As I set off on a recent trip to Mexico and the US, the last request from my eight year old was ‘bring back a piece of the wall’.
This request became a defining metaphor for the trip, for even though I explained that the wall hadn’t actually been built, I realised not long into my travels that it may as well have.
The race and hate politics that defined the recent US election have pulled the plug on a tide of emotions simmering throughout Obama’s presidency, and are now pouring forth on both sides of politics with seemingly no way to stem the tide. Who is angry?
Well, just about everybody—angry, apologetic, ashamed, but most of all angry.
But from what I observed, this anger is mobilising philanthropy, a sector often criticised for its lack of political sensitivity and its investment in maintaining the status quo.
So what were the signs that gave me hope? I came across many inspiring themes and leaders on this trip, but the four below were standouts because of the resonance of their messages for Australia.
No.1 – Fight the ‘closing spaces’
The most timely concept I encountered, was the term ‘closing space’, referring to sustained attacks on civil society and democracy across the globe, reducing the opportunity for advocacy and protest.
The importance of philanthropy fighting the increasing restrictions on civil society and democracy was the theme of the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (Wings) Forum in Mexico City. Douglas Rutzen, (President of the International Center for Non Profit Law – pictured right) gave a chilling address about the perils of populism and the attacks that have been made on civil society in recent years.
According to Rutzen, eleven US states are currently trying to put in place laws that will restrict peaceful demonstrations. And since 2012, 161 restrictive initiatives on civil society and philanthropy have been considered or enacted around the world. Our Australian parallel is the recent inquiry and subsequent recommendation to restrict the capacity of environmental organisations to advocate or fund grassroots campaigning.
Conference delegates spoke about many other examples of legislation that had been considered or enacted that placed restrictions on both funders and nonprofits in countries as diverse as Kenya and Denmark, in an attempt to silence dissenting voices.
Rutzen challenged philanthropy to work at both a national level by driving country level strategies to fight against restrictions that impact the health of our democracies, and at a local level by supporting and enabling safe places for dialogue. (Watch his inspiring address here).
No. 2 – Climate change, race and inequality are inextricably linked and we ignore this at our peril
Walking into the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) Federal Briefing in Washington DC, I was expecting a traditional environmental conference, but encountered something much more nuanced. Intersectionality was the key theme as the sector wrestled visibly with the challenge that perhaps the environmental movement had been guilty of failing to engage more marginalised groups.
It was inspiring to see a sector seriously under threat (facing the imminent de-funding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the roll back of renewable projects started under Obama, searching for new allies in its quest to address systemic change).
Instead of retreating to an insular, siloed approach, the discussions were about the importance of addressing the intersection of environmental issues, race and social disadvantage.
My highlight was Heather McGhee, President of Demos (a public policy organisation working for a more democratic and inclusive America), who provided a searing and thought provoking analysis of the failure on both sides of politics to engage the younger generation, and employ a sophisticated racial lens to their activity. It was a dire warning for philanthropy in the US and back home.
Demos is an organisation funded by philanthropy and that platform is helping to create conversations about race and tolerance that are currently lacking from the broader public debate.
This video shows McGhee on live television speaking to a white man who talks openly about his racial prejudice. Their conversation and the public dialogue it created is an illustration of the proud history of philanthropy in creating spaces for real dialogue about divisive issues. What a great opportunity here for Australia, where on the whole, we manage to evade hard conversations about issues of race.
No.3 – People, Place and Power: start with a value base
I visited seven community foundations on this trip, many were doing timely and interesting work such as setting up pooled funds and rapid response funds to provide a vehicle for collaborative grantmaking with private donors and foundations to tackle the recent immigration ban.
But the stand out leader was Fred Blackwell, from San Francisco Foundation (SFF), who grew up in Oakland (a disadvantaged suburb of San Francisco). Since taking on the role of CEO two years ago, Blackwell has transformed what had become a very traditional foundation into a value-based foundation, fighting for racial and cultural equity.
