When Should Philanthropy Lead From Behind?

When Should Philanthropy Lead From Behind?
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How should we respond?” I ask the question of philanthropy in light of the recent events in both Charlottesville and Texas.

“How should we respond?”

That has been the now almost weekly question of social change leaders across the country. The tragedies that have rocked our sensibilities and stretched our understanding of the good that comes out of crisis has propelled philanthropy to think differently about not only how to use our resources, but how we find our voice. As I struggled with how Funders Together should respond in a meaningful way to Charlottesville and now Hurricane Harvey, I was reminded what our board chair, Bill Pitkin, from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation once said to me in a meeting when I didn’t think something would happen the right way: “As the youngest child, I developed patience as things just sometimes have a way of working out.” As Bill’s staff reminded us at our most recent Funders Institute, this is how you often lead from behind.

The strength of Funders Together to End Homelessness is the leadership and voice of our members. And so, as I was struggling, they stepped up in their commitment to naming and addressing the real issues of race in our country and said everything that needed to be said. From our board Vice Chair, Janice Elliott from Melville Charitable Trust, who didn’t feel the need to mince words in calling out racism, to the trustees of the Raikes Foundation who have consistently used their voice to address racial inequities, and our newest members the Meyer Memorial Trust who inspired us all at the Funders Institute with how they have transformed their grantmaking to have a racial equity lens, it felt right in that moment to lead from behind.

But, is that always the right response? I was struck by my colleague, David Biemesderfer, from the United Philanthropy Forum who wrote this: “Part of my struggle is this. To state – in 2017 – that neo-Nazis, the KKK and other white supremacist groups and individuals have no place in our society is hardly a courageous act…But as we all issue statements and share them with each other (sharing with others who no doubt already agree with the sentiments being expressed), part of me wonders, what will that change?”

And this is where we cannot lead from behind as philanthropy. Our commitment to real change on the systemic issues that affect our ability to truly prevent and end homelessness will take real courage. It is why we spent the first full day of our Funders Institute addressing racial inequity. Glen Harris, the President of Race Forward, grounded us in what it means to address structural inequalities by reminding us that “There is nothing natural about racial disparities. They are created by policies, and that we must change the nature of the sentence of what we want to "end" to what we want to "create.” The real work will come as Funders Together embarks on a learning to action journey to name and address racial inequity as part of our Strategic Plan.

The time together at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference did not stop with one day, we came together with our partners each day to:

  • Learn about the federal budget and policies that will impact our communities. We were inspired by funders who are being courageous in using their voice to write op-eds about the importance of public-private partnerships, ensuring philanthropy has a seat at the table for important policy discussions, and funding advocacy and issue-campaigns that have resulted in billions of new dollars for affordable housing. Can philanthropy be a part of advocacy? Yes, we can, and we can lead from behind by building the capacity of our partners, but also use the power of our voice and the ability to convene to demonstrate the importance of polices that work and need for public funding that leverages private resources to get to innovative solutions.
  • We continued our commitment to be intersectional and name the issues of access to healthcare, employment, and the reforming of the criminal justice system as critical to homelessness being rare, brief, and one time. As we seek to engage other funders in seeing housing stability as a critical piece to meeting their outcomes in education, health, and criminal justice, I am honored to join the board of the United Philanthropy Forum, which will seek to bring philanthropy together under a bigger tent and break the silos we often create.
  • We supported each other in taking risks, celebrating the learning that comes from failing, and affirmed leadership in philanthropy happens from being honest, vulnerable, and courageous and knowing when to lead from behind.

Today as our hearts ache for the people affected by Hurricane Harvey, we must exhibit the patience that is often hard for those of us built to care for others and bring about real change. This is where we lead from behind. We wait for our funder colleagues in Texas to recover themselves, regroup, and inform us of the short and long-term needs driven by centering the voices of the nonprofit community and those most vulnerable as result of the devastation. Then we stand together and lead with them demonstrating that philanthropy can be responsive, thoughtful, and courageous.

As we all struggle in different ways, I want to offer some encouragement: We have a unique position to be near hope at the same time we are in constant contact with what feels like despair. I was reminded of that feeling of hope as I sat in on case staffing meeting last week at Unity of Greater New Orleans as part of a USICH thought leadership convening on ending family homelessness. Thanks to the investment after Hurricane Katrina from many Funders Together members, they were the first community to end veterans homelessness and have staff who have been together for the last eight years and built a coordinated and responsive rapid rehousing system that continues to treat families with dignity and belief that they can and will end their homelessness together.

Take the time today sit in that hope. Out of trials comes opportunity and philanthropy has the opportunity to use our voice and leadership, whether it is leading by example or pushing and supporting others from behind.

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