November 2, 2016

What Have We Learned about Place-Based Investments?

Last month, the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and Neighborhood Funders Group convened 100 local, regional, and national funders for Towards a More Resilient Place: Promising Practices in Place-Based Philanthropy. Here, Simran Noor of the Center for Social Inclusion shares the three lessons that funders should build on to support sustainable community change.

Simran NoorBy Simran Noor, Center for Social Inclusion

Eight years ago, I worked for a foundation that heavily invests in my hometown, which allowed me to see firsthand the impacts of place-based investments. I was reminded of that work when I recently had the opportunity to attend the Towards a More Resilient Place: Promising Practices in Place-Based Philanthropy convening organized by Neighborhood Funders Group and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. It was heartening to see the collective hope and call to integrate decades of hard-learned lessons into today’s practice of philanthropy, with the intent to address the reality of privilege and arms-length distance embedded in the institution of philanthropy. But my time in Aspen also left me reliving lessons I learned in my past work and seeing glaring examples that continue to surface from brilliant, thoughtful social justice-oriented funders across the country. Conversations in Aspen left me thinking, “Is learning real if not applied?” 

While these learnings depend on a number of factors including level, size, and scale of investment; relationships in place; and the reality of constantly changing social, political, and economic trends; they can be distilled into key considerations that could change the relationship philanthropy has with place-based investing. Among these lessons:

Listen first and allow communities to determine their own needs. Privilege comes in many forms. For philanthropy, in particular, privilege can come in the form of knowledge and ways of knowing. Believing or creating processes that implicitly position the academic knowledge held by foundation staff as superior to the lived experience of grantees, partners, and residents is one way place-based investing can miss the mark. Shifting power and creating methods for sustainable investment does not only mean engaging those who are most impacted to share their stories in participatory processes; it means resourcing them to co-design every element of process creation. This requires a different intentionality around listening, a potential shift in the ways initial investments are made, and a clear redefining of foundation funding priorities to match local, self-determined needs.

Develop strategies responsive to what you’ve learned. While listening is a first step, it is often not enough. Truly changing outcomes requires focused strategy. Many neighborhoods ripe for place-based investments have experienced decades of disinvestment and dismantling by every public and private institution. That does not only impact the infrastructure of those communities—it impacts the very souls of the people residing in the place. When funders enter communities that have experienced such disinvestment and lead with dollars, they often create a competitive dynamic that strains relationships between nonprofits and ultimately benefits no one. Place-based funders have a responsibility to understand local needs and support development of strategic approaches that take into account the current ecosystem of nonprofits, intermediaries, and public and private institutions, as well as the current power dynamics and inequitable resource distribution at play. Place-based strategies must use new and innovative ways to disrupt these (often racialized) power dynamics in order to foster an environment for intersectional, multi-issue approaches that address the root causes of deeply embedded challenges, including poverty and lack of access to opportunity for communities of color.

Reimagine what “success” looks like. Fundamentally, these shifts require philanthropy to reimagine success in place-based work. Could success potentially mean a self-sustaining future state without philanthropy’s presence? What are the mechanisms to create philanthropic accountability to the most impacted communities and potential grantees before investments are made? Answering these questions requires reimagining asset-based human and social investment in the residents who will be in a place long after philanthropic investments end. Capacity building and popular education approaches, for example, allow residents to develop the same technical and academic acumen held by decision makers and power brokers in the local context. Foundations would then also need to become comfortable and confident in residents’ future decisions, particularly stances that may differ with their own institutional preferences.  This process of authentic decision-making and shifting power could be a true success metric.

While by no means comprehensive in nature, if the lessons noted above and the many others that surfaced during the Towards a More Resilient Place convening are adopted, they have the ability to shift the nature of place-based philanthropy. Social justice-oriented funders who shared their experiences showed us how important and effective these lessons are, and they should continue to advocate for these lessons in future place-based philanthropic investments.

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September 3, 2019

Capitalism and Racism: Conjoined Twins

By Marjona Jones, Co-Chair of Funders for a Just Economy and Senior Program Officer at Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock

Marjona Jones speaking at a podium.

A few weeks ago, Democracy Now! aired a segment with Ibram X. Kendi, author and founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University, where he discussed white supremacy, anti-racism, and the increase in mass shootings. What struck me about the segment was his illuminating statement about the origins of capitalism. Kendi views capitalism and racism as "conjoined twins" and that “…the origins of racism cannot be separated from the origins of capitalism… the life of capitalism cannot be separated from the life of racism.”

Kendi continued by discussing how the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade allowed for the massive accumulation of wealth in Europe and the Americas. Centuries of wage theft, trading in human bondage, insurance claims on "lost" cargo, and reparations for slave owners after emancipation entrenched this capitalist system with inequities based on race built into it. Slave owners protected their concentrated wealth by shaping our socio-economic and legal systems to benefit themselves and the industry of slavery, as well as limit democracy.

As I celebrate the worker movement’s victories on Labor Day this year, this segment and past conversations with grantees has triggered an important question for me: What does the notion that capitalism and racism are inextricably linked mean for our work as funders of racial and economic justice? Our grantee partners tell us how workers are implicated in the entangled web of these “conjoined twins” of racism and capitalism. Many worker-based organizations state that the best vehicle this country has in pursuit of economic justice is through organizing workers, but traditional labor hasn’t always been the best vehicle for racial justice. As Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin discuss in Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, while many unions integrated in the 1920s, some unionists decided to resist integration to ensure wins and job quality for white workers. These traditionalists understood the idea of “conjoined twins.”

