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By Jennifer Langton
During our “pause for the cause,” AMKRF has entered a time of organizational reflection and analysis building. As a part of our work, we are sharing reflections about what we have learned in the process of building relationships with one another and analyzing power, white supremacy, oppression, alongside liberation.
The qualities of being TRANSPARENT: “visibility or accessibility, free from pretense or deceit, easily detected or seen through, readily understood…” –Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Before I worked on the giving side of philanthropy, I was on the asking side, overseeing grants to encourage nation-wide green building for Habitat for Humanity International (Habitat). Habitat’s strong reputation drew grants, but I found that grant guidelines were often unclear, and I saw that grantmakers tended to favor those they knew, sometimes giving them preference over practical, evidence-based proposals.
After I joined the giving side of philanthropy as a staff person at the Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Fund, I started slowly incorporating many best practices into our work, thanks to resources from such organizations as Grant Craft, Exponent Philanthropy, and National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. And, hearing grassroots leaders speak on panels at philanthropic conferences, such as Funding Forward, helped infuse into our grantmaking process a strong desire to support the sensibility, intelligence, passion and impressive results of on-the-ground and under-resourced movement leaders that abound in the social justice field.
But our privilege puts us in the position of too easily increasing the burden on grantees rather than removing it. Our class privilege in particular, combined with aspects of white supremacy, makes it easy to demand more of grantees and less of ourselves–the opposite of our objective. Sociologist Lynn Weber’s book Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework (Oxford University Press) was immensely helpful–and I recommend it enthusiastically to everyone–for a critical analysis on how these four forces locate us socially, and impact our responses in society.
As philanthropists committed to social justice, AMKRF has have provided general operating grants to sustain ongoing, difficult but foundational social justice work that sometimes seems less exciting to grantmakers, and multi-year grants that allow recipients to focus more on their top priorities and less on finding grantmakers, writing proposals, and reporting on their efforts. We have leveraged our more privilege-based relationships with other funders to get more funding to organizations. And, we left behind the old model of creating work and barriers for change-makers, and now assume more of the work ourselves: we replaced cumbersome reporting procedures with casual mid-grant check-ins with our grantees to review challenges and successes; we prioritize clear, straight-forward, and honest communication about our objectives and expectations.
To further lessen grantees’ burden, we provide the options of (1) filling out our four-page proposal and report forms, (2) having us fill out those forms following a grantee interview (with grantee editing privileges), or (3) submitting a video responding to our proposal and report questions. Our new process employs language justice: today if a grantee feels more comfortable communicating in a language other than English, our foundation will pay for both an interpreter and translator. So far, we only use this service in our programming, not in our grantmaking, but that is the longer-term goal.
These changes are paying high dividends. Our move to reduce paperwork and the overall burden on grantees, brings us further into relationship with those we fund, and allows us to better understand their day-to-day operating world.
All of this seemed to be making an important difference in our work, but an equity audit conducted by The Adaway Group in 2017 reminded myself and our team that organizational equity is not a destination, but a journey. We continue to hone our processes and practices, facilitated by Taproot Consulting and Ambrose Consulting WNC. This journey is revealing as I see that our funder power and privilege manifests in our reluctance to be transparent about how we make grantmaking decisions! For instance, our Fund has never published its grant decision-making rubric publicly. Ouch. And, we could expand our rubric to help us make clearer and more definitive decisions, especially since this was my complaint when I was a grantee at Habitat for Humanity International! And, as we shift our allocation to funding more in our community of Asheville, North Carolina, I have realized that we sometimes let the nuances of personalities, secondary conversations, and local politics affect our funding decisions instead of just following a rubric.
We want to do better: In 2017, we created a rubric to improve consistency in funding decisions, and we continue to hone those to remove ambiguity. The Whitman Institute, in its wise and clear Principles of Trust-Based Philanthropy, explains seven basic areas of philanthropic best practice. One of these is Transparent and Responsive Communication, which the institute describes as “open, honest, and transparent communication [that] minimizes power imbalances and helps move the work forward.” This is our next focus as a foundation: to incorporate the Whitman Institute’s guidance. I am working to be clearer about what we will and will not fund, and why. And, our foundation must be open and honest about our own decision-making processes, which should be consistently applied using well-defined rubrics. All aspects of our work need to support our objectives, and we continue to refine our practices as we focus on a future which includes community-based grantmaking. However, this feels like a great next step in our equity journey of 2019.
Ultimately, I ask how can I and our team use our resources, social network, access, and privilege to create a more equitable world? There is much that we can do that does no require funding, such as learning more about the barriers to access that exist in our local community, and using our privilege as funders to try and erode these barriers. At the national level, we can work with philanthropic organizations to help advance equity with grantmakers who are new to the concept. These are just a few of many ideas.