In his 2019 book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” author and Time magazine editor-at-large Anand Giridharadas delivers a blistering takedown of the current state of the philanthropic sector — and the wealthy and powerful elite class invested in maintaining that status quo.
“In an age defined by a chasm between those who have power and those who don’t, elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power equations,” Giridharadas writes. “By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good, it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolize progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken — many of whom wouldn’t need the scraps if the society were working right.”
Amid the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice, we’ve seen how untenable and inequitable our society’s way of life has become. If we are to truly build back better — a phrase coined by disaster relief experts and championed by many, including President Joe Biden, during 2020 — then we must also build a better, braver philanthropy: one that eschews tinkering around the edges of a broken system, for supporting ambitious new solutions that shape new systems where everyone has a right to security and happiness.
Leaders and luminaries within the NationSwell Council are already making the case for this new, sometimes provocative approach to philanthropy — and pushing their peers to join them in working towards that seachange.
“As a leader of a corporate philanthropy, I experience this moment of reckoning from a unique perspective,” Paurvi Bhatt, president of Medtronic Foundation, said in Stanford Social Innovation Review. “Like me, many of my colleagues in corporate philanthropy and global health are compelled to reflect: Are we truly considering how systems in our societies are driving our divisions? Are we tapping into [our] full potential … to deliver social impact that achieves real change? And specifically, are we as leaders taking the time to appreciate our own history, our role and influence, and how we need to evolve as stewards of resources in this time?”
During a digital convening for NationSwell’s #BuildItBackBetter initiative, Wes Moore, CEO of Robin Hood Foundation, asked big funders to rethink their role in society: “We have to remember that our job [in the philanthropic sector] is not to make pain tolerable. Our job is to break down why the pain exists in the first place, and make sure people don’t have to keep going through it. There is actually a unique role that philanthropy can play. It can be the seed capital, the risk capital, the thing that’s able to address and come up with things that have the potential to be scalable, show how to be scalable and pass them on to our governmental partners to address it in the long term. Philanthropy should not be thinking about itself as a line item.”
In 2020, NationSwell institutional member Marguerite Casey Foundation, an organization committed to the belief that “working people should have the power to shape our democracy and economy,” joined with Group Health Foundation to create The Freedom Scholars Award: an annual $250,000 award to each of twelve of “the nation’s boldest scholars [standing] at the forefronts of movements for economic and social justice… creating the catalytic ideas for transformative change.”
“Freedom Scholars reflect the commitment of Marguerite Casey Foundation and Group Health Foundation to work as partners in service of these scholars and their work — to help these leaders be freer,” the foundations said in a joint statement. “We know if these scholars have resources and support, they will shift the balance of power in this country toward economic and social justice. The awards honor the long arc of freedom organizing by and for Black, Indigenous, queer and poor people, migrants and all People of Color.”
Recipients of the award include Dr. Megan Ming Francis, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington, Dr. Barbara Ransby, a historian of the Black Freedom Movement and political activist and Dylan Rodriguez, a professor in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside.
Rodriguez still remembers the moment he realized the full extent of the generosity of the grant.
“I remember being on the call and thinking, wow, the twelve of us get to split $250,000, that’s so incredible, we can do so much with that money,” Rodriguez said. “When I realized we got $250,000 each… I still can’t believe it.”
Rodriguez’ incredulity comes from within a decades-spanning historical context. He said he’s been so used to the “non profit industrial complex” ignoring or eschewing academics in fields like the Freedom Scholars’, whose work is drastically underfunded when compared to other academics whose work largely supports the status quo of society as we know it.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Erica Kohl-Arenas, a fellow Freedom Scholar and a professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis.
“My scholarship often critiques the ways in which institutions, philanthropy and professionalization have compromised poor people led movements — something I also personally experienced while working in the field,” she said. “While I am donating some of the funds to radical social movement organizations that I believe in, the unrestricted individual award has truly unlocked my thinking about how I might best use these unexpected one-time resources completely outside of the academic university framework.”
That’s how Kohl-Arenas found her way to reviving an education center in the Mendocino County redwoods that her parents founded in 1979.
“I aim to restore the center to offer as a resource for radical educators, scholars, organizers and artists in the years to come,” she said. “I never dreamed of having the resources to do this.”
Rodriguez is optimistic that if more foundations follow Marguerite Casey’s model of funding radical thinkers, then philanthropy can actually fund equitable change, catalyze the urgently needed shifts in the balance of power and catalyze the activists, organizers and scholars who are pushing for this change.
Learn more about Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Freedom Scholars here.