use our voluntary resources, including our philanthropic dollars and leadership roles. That is always appropriate, never more so than in this misanthropic political era. None of us want those precious resources to be wasted, and most of us recognize that there are persistent systemic issues that beg our attention.

Many funders, either for reasons of habit or because they have carefully determined that it is the best for them, focus all or most of their resources locally. Place-based philanthropy is surely as old as any philanthropy, and most of us can see needs right in front of us if we choose to look. However, rarely does that local funding rise to the level of systemic solutions.

If one reads much of the current literature, one may feel that such local funding is inadequate or ill spent or simply irrelevant. It isn’t. For even if we were to determine that we know exactly how to solve huge systemic issues such as education, health care, poverty, climate change, etc., the only way that happens is if there is an on-the-ground component. People need to be healthy, not just the health care system. Children need to learn, not just school systems. People need to practice good environmental practices, not just through the EPA [when it is allowed to do its job!] That all happens to real people in real places, all of whom are, by definition, somewhere- that is local.

Let me be clear and reiterate what most of you know: I am a big believer that social and systemic change requires advocacy, big picture thinking, and a commitment to equity. Classic philanthropic giving alone won’t cut it. But I also know that it can only work through implementation, on the ground, locally.

However, what I recently discovered, to my surprise, is that many funders, yes, even some well-staffed foundations, still don’t see the relationship of their local funding to a bigger picture. They have decided to fund locally and act as if that place is a closed, self-contained system.

For one example, I recently was present when a group of funders were reviewing their reaction to a very genuine local disaster/crisis. Their compassion and generosity were beyond reproach. They did good things, their thinking was right on, and they developed some short-term very effective responses. What surprised me, though, was that they had gone through the entire process, and were about to extrapolate long term implications, without anyone in the room having heard of an organization that has already developed best practices through many disasters and has examples directly applicable to the community in question. It wasn’t my imagination, because when I mentioned that organization, everyone in the room confirmed that they hadn’t heard of it.

It was a classic example where localism had, unnecessarily, led to isolationism. It might be disappointing if a single funder had acted and thought that way, under the assumption that no one knows and understands their “place” as well as they do. But when a group of funders and foundations, some of whom were quite sizeable and staffed, acted that way, it troubled me.

Another example of this is the tendency of some affinity-defined groups to see themselves as unique. “Our… [choose one: religion, ethnicity, political history, race, gender, …] is not like others and, just as others cannot understand us, so too we need not learn from others.” I have previously written about the “with us or agin’ us” tendency of intersectionality, but here I am speaking about the tendency of some funders within these groups to mirror an isolationist tendency in their funding decisions. Why learn from or collaborate with others if we don’t feel that they can understand our uniqueness.

Lest anyone misconstrue what I am trying to say, I want to categorically affirm that there are distinct challenges to every affinity-defined group and there are indeed legitimate special interests and concerns that should be factored into all sorts of areas, including funding. At the same time, there are generic issues of decision-making and ethics and equity and systems- change that transcend those distinctions. It is not, and should not be, one or the other; understanding both the distinctive and universal at the same time is absolutely crucial.

One of the reasons I began to be an educator of funders in 2000 was my impatience with the field’s mantra at the time: “You’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation” – usually stated with a self-satisfied chuckle. One doesn’t hear that very often anymore because the world has changed: There are more affinity groups. There are more on-line resources. There have been more articles in the mainstream media about our field. And there are more educational opportunities. Even those who may choose to fund locally or idiosyncratically are fully aware that there is a field, there are substantive things to know. [I am not so naïve to think that everyone joins those groups or takes those courses, only that working in isolation is now a choice, not a default.]

There is, as well, an implicit and important mandate for local or place-based or affinity-defined funders to take the larger picture seriously. Just as it is impossible to actualize systemic change in the abstract, so too it is impossible for those funders committed to systemic change to make good funding decisions if they don’t fully see how those decisions work- or don’t. Place based funders hold vital insights and actionable data that needs to feed into the policy and systems conversations. Some few situations may very well prove to be too idiosyncratic to be useful, but most local funding situations are reflective of larger challenges. How local funders answer those questions of learnings, provide information on what worked and didn’t, and participate in a dynamic dialectic on those issues can make the difference between moving toward real change vs another “big bet” gone sour.

In other words, funder isolation is counterproductive in both directions; place-based and affinity-defined funders can – and many do – learn from emerging practices and systems thinking; and big picture funders can – and many do – learn from those on the ground.

Place-based and affinity-defined funding will always have a place. Systems funders do as well. Neither should work in isolation even if they choose to fund only within their sphere of commitment.

Good philanthropy requires no less.

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