The coming of hope: A vision for philanthropy in the new year by Darren Walker

For me, the holiday season often arrives and departs with the echo of Maya Angelou’s wisdom ringing in my ears and rattling through my consciousness. With the pause in our individual pursuits and the joy of shared celebration, with the retrenchment of the night and the rewinding of the calendar, there visits, as Angelou wrote, “a halting of hate time.” In such a moment, “We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim … We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian … We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope. All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices to celebrate the promise of peace.”

As we begin 2019—a year that already portends to be among the most tumultuous in memory—I certainly welcome “the coming of hope.” After all, at the Ford Foundation we are in the business of hope. Our hopes for our grantees, our communities, and our world inform the work we do each and every day.

At the same time, we must set our hope in relief against the realities of a world that feels on edge and off kilter, more precarious and less predictable. The reason for all of this, in my view, should not come as a surprise: Our political and economic system continues to produce and perpetuate staggering inequalities of all kinds.

Millions of people feel frustrated with, and excluded by, an out-of-balance global economic system they are decreasingly willing to tolerate. In the United States and globally, we see the evidence and urgency mounting: Grassroots movements objecting to fundamental inequalities in our society are mobilizing, calling out for fairness and justice. They are naming causes of our current plight—among them, global capitalism that produces outsize wealth for owners and increased insecurity for workers; authoritarian leaders who foment division, discord, and dysfunction; fast-moving technological innovation, with consequences citizens are only now beginning to understand; and the long-standing evils of racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and patriarchy. And although this is our society’s truth, it—like all truth—is under constant assault as the fidelity of facts, and our faith in them, is undermined.

Make no mistake, the exploitation of our democratic-capitalist system is intentional. Too often, the powerful and privileged who might stem the callousness and corruption seem largely to ignore it, avoid it, minimize it or, worst of all, maximize it for their own gain.

In our politics, leaders openly disdain, demean, and deconstruct vital public institutions designed to serve us and our system of self-government. Implicit in these actions is a disregard for what democratic government can do to promote equality, justice, and human dignity. The result is predictable. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was known to say, “If you have contempt for government, you will get contemptible government.” We currently have way too much of both.

It’s plain to see, there are real flaws in the systems we have created to govern our politics, our economy, and our social relations—flaws that have yielded the inequalities now pulling at the fabric of society.

An obligation to listen and do better

A generation ago, Henry Ford II named philanthropy “a creature of capitalism”—and called on its practitioners to contemplate how, as “one of [our] system’s most prominent offspring,” philanthropy might help to “strengthen and improve its progenitor.” It is beyond the capacity of philanthropy to fix our economic and political systems. But as beneficiaries of the biases and flaws of these systems, I believe holders of wealth and influence today—whether individuals, corporations, or foundations—share an urgent obligation to try.

To do so, we must first recognize and reckon with the fact that philanthropy is by no means immune from the plague of inequality. If we are to be legitimate participants in the fight against it, there is urgency to our embracing this truth.

During the past year, a number of journalists, academics, and commentators have offered insightful—and sometimes incisive—critiques of philanthropy as an enterprise. While I may not agree with aspects of these assessments, in the aggregate, all raise valid, valuable, substantive concerns. Many have pointed to the ways philanthropy replicates the worst dynamics and inequalities of our broader society. A few examples:

  • Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All coins the term “MarketWorld” to describe a key force Giridharadas believes is driving much of philanthropy to reinforce a rigged economic system. While the book ignores countless examples of humble, social justice philanthropy, it rightly skewers that segment of philanthropic giving that boasts of saving the world while fundamentally strengthening the economic and social structures that separate the haves from the have-nots.

  • Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth spotlights the history of colonialism and oppression that gave rise to our country’s financial system and vast wealth—an argument that resonates in many places in the world where these forces have subjugated people and stripped away value—and reveals how structural racism continues to shape philanthropy today.

  • Rob Reich’s Just Giving scrutinizes the undemocratic nature of wealth and philanthropy, and argues for considerable changes to make giving more transparent and accountable in service of democratic values. Like Villanueva, Reich expresses belief in and admiration for the past and potential of philanthropy, while nonetheless offering a rigorous analysis of how the current system can seem to bypass democratic will.

These critiques are voices in a growing chorus that we ignore at our own peril. Rather than taking a “this too shall pass” attitude, philanthropists need to engage in repairing the very mechanisms that produce, preserve, and promote our privilege. I believe we must practice a better vision of philanthropy, one that improves itself and the societies of which we are members.

The architecture of progress

It bears repeating that the challenges inherent in our democratic-capitalist system did not arrive overnight. Creating a fairer, more just world is no small order. It requires leaders of every sector and discipline, working with new purpose. It requires engaged citizens, effective governments, capitalists who promote shared prosperity, and enduring social movements.

And it requires us. To do our part in this drive for real change, philanthropists and funders of every stripe must invest in the architects and architecture of progress—the individuals, ideas, and institutions that make change happen.