Racial and economic justice movements have exposed exploitative and extractive practices within capitalism, making it less secure to accumulate wealth through those means. However, as Michelle Alexander points out in her book, The New Jim Crow, exposing capitalism for what it is forces it to transform and evolve. For example, following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, agriculture was still the main economic engine, and free exploited labor was needed for this industry to survive. Capitalism evolved while maintaining its racist and exploitative roots through policymakers passing the Black Codes of 1865 and 1866, making it easier to imprison recently freed slaves to continue that supply of free labor.

We are catching up to the fact that capitalism was never meant to work for everyone. What will the next evolution in capitalism bring as our movements fight even harder for racial and economic justice in the face of harm to workers and marginalized communities?

Funders for a Just Economy (FJE) has created an intentional space to begin discussing what these questions mean for our work and the grantees we support. Capitalism’s origin story is a critical part of analyzing how this system operates. By acknowledging the “conjoined twins,” we acknowledge the role of race and the legacy of slavery. FJE believes that there is a renewed opportunity to support a working-class movement that builds the power of all workers, especially Black, Trans and LGBQ workers, women, and immigrants—and lift their role as the main strategists to change the system. If we believe another world is possible, then so is another system that bakes in justice, equity, and respect.


Join FJE for these conversations and more at the upcoming Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance event on October 17 & 18 in Brooklyn, NY. More information and registration link here.

Stay tuned for an upcoming Power Building Study Group for Neighborhood Funders Group members, and the Disrupt the System: How Labor and Philanthropy can Build Worker Power in a New Era event co-convened by the AFL-CIO, the LIFT Fund, and FJE on December 11 in Washington, DC. More information coming soon!

August 15, 2019

Beyond Outrage: A Clarity of Purpose

Dimple Abichandani, Executive Director of the General Service Foundation, urges grantmakers and the philanthropic sector to take concrete actions to defend democracy and speak out against racist attacks on people of color. This post was originally published here on the foundation's website.

Dimple was part of the first Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship cohort, a joint initiative of Neighborhood Funders Group and The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. General Service Foundation, which partners with grassroots organizations to bring about a more just and sustainable world, is a member of NFG.


Dimple AbichandaniWe live in dangerous times, and every passing news cycle contains another outrage, another violation of norms, another threat to our democracy, another threat to our planet.  

In the face of escalating racial attacks, (be it imprisonment of kids on the border or the racist rhetoric being tweeted from the white house) many have noted, rightly, that philanthropy as a sector has been too cautious and too quiet.  The Communications Network, in it’s recent piece, Silence Speaks Volumes, calls on foundations to use their voices in this moment.

Yes, it’s meaningful for people from all sectors of our society to condemn the Administration’s attacks on people of color.  And, for those of us working in the philanthropic sector, these times call on us to use all of our tools in defense of our inclusive, multi-racial democracy.  We are more than commentators or observers– as funders, our role is to resource a more just and equitable future. What we do in this moment will be far more important than what we say.  

As painful as this moment is, it is also a time in which the work to be done has become more clear. The vulnerability of our democracy has become more clear.  Racial anxiety and social divisions are being stoked in order to prop up a reckless system that benefits only the wealthiest. As we condemn the most recent of a long list of outrages, can we also use this moment to deepen our own clarity of purpose, and ensure that our funding will bring about a more just future? 

As funders, we can not only speak out but also take action to bolster our inclusive democracy.

  1. Support those most directly impacted by injustice. Instead of wielding of our own voice and power as a foundation, we can support those most directly impacted by injustice to build their voice, power, and leadership. They must lead the way to a more just world; it is our job to uplift and resource their visions and voices. National organizations such as Color of Change, New American Leaders, and National Domestic Workers Alliance, regional and state-based organizations such as Western States Center, Black Voters Matter and Workers Defense Project and so many others are seeding a future in which racial, gender and economic justice will be the norm.
  2. Invest in the creation and dissemination of narratives that reshape cultural attitudes around belonging in our country.  The recent escalation in the use of racist and sexist rhetoric is not happening in a vacuum– rather it builds on broader public narratives shaped by white supremacy and male dominance.  We need to normalize new narratives that humanize all of us, that value all of us. Organizations such as the Pop Culture CollaborativeReFrame, and the Culture Change Fund, for example, build capacity for narrative equity and culture shift.
  3. Question the default funding habits and practices that limit us from making a bigger impact in this moment. As funders, we sometimes have a blind spot for how our internal practices create unnecessary burdens and barriers for organizations that do the important work we support. This moment calls on us to question our practices, shift to ways of working that account for the gravity of the problems we face, and center the people who are leading the social change efforts we support. Could your foundation increase its payout, provide more general operating support, increase the length of grants, and minimize busywork for grantees? Could you shift your grant strategy to more boldly meet the moment or more directly address the imbalances of power in our society? The Trust Based Philanthropy Network has tools and stories of inspiration from foundations who have increased their impact by changing their practices.

So many of us in philanthropy are eager to do something meaningful in this tumultuous time.  Let’s challenge ourselves to use this moment to put our institutional values into practice. Let’s walk the walk as boldly as we talk the talk.