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#359 – Talking about “Equity” is Easy; Sharing Power is Hard

November 26th, 2019

Richard Marker

It is hard to imagine that anyone in the philanthropy field has not participated in, read about, or been engaged with questions of “equity”. In fact, one would have to be willfully distracted to not be aware of its prevalence over the last couple of years.

Since so much has been written, said, published, and sometimes even implemented, I will take for granted that any reader of this piece does not need a primer. Our genuine concern with underlying systemic issues combined with legitimate concerns with the overt disparity of wealth distribution means that our field has both a mandate and a challenge at the same time. And to the credit of our sector, the discourse has been informed, caring, and purposeful even when there is a wide range of thinking about what all of this means – for us and for public policy.

It is in this context that I would like to comment on a program I attended recently which explicitly was marketed as a “conversation about racial equity.” [Since I don’t have permission of the organization or the speakers to publicly identify them, I will respect anonymity and trust that only a very few readers will know to whom I am referring.]

While advertised as a conversation among trustees, truth be told it was really a series of presentations. That may seem a nitpick but it does mean that I cannot say whether my responses are representative of other funders in the room or not. There is no question that the personal stories of how the presenters, persons of privilege, learned of the depth and reality of racial injustice and inequity were moving and convincing. This sensitivity has clearly influenced their philanthropic giving priorities and even the ethos of the organizations and foundations they head. One can and should applaud their honesty, sincerity, and commitments.

And yet… I kept thinking about the bottom line of how this all plays out. There was only time for one question, and the one question, by a very prominent woman of color [a relevant datum in this context], was the same one I kept thinking about – governance. Who is on the board? Who makes the decisions? What are the implications for family funders who are the source of the money and who have legal control of the money?

As one who has participated in my share of equity related discussions and has observed many more, I was struck by the absence of any reference to some of the mantras that inform our thinking: even if they didn’t use the term “participatory grantmaking” or quote the catch-phrase “nothing about us without us”, I would have welcomed something more than that they were personally awakened, their grantmaking priorities had changed, and even their staffing was more reflective of a racial balance. These things matter and I am not dismissing them.

But in response to the question about governance, the principals on the panel were unequivocal. One said “it is my money and…” Another said, “it is our family foundation and only family can sit on the board.”

This is not a criticism of those forthright and honest answers, but I would have liked a response that showed that they understood the complexity of those answers. Power and privilege are very real. It is naïve to think that there are easy ways to share them or even when or if one should surrender them, but those of us who have that power and privilege need to at least demonstrate that we understand what that means.

The absence of these sensitivities was particularly striking at this event. These are people who really care – in very personal ways, in philanthropic ways, in behavioral ways. They all demonstrated that they knew the difference between tokenism and enfranchisement. They all set a personal standard to which most in the philanthropy field should still aspire. They really do want change and want to model it as well as they know how.

I myself struggle with the line between enfranchisement and empowerment. I don’t know if and when we have a moral and ethical and historic obligation to cede at least some power in the board room, and if so, how far that should go. Especially for family funders, it is a genuine dilemma for which I can’t propose a facile solution.

But, acknowledging that, I still would have liked to see more self-awareness of the governance control dilemma from these thoughtful, caring, and committed funders. If it is that hard even for them to talk about, it is clear how far we have to go, as a field and as a nation, to really redress the deep-seated racial and social inequities that are so endemic to American society.

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