My fundamental, unwavering belief in philanthropy is informed by history and my own personal journey. Philanthropy was crucial in creating the blueprint for social progress in the 20th century that helped nations around the world eradicate disease, that lifted children like me out of poverty, and that financed the development of thousands of institutions and new capacity that expanded opportunity for billions of people around the globe. Philanthropy helped sustain the civil rights movement in the United States, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the human rights movement in Latin America during the darkest years of military government.

Placing meaningful resources in the hands of those closest to the problems, backing their visionary efforts over time, listening and learning at every step of the journey—this is the philanthropy we need today. But to fully and honestly address the problem of inequality and the ways it is embedded in philanthropy, there is even more we must do.

For starters, let’s agree that contemptible government, and contempt for government, are antithetical to the objectives of any philanthropist who cares about positive change in the world. Regardless of differences among philanthropic givers about the relative size and function of government, all philanthropic effort relies on the rule of law and functioning, effective government systems for scaling impact. No matter how independent we think our efforts are, our resources pale in comparison to public resources and the impact they have on daily life and the course of human dignity. I believe good works require good government.

To this end, there is much more we can be doing to support the health of representative government and its institutions, especially in the face of rising authoritarianism. Advancing and vigorously protecting an independent press, for one; standing behind a fair and thorough census; supporting voting rights and opposing all efforts to curtail citizen access to the ballot; advancing innovations by governments at the local and state level that make them more efficient and responsive; protecting the rule of law for all people, including immigrants; building the public case for reform in areas of deep inequality, such as our education and criminal justice systems; placing workers and worker movements at the center of policy discussions as the economy of the future is designed; investing in research that demonstrates how our economic system can be made more equitable and sustainable; and protecting a free and open internet, which today is our de facto public square.

No funder should consider these areas and others like them as being outside their mission. We are public trusts; we ought to show more faith in public institutions and own our accountability to them.

Reckoning with privilege

But beyond what we can do to improve the unequal systems around us, we must honestly grapple with the privileges our organizations enjoy as their beneficiaries. This means interrogating our own unconscious biases, cultivating humility in ourselves and our organizations, and more clearly understanding how others experience the institutions of philanthropy—how remote we can be, how insular, how difficult to navigate. It also means investing in research and initiatives that might make us uncomfortable, and that hold us accountable, so that our actions reflect our aspirations for a more just, more equal world.

We know that the communities most proximate to the problems possess unique insight into the solutions. That is why, in everything we do, we ought to ensure that the people affected by our work are guaranteed a voice in its design and implementation. To this end, diversity and inclusion must be priorities throughout our organizations—and especially at the top of them. One recent BoardSource survey suggests that the boards and leadership of foundations are remarkably homogeneous. We must work to become more heterogeneous in an increasingly diverse world or we risk cynicism and backlash from stakeholders who don’t see themselves represented in our institutions.

Finally, we must trust those we fund, and fund them adequately to do what they believe is best, not what we think is best. This means putting ourselves in the shoes of prospective grantees and communities, treating them like partners rather than contractors, and entrusting organizations with long-term general support funding and project grants that provide adequate overhead. It means acknowledging the power imbalance that often makes our grantees reluctant to engage honestly and authentically.

The good news is that I see a growing movement to appreciate the criticisms of philanthropy, and to face them head-on. This is a movement of philanthropists not merely concerned with funding good works but also with improving how we fund them. I am inspired by Agnes Gund’s leadership in creating Art for Justice; Oklahoma businessman George Kaiser’s work to reduce the rising number of women in prisons; Jon Stryker’s fight to protect LGBTQ people in difficult regions; a group of current and former CEOs who are working to promote inclusive capitalism; and a number of foundations that are working to promote more grant making in the American South, a region historically overlooked by national foundations. Internationally, philanthropists like Nandan and Rohini Nilekani (India) and Mo Ibrahim (Africa) are having an impact through pioneering grant making in regions with little history of social justice giving.

I believe they and many other philanthropists represent a movement from generosity to justice. To me, this is the best response to philanthropy’s deepest flaws and inherent contradictions.

Confronting inequality in the years ahead

Each December, the Merriam-Webster dictionary selects its “word of the year”—a noun that people have looked up more consistently over the course of that year than others, suggesting that it has been particularly relevant to the popular discourse.

In 2018, that word was “justice.” I do not think this is a coincidence.

This past year, we have seen acts of extreme injustice around the world and across our nation—at our farthest borders and inside our most hallowed halls. And we have seen how organizations have fought for justice every step of the way, how philanthropists have incorporated it into their ways of seeing and being.

As our system falters under the inequality it has produced, as society seems increasingly strained by—and susceptible to—ever-widening gaps, those of us who have benefitted from this inequality need to look in the mirror and ask why. Then we should ask how we fix it, with justice as our objective.

In this way, for all of us, the road map for 2019 is clear. Given the progress we’ve made, and the work ahead, we cannot turn back now. We must redouble our efforts and forge forward, boldly, courageously, joyfully. We must dedicate ourselves, anew, to the cause of justice—and “shout,” in the words of the poet, “with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.”

With appreciation for your partnership, I wish you a productive new year. Onward!

Edgar Villanueva