A couple weeks ago Ali Webb wrote the provocatively titled Philanthropy’s Seven Deadly Sins on Non-Profit Quarterly.
According to Webb they are,
Blindness to privilege
Dismissing community knowledge
Failure to learn
Lack of transparency
Some of the sins were more specific to philanthropic foundations than non-profit organizations in general, but I saw some parallels with topics I have discussed in the past.
I am relatively sure most people recognize that “Blindness to Privilege” is a significant issue right now.
Carlisle observes that, “There are increasingly few places in the country where there’s not going to be significant racial and cultural differences…where people who have been very sheltered or in dominant culture settings are beginning to say, ‘Wow, we are fish in water. We didn’t know we were fish. We didn’t know we were swimming in water.’”
Don Chen, Director of the Equitable Development Team at the Ford Foundation, remarks that he wishes he “had a dollar for every organization that comes to me and says our board came up with a new strategic plan, and we are going to focus on equity. These same people aren’t talking about equity as a core value or a core component of their mission; they are often talking about equity as a topic. That’s a warning sign for me because it could be dropped like any other topic.”
In the sin of “Dismissing Community Knowledge,” I saw some familiar phrasing.
Keller observes that too often, “we ride into communities, stand before them, and tell them what they need to do to solve their problems. Then we ride out, expecting programs to be scaled and sustained.”
“Foundation people tend to over-intellectualize but under-experience the challenges of those they seek to serve with no authentic proximity to the issues,” says Carlisle. She continued, “The validity that comes with seeing and understanding different world views, which are not dominant culture, can have extraordinary outcomes.”
Chen calls it “drive-by grantmaking,” where foundations make a grant and then go away for a year or two. “Local folks have a BS meter and they know if you don’t trust their knowledge,” says Harris.
For me, this echoed what Marc Folk of the Toledo Arts Commission said about riding into a community on a white horse and Margy Waller’s “We’re From The Arts and We Are Here To Help,” post I wrote about two years ago. Likewise, Ronia Holmes piece about arts organizations being bad at community outreach which I also wrote about also has resonance with this “sin.”
From a recipient point of view, the “Failure To Learn” sin encapsulated a lot of the issues non-profits face today with the expectations of funders. If you read Vu Le’s Nonprofit AF blog, you will be familiar with these gripes.
“In philanthropy, we don’t always clean up our messes when we change priorities and make transitions.” Hegarty offers that the unwillingness to learn may stem from “a tendency to think we are the smartest persons in the room and the assumption that we have all answers and understand all the angles.”
Another possibility that Chen offers is that the field is “delusional” about what was or could be accomplished with the amount of money offered. Sometimes, Chen said, the sector believes it is “smarter than everyone who ever came before. Especially when working in in under-resourced, low-capacity places, philanthropy tends to think it has super powers.”
“We ask a lot of our grantees and then what they share with us goes into a black hole. We never do anything with the information to further the work,” said the officer. “Without processing the information and developing a vehicle to get it back to the grantees, much learning is lost.”
All of this is something to think about. It is difficult to effect the change we like as fast as we think we should, but being reminded of these concerns on a semi-regular basis feeds progress.