What Happens When Philanthropy Meets Activism?

This month, I had a delightful surprise when I showed up for a women’s leadership lunch hosted by the NY Urban League and learned that I had been “volunteered” to speak on a panel about philanthropy and activism, due to a last minute cancellation. Thankfully, it was a topic I love, the other panelists were total rock stars (a little intimidating, but there was no time to get nervous), and I had left the house that morning in a favorite dress!

I found myself sitting next to Tamika Mallory, the visionary co-founder of the Women’s March; Michaela Angela Davis, legendary author, activist and fashion icon; and Julee Wilson, Fashion and Beauty Director at Essence. Our discussion reinforced the incredible power of ideas, collective action and, yes, money. We explored the relationship between philanthropy and activism, the role of money, access, messaging, and mentorship in making big things happen. And, we dove into identity - type and stereotype. Not bad for a ladies lunch….

As I listened to my fellow (fella?) panelists I was reminded of how important it is to support people who are willing, often repeatedly, to put their values into action and do so without any guarantee of outcomes. We need to be ready to put our assets (ideas, networks, time, and money) behind those who ‘dare to do’ if we want to see meaningful and positive change in society.

Specifically, as someone who has had the privilege of working from all sides of the philanthropy table, I raised the delicate, but essential, notion of power dynamics, and how they play out between donors and doers. One of the most game-changing things a philanthropist can do is to ask what a leader wants and needs. Period. If there is alignment with values, theories of change and all of that other good stuff, philanthropists (donors) have an opportunity - and obligation - to respond by putting their assets behind that leader (doers). Tamika commented that the success of the Women’s March was due, in some part, to the fact that the funds just flowed in, allowing her and the other leaders to focus on the essentials of coordinating a massive movement quickly and successfully. They were relieved from having to worry about Port-a-Potties (pun intended) and could turn their attention to turnout, speakers, security and communications.

I introduced what I believe are two key elements in success in the pro-social sector- Communications and Purpose. The former requires an investment of money and talent, the latter is where shared values across sectors really gets traction.

Communications is key on the campaign and movement front. The intersection of philanthropy and activism must include serious investments of money and talent in creating and disseminating messaging in ways that are strategic and action-oriented. While there are no guarantees of “return” on this investment, it is essential to seeding impact. And we learn from it - assessing when we’ve hit on the right nerve, stimulated the right response, and moved the proverbial needle.

Another important [new] piece of the puzzle is purpose. As companies recognize that their employees, consumers and increasingly stockholders (see B Corporations) demand that products, services and conduct align with their values, it is clear that partnering with and investing in non-profits and social impact campaigns strengthens corporate culture and bottom lines. Leaders seeking financial support have valuable – or really invaluable – assets to offer, enabling corporate partners to walk the ‘purpose beyond profit’ walk. All parties hold power to influence change, with everyone having a serious contribution to make.

These fierce women reminded me that when we contribute our respective assets to help each other realize a collective vision of the future, we all win. Lessons learned?

Ask sincere questions.

Listen with an open mind.

Give what you can.

And never leave your house without being camera ready!

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