Reflections: Solidarity Philanthropy Webinar in The Face of The Covid-19 Crisis and Beyond

Reflections: Solidarity Philanthropy Webinar in The Face of The Covid-19 Crisis and Beyond

On April 29, 2020 Swift Foundation held our inaugural webinar series dialogue on the topic of solidarity philanthropy. A topic that has felt exceedingly relevant in the face of this pandemic and beyond. We called together some of the people who, in their respective organizations, model what the words solidarity AND philanthropy can mean in practice. We are grateful to the speakers who joined this discussion as leaders of philanthropic institutions spearheading the institutional change we need.

Opening with the question what is solidarity philanthropy in practice? Chung Wha, ED of Grassroots International, a public foundation funding social movements in the global south, named solidarity philanthropy as radically redefining the relationship between grantmaker and grantee, from having the transaction of funds defining the relationship to one of political solidarity. Specifically:

  1. Following the lead of movements – their vision and strategies and,
  2. Being in real relationship with movement leaders through self-awareness and responsive action.

Regan Pritzger, board chair of the Libra Foundation and Director of Kataly Foundation, responded to this from her standpoint as a white, wealth inheritor and board member for whom solidarity philanthropy means acknowledging my standpoint as a person who has benefited from these unfair, unjust societal structures. Naming with self-aware clarity: I will have blind spots. And an astute observation: Not only is it a good thing to follow movements it is the only way to effectively impact systemic change. Of the COVID 19 crisis specifically, Regan further reflected: As far as the seismic moment we are in, moments of crisis can entrench us in our individuality, if that is where fear sends us, or it can push us toward collectivism and mutual care. 

Jim Enote, CEO of the Colorado Plateau Foundation rejected the idea of a return to normal. In truth most of the world’s population is on a precipice, because of terrible policies many people do not have access to fresh water and food security. Of philanthropy specifically he emphasized the importance of taking Diversity Equity and Inclusion seriously – if boards and staff remain still stuck in the fit in the box orthodoxly of white men predominately making decisions, well the time is up! Harkening back to one of his earliest memories encountering whites-only public restrooms. 

Solome Lemma, ED of Thousand Currents, reflected on what a humbling moment this is for all of us, having to make changes, pause, abandon plans, travel less, consume less. We are learning what it means to exercise rigorous humility, having to truly accept what it means to live with uncertainty and complexity. And in the presence of severe gaps and failures in government responses, an extractive economy and explicit repression, she reminded us that this is the condition that our partners in global south deal with constantly. For philanthropy, she called this a moment of reckoning. Encouraging us to deepen solidarity, release control, shift power and invest in systems change solutions. While promising that in the wake of the pandemic many foundations have lifted restrictions and simplified excessive bureaucracy, Solome underscored that we need to make long term general support a floor, a starting point for philanthropy. Affirmed by this moment, our partners tell us there is no linear path for change, but that transformation is iterative and cyclical, grassroots movements working to topple entrenched systems have timelines for change that are generations long, for many they have been at this for 500 years.

Nick Tilsen, ED of the NDN Collective spoke of solidarity philanthropy as being arm and arm, together, and that we actually have to support one another through these times. He reflected on the fact that we’re in a time of practitioner-led philanthropy, guided by lived experience, and how different this is from armchair philanthropy, sitting at length from any intelligent proximity to the problems at hand. NDN is creating movement infrastructure for our people, communities, we are not just a re-granting intermediary. Even still, NDN Collective has active funding partners who still think that because we are an intermediary that we have to do what a funder asks us to do. That is challenging. Just last week I had a funder commit dollars and then pull back demanding they direct where we give the funding, to an organization we already would have supported, but I pushed back saying that is not how we want to be in relationship. These are the conversations we need to have, Nick reminded us, because this is how we put the idea of solidarity philanthropy into practice. And it isn’t just the responsibility of practitioners to call out these power dynamics, is it our collective responsibility.

