No Time for Business as Usual
Sharon Alpert, NFG member and President & CEO of The Nathan Cummings Foundation, shares an update on NCF's strategy for combatting inequality and climate change. She describes how NCF has built out its integrated framework and committed to expanding payouts in response to this political moment.
These are extraordinary times. For more than 25 years, Nathan Cummings Foundation’s mission has explicitly named a commitment to democratic values and social justice, supporting the most vulnerable, respecting diversity and promoting understanding across cultures, and empowering communities. Today, we are facing assaults on the values we hold dear. Racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia are on the rise. Our democratic institutions are under attack. The legitimacy of the press is being questioned and critical public institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency and National Endowment for the Arts are being undermined.
People are responding to these extraordinary times in extraordinary ways. The Foundation’s grantees are on the front lines, confronting Islamophobic travel bans, standing up for sanctuary for families separated by deportations, and sounding the alarm on the increase in anti-Semitic acts. They are organizing vast groups of people who are showing up at airports and in the streets, finding reasons to hope and work together to defend shared values. They are partnering with and pushing companies to stand up for immigrant workers and communities and defend progress on clean energy and climate change. The work of these advocates is not a spontaneous reaction to a single president, but a result of years of investing in organizing and building innovative initiatives and visionary leaders.
No Time for Business as Usual
Earlier this month, the Foundation’s board and staff met for the first time since November to answer the question: how can we stand alongside our grantees and philanthropic partners and respond to this challenge with leadership, urgency, and impact.
Our board was clear that this was no time for business as usual. Gathered around our board table, we made the unanimous decision to increase our payout in 2017 and 2018, and to join with and encourage other philanthropic organizations to do the same.
Philanthropy is the risk capital in our society, and collectively, we were made for this moment. We are being called to act and to provide resources that catalyze leaders and solutions to the most pressing problems of the day. The question of how to respond is an essential discussion in the boardrooms and staff meetings of foundations all across the country. Over the last several months we listened and learned with partners in the field, and I am inspired by the other foundations that are doing the same.
We engaged our grantees through in-person conversations and an online survey, which brought us deep insights into the ways our grantees are responding to these challenging times and what they need from us now. Those insights have shaped our response in four primary ways. We will:
- Increase grantmaking dollars to the field now when there is great need;
- Modify our processes and types of support in order to make grants more quickly or more flexibly;
- Communicate and advocate for our values and interests; and
- Convene and collaborate to bring new resources and ideas to the field.
We are clear that the changes we seek will take more than two years and we will hold ourselves accountable to making sure that our resources and actions are making a difference.
Lessons from the Field
We were joined at the April board meeting by Debbie Almontaser, Nan Aron, Angela Glover Blackwell, Farai Chideya, Dee Davis, Caroll Doherty, Marisa Franco, George Goehl, Kristen Grimm, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Brad Lander, and Heather McGhee. Together, we grappled to understand the racial, economic, and cultural dynamics at play in our country, and were encouraged by stories of local organizing, activism and journalism making a difference in this moment. People are finding community, pushing on the idea of sanctuary and achieving significant wins, especially at the intersection of immigration policy and criminal justice reform.
They reinforced that our programmatic pillars were right for this moment. They urged us to continue to take risks and to help build a narrative for the future that crosses racial, social and geographic boundaries, and bridges the chasms between communities.
Doubling Down on Our Integrated Framework
In the last quarter, we approved $2,667,800 million grants renewing funding relationships and building new ones in line with the four focus areas of our integrated framework. The framework seeks to find solutions and transform systems and mindsets that hinder progress toward a more sustainable and equitable future for all people, particularly women and people of color. We amplify voice, creativity and culture to shift narratives, build empathy, bear witness, challenge injustice and move people to action through the work of organizations such as the Momentum Training Institute, Asian American Writers Workshop and Firelight Media. The poets and the preachers are our prophets – allowing us to find our place in an ongoing story, moving hearts and minds, and sparking our collective moral imagination through organizations like through Church World Service’s support for the New Sanctuary Movement and through Muslim community infrastructure groups like the Pillars Fund. Our racial and economic justice work supports the efforts of groups like JustLeadership USA and the Advancement Project to develop solutions for a multiracial working class by unlocking markets that have excluded generations from economic opportunity, reforming systems that criminalize too many, and lifting up new models of economic and democratic inclusion. Our inclusive clean economy work partners with organizations like New York Renews and 350.org to demonstrate solutions, supporting movements on the ground that shift the narrative and galvanize people, ushering in a just transition to a new economy. Through partnerships with groups like the Center for Political Accountability and World Resources Institute, we use our standing as both a grantmaker and an investor to hold corporations accountable and safeguard the integrity of our political system.
With additional resources, we can deepen coalitions, explore new ideas, and set aside space for some big bets that could emerge. While we don’t have all the answers, we are identifying an emerging set of themes and grantmaking strategies within each focus area and opportunities to work collaboratively across them.
Safeguarding the Truth
In an era of alternative facts, the undermining of the public trust in the media, science and public institutions, we can shine a light on the relationship between truth, narrative and social change. We believe that journalists, particularly those representing marginalized voices and communities, have a unique ability to move people because they bear witness and tell the truth in ways that challenge power and mobilize communities and policymakers for meaningful change.
Strengthening Civic Engagement
There is a great need to channel the tremendous energy emerging in communities across the country to protect the values of truth and justice. Organizing models are stretching to absorb newly activated people, and we are heartened by the innovation happening on the ground by so many of our partners. We want to expand efforts to mobilize democratic participation and cross-movement collaboration to defend important policies and programs, and also spur new ones.
Investing in Resilience Practices
Leaders and organizations are being pushed to the limit of their capacity in a time of rapid change and flux. There is no better time to invest in the kinds of faith and spirit-rooted resilience practices, especially for those experiencing politicized attacks on their basic dignity, that will help our leaders keep their minds clear, hearts expansive, and eyes on the prize.
Building Bridges Across Divides
Social and economic tensions are fraying the fabric of civic life in America. We will add our voice and resources to those working to see humanity in one another, share stories that bind, and engage with dignitiy as they confront difficult issues like the income and wealth gap, the balance of public safety and equitable treatment under the law, and the need for local solutions to counter efforts that would exclude people based on race, gender, religious identity or immigration status.
This is an incredibly important moment for the nonprofits and communities we serve. The board, staff and I are deeply energized by their leadership and courage to speak up, stand up and show up for truth and justice. In the words of our Board Chair Ruth Cummings, as a family foundation focused on social justice, we consider ourselves in the movement and of the movement.
I look forward to what we can do when we stand together and show up when it matters most. This is the moment we were made for.