Breaking Bread to Build a Movement: Harnessing Philanthropy's Power to Convene

As I join families across the country in making preparations for Thanksgiving, I welcome the opportunity to come together with friends and family. To strengthen bonds and buoy spirits, nothing is as powerful as the simple act of breaking bread together.

The ritual of gathering people together is central in my work as well. Although philanthropists are thought of most often as grantmakers, our role as conveners is just as important.

Yes, we are charged with providing bread -- in the form of funding -- to sustain the crucial work of our grantees, but our capacity to spark and support change is magnified many times over when we focus equal energy on setting the table: providing time and space for grantees and their constituents to break bread together.

The importance of the foundation's role as convener was never more clear to me than on Sept. 6, 2008, when 15,000 members of the Equal Voice for America's Families campaign gathered at three sites linked by simulcast to unveil a national family platform of their own design.

Conference halls in Los Angeles, Birmingham and Chicago rang with animated talk in languages from Creole to Khmer, with the laughter of children and the resonant tones of elders, some of whom had traveled all night to be part of the convening. Rather than competing or drowning one another out, the thousands of voices joined in a rousing symphony of purpose and pride.

When our grantee partners first conceived of the Equal Voice campaign, we never dreamed we would bring together 15,000 family members on a single day across three time zones. From the outset, however, we understood we were embarking on something new -- and that there was risk involved in the undertaking and that the foundation's and our grantees' ability to convene would be tested.

The philosophy behind the Equal Voice campaign was aligned with Marguerite Casey's vision and mission that families can lead and have both the right and the capacity to speak for themselves, to identify their own most urgent concerns, and can advocate on their own behalf. In keeping with that ethos, we supported our grantees in mobilizing families across the country because they -- like the foundation -- understood that Equal Voice would only be successful if it were family-led.

In Birmingham, as I listened to what might have been cacophony become instead a chorus, I was inspired to push further -- to make more and better use of the foundation's capacity to convene. We are honored to be able to support our grantees' work via our grantmaking; but we have become increasingly aware of our responsibility to connect the grantees' diverse efforts, through face-to-face convenings and through the social media technologies increasingly central to what some call Movement Building 2.0.

As cries of "Sí, se puede!" rang out from the podium, they seemed to merge into a single, unstoppable "Sí, podemos! (Yes, WE can)." The sense of collective agency and power those voices conveyed would last long after the halls had emptied. Those in attendance seemed to understand that while each person on his or her own might have a hard time getting a hearing from those in power, together, they would be unstoppable.

Because the families and the grantees who participated in the Equal Voice campaign expressed such a clear determination to continue -- to take the call for justice the national family platform represented and support a family-led movement to change their lives and those of millions poor Americans -- Marguerite Casey Foundation has committed to act as the incubator for a new, family-led membership organization to be launched in 2016.

This organization will be a vehicle through which working families can continue to connect with one another, joining their voices -- their equal voices, as important and profound as those of any politician or pundit -- in a common call for justice that is too loud to be ignored.

The organization will also be a mechanism to sustain a movement, with membership acting as the great equalizer. Imagine 3, 4, even 5 million poor and working-class Americans, all voting members of an organization with the capacity to speak in a single voice -- to have a say in determining policies that affect their daily lives.

Ignoring a movement of that scale and scope will simply not be possible for those in positions of power over families' lives.

We at Marguerite Casey Foundation are not the only ones thinking about, and acting upon, the power we as philanthropists hold to convene. With more than 46.5 million Americans still living in poverty on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's declaration of "war on poverty," the philanthropic sector as a whole is called to step forward and use our convening power like never before.

Together, we can unleash the multiplier effect that takes place when foundations use our convening capacity to bring to the table not only "the usual suspects" but those most affected by the issues on the table.

The potent combination of funders, grassroots organizations and the families with whom those organizations work can be transformative. Through the new membership organization, we and our allies aim to meld the thousands of connections forged at the earlier Equal Voice convenings into a lasting movement for substantive change.

As I set my Thanksgiving table this year, I will be thinking about philanthropy's role in setting the table for this most essential effort. I will offer thanks for the opportunity to play what role we can in bringing together America's poor and working families in the name of a new movement for equal voice and equal opportunity, a movement propelled by the most powerful fuel known to humankind: a parent's dreams for his or her children.