Gara LaMarche – ‘philanthropy needs to challenge the systems of oppression’

Ever since he began organizing against Richard Nixon as a Columbia University student, Gara LaMarche has been unafraid to speak his mind. It is no surprise, then, that he is quick to critique the sector of which he has been a leading light for four decades. Funders badly need to rethink their approach to philanthropy, he says, if they are serious about social justice.

“Charity is important, but it’s palliative. So, the kind of philanthropy that I’ve focused on is concerned with the structures of oppression. And while I don’t fault the value of [traditional] philanthropy, if you don’t change the systems and bring about justice, then it’s ultimately just palliative,” LaMarche said in an interview for my Love and Courage podcast, recorded at the Brooklyn offices of StoryCorps, an organization he chairs.

Now President of the Democracy Alliance, a network of progressive philanthropists, he seems to have found his calling early in life. He began his working life at just 14, and was the first in his family to attend college. He worked his own way through college, and spent much of his final year at Columbia working full-time at a local nursery school. The youngest ever person appointed to an American Civil Liberties Union policy committee, he was second-in-command at its largest branch by 24, and by 30 was running its Texas chapter.

LaMarche’s career has seen him lead Chuck Feeney’s The Atlantic Philanthropies, head up the Open Society’s US programmes, not to mention working at Human Rights Watch and PEN America. Yet despite having channeled tens of millions into transformative social change projects, he still keeps his feet on the ground by staying involved in grassroots fundraising, and trying to keep an open mind on where the next big idea might come from.

An acknowledgment of the privilege that has helped him get to where he is today, he says, is also an important guiding force for his approach.

“I try never to forget that if you have access to privilege, there’s only one point of having it, which is to be in solidarity with people who are leading their own struggles for change.

“I don’t consider myself to come from a particularly privileged background – nevertheless, as a white man in this society, I have at various points in my career benefitted from hiring processes that weren’t sufficiently open, and from all the other things that attach to privilege. And I just try to be as aware of that, and as reflective of that, as I can be.”

La Marche is dogged in his belief that to achieve real and lasting change, philanthropy must snap out of its tendency to continually play it safe.

“Over the years I’ve studied the way people in other fields identify talent. What do talent scouts do? What do editors do? What do people do in fields where it’s their job to identify talent?”

“The way philanthropy is usually set up is: there’s a funnel where a lot goes into the top, and almost nothing comes out at the bottom. The whole system is designed, really, to find ways to say no to something.

“One of the things I’m proudest of doing at Atlantic and Open Society [is supporting] ideas that people came to me with that I hadn’t even thought about.”

One of those people was Dave Isay, a radio journalist who came to him in 2005 seeking support for his fledging StoryCorps organization.

“Someone asked me if I would see Dave Isay. And I said: ‘Well, I don’t think it really fits into our guidelines, but I’m happy to give him some advice.’

“When he came to see me, I insisted I would only give advice, not money – and I ended up giving him money. I was really attracted to it, and I liked the idea that it didn’t fit into anybody’s guidelines.

Open Society went on to support Isay’s vision - and the rest, as they say, is history. StoryCorps, which also has an acclaimed NPR podcast, has recorded over 60,000 interviews, and reaches tens of millions of people each year.

“I’m a big believer – in philanthropy, or in anything, really – that values are a better guide to what you ought to do than any particular plan. Sometimes, you just have to toss out the plan. But you always have to be in accordance with your basic values.”

LaMarche credits the Harlem nursery school where he taught while at Colombia College as having a major influence on him.

“It was a wonderful place to be for four years, and the most racially integrated environment I had ever been in. I came from a virtually all-white town, and Columbia was not very diverse in those days.

“But this was an extremely diverse environment – and it probably had as much of a formative impact on my view of the world as anything else.

“There’s a real unity between my own views on how society should be organized, and what I learned about the right way to work with children. So, I have a strong belief in self-direction and governance for all people – including children.”

This belief in the potential of people power – and his view that history is shaped by movements rather than leaders – has been the major shaping force in his giving priorities, and has led him to transform not just the social justice landscape, but also philanthropy itself.

“I have a strong bias for people not to swoop into communities and do to them or for them, but for communities to do for themselves. Whether that’s in immigrant rights organizing, or LGBT organizing, or trans organizing, or whatever it may be – you have to take your cue from the people most affected.

“There’s a softer power in philanthropy that is often insufficiently tapped: the power to help bring people together. But you have to be prepared for that to go somewhere that you hadn’t planned. You have to trust people to come up with what’s best for them.”

And for LaMarche, a respect for that people power is what’s lacking in mainstream politics.

“Our elections are overwhelmed by huge spending on advertising – and what that really serves is a kind of consultant-media-industrial complex. But there’s increasing evidence – which is really basic common sense – that knocking on people’s doors and engaging them is really the way to build political allegiance and education.

“People need to hear from people who are their neighbors.”

The absence of this on-the-ground approach, he says, left the Clinton campaign out of touch, and is the reason why so much of the nation was left reeling in shock at the news of Trump’s election.

“We need to get rid of Trump – but the fact that Trump is awful does not relieve us of the obligation to lead. If the President won’t lead, then the people have to lead.

“So we do need good leaders, but we can’t have good leaders if they are not both pushed by, and held accountable by, social movements. And so the story needs to flip around – it has to be the story of the people who are doing the pushing.

“And the most hope, in my view, lies in a resurgence of strong grassroots activism in the United States. I’m fortunate to have grown up in a time of roiling activism.

“And if you look today at Occupy Wall Street, and the young DREAMers who are challenging the deportation of undocumented people, or the campus movement against rape, or Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter – all of those are social movements led largely by the people most affected. And they have had an effect on the discourse, and on policy.

“So I’m excited to live in a time when so many people – and so many movements – are taking the reins themselves to fight for a better world, and leading the way. And it’s been a privilege, in the job I have now and in the jobs I’ve had over the last forty years, to be able to provide some measure of support and solidarity to that.”

You can listen to the interview with Gara La Marche on the Love and Courage podcast using itunes, the podcast App on your phone or through Soundcloud. More information at

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