In a frank and honest discussion, Fred shared the challenges of leading a large foundation in a city facing increasing inequality, in terms of access to income, housing and services. The final nail in the coffin, from his perspective, was the closure of the foundation’s social justice fund some five years earlier.
His solution was to make a radical move that saw the dismantling of the long-term programmatic granting areas of education, community development, arts and culture and health. In its place, he launched an integrated grantmaking strategy that focused on advancing racial and economic equity under the three pillars of People, Place, and Power.
People: Expanding access to opportunity through removing systemic barriers
Place: Anchoring communities that reflect people’s culture and identity
Power: Nurturing equity movements to ensure a strong political voice for all
In an era where many large US-based community foundations are facing criticism for becoming agnostic grant making machines, SFF, under the leadership of Blackwell, has done a complete turnaround and placed a social value framework at the front and centre of everything they do.
You can hear Blackwell talk about the motivation behind this move here.
No. 4 – Independent journalism is the bedrock of a healthy democracy
My final choice is Richard Tofel: joint founder and President of ProPublica, a nonprofit organisation supporting and enabling investigative journalism, entirely funded by philanthropy.
In Tofel’s words, “ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force’. We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”
ProPublica employs 45 journalists who undertake investigative journalism into issues that would not receive dedicated attention or scrutiny, without the resources or independence provided by philanthropy.
Two Pulitzer Prizes later, ProPublica stands as an example to both Australian philanthropy and the Australian media as to what can be achieved if independent voices are supported as a challenge to consolidated media ownership.
You can watch Tofel talking about measuring the impact of independent journalism and the ProPublica model here.
Australia is not as large, wealthy, racially divided, or as extreme politically as the US. It’s easier for our political leaders to put their head in the sand and ignore some of our most pressing social, environmental, generational and racial issues for a bit longer.
But, if the US is anything to go by, that time of happy ignorance is fast coming to an end and there are lessons we can learn from the social and political challenges the US is currently facing.
Philanthropy has a role to play in helping navigate this new, messy and challenging social landscape. These four leaders, and many others, gave me both hope that out of dire need inspiration and leadership emerges. To remain relevant and engaged, it is important that we learn from the challenges and lessons faced by our US neighbours:
– Maintaining a healthy, engaged and vibrant democracy, and actively resisting the recent threats to civic participation posed by ill-conceived legislation and by continuing to support an engaged and thoughtful civic society.
– Ensuring the challenge of climate change is front and centre in everything we do, as it is the most pressing issue from a timing perspective that we face today. In tackling this issue, we need to ensure we mobilise and engage the voices that do not currently see themselves reflected in this agenda. We need to ensure the climate activism embraces inequality and race.
– Philanthropy that operates without a value base cannot and will not achieve social change. We need to be cautious that our institutions do not become agnostic grantmaking machines, out of touch with the communities in which they operate and doing little to achieve true social change. This model of philanthropy is outdated, outmoded and does not hold the answer to any pressing social problems—nor will it engage the next generation as it offers neither inspiration nor thoughtful giving.
– Philanthropy cannot operate in isolation and we need partners in the task of holding the public and private sector to account. The value of independent journalism in this equation cannot be underestimated.
All the signs are there that Australian philanthropy is ready to take up these challenges.
And in the meantime, let’s hope our US friends keep fighting so that no one ever has to bring back a piece of the wall.
A new national approach
The Australian Communities Foundation Impact Fund (launching April 3) is an endowment fund for the Australian community and will be used to promote social, cultural and environmental justice. Our trustees and donors have a clear vision for a better Australia and we are excited to work in collaboration with the philanthropic sector in Australia to achieve this vision.
The ACF Impact Fund seeks expressions of interest from projects, people and changemakers who are offering innovative solutions to the national issues such as strengthening democracy, tackling climate change, reducing inequality and supporting Indigenous empowerment. For more information, contact ACF Philanthropy Manager, Sarah Thompson: 03 9412 0412 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The first distributions from the fund will be made later this year.
Maree Sidey (pictured left in Teotihuacan, Mexico) is Chief Executive Officer at Australian Communities Foundation.