Of the pandemic at hand, Chung Wha grounded the conversation is some fierce and painful statistics, acknowledging the of disparity impact. In Malawi: 25 ICU beds for 17 million people. In Gaza: only 93 ventilators for over 2 million people. In the U.S., Chicago: 70% of people who have died of COVID are black while making up only 30% of the population. An epidemic is inevitable but a pandemic is not because the route that the pandemic is traveling is through a very well-worn path of inequality and discrimination. After acknowledgment comes facing the root causes, the fact that many countries don’t have money for public health systems because they are paying out debts to the IMF. Follow the money, Chung Wha reminded us, look at the economic structural root causes and listen to the visionary demands put forth by movement leaders such including food sovereignty, feminist organizing, a solidarity economy.  

And of white supremacist constructs, the top down normalcy of typical philanthropy, Regan named her own personal exploration around decolonizing philanthropic practices, reflecting on the problematic English nomenclature that can trip you up. Words like program officer, executive director, language that has a militaristic quality, inherently hierarchical. Ultimately perpetuating a mindset that we hold power and you don’t. 

Nick reflected that anyone can perpetuate white supremacist constructs and gate-keep around wealth. How gatekeeping itself is the result of extreme underinvestment to begin with. And how the guarding language of “my funders” or “my grantees” – as if everything has to have ownership – is a particular cultural construction, a limiting one. These constructs are real. We see them play out. I think that when we are in positions of moving resources we need to be cognitive of our roles – hold ourselves accountable too. To be key-makers, creating access, breaking down doors being closed on people. Really thinking about how to change toward a culture of abundance not scarcity – a byproduct of white supremacy and constructs. 

This was echoed by Jim, who pointed out that boards in particular need to do the real work of self-reflection and evaluation. One could say just as much as they might ask of their grantees. Jim also spoke to the dangers of language. He shared a story: I can think of a time in the mid 80’s, here in Zuni, trying to raise funds for farming equipment. I spoke with a foundation and they said they had sustainable ag money and I thought hmm, a new idea, what is that? I figured it out but I had to translate that to Zuni farmers and they said, oh, just what we are doing? Okay, we’ll call it that, whatever. So we got the grant. But then it becomes, bio-cultural sovereignty, food justice – all good things, I get it, the ED’s get it, but it creates a distance between the ED’ s and the people they are in service to. A divide. My two favorite words in English are hope and clarity. Clarity is something we all need to be thinking about. 

Solome brought us back to values, the importance of anchoring our work around values, and be clear about what we stand for, and turn into embodied practice. Values like courage, humility, experimentation – it is a time for us to experiment, rethink, expand our imagination. Movements don’t act in silos, so neither can we. She offered the following:

  1. Release control, share power –give the unrestricted resources that movements need. 
  2. Move more money, double down so we can all rise up together. 
  3. How are our investments aligned with our mission? If they are in opposition, there is work to do. 
  4. Fund systems change, an ecosystem of partners and movements working in collaboration, and not single institutions, “heroes.” 
  5. Commit to an ongoing process of learning and self-reflection, learning that happens in community. 

Chung Wha gave the example of the Landless Workers in Brazil who have re-tooled their entire movement capacity to turn towards covid response, turning a 50 bed education facility into a field hospital. Emphasizing that what is needed is not food aid but food sovereignty. The leading edge of this crisis is public health, but soon it will turn into a hunger pandemic and whenever we’ve had a hunger pandemic rather than shifting power to communities to feed themselves, we’ve relied on industrial complex food aid. We cannot do that again. 

In describing the work of Colorado Plateau Foundation, Jim emphasized their regional focus – the Colorado Plateau. A part of the world where first languages are still spoken fluently and ceremonies are still going on since hundreds, thousands, of years. One of our mottos is we live where we serve. We know the social, political, economic and governance outlooks better than anyone could. Get resources to on the ground initiatives. I think this is part of the idea of accountability because when you live where you serve, well, some of our grantees are literally our neighbors, people we see at rodeos, track meets, etc. so if a grant is misdirected or causes problems we can’t hide anonymously in a big city somewhere. He emphasized the importance of trust, communicating and listening both ways. 

Again, back to the immediacy of this moment, Nick emphasized the need to double down. NDN Collective was quick to mobilize a response fund, with the goal of 10 million. Ambitious and also realistic in terms of actually responding adequately. At the time of this webinar, they’d raised 4 million dollars and deployed half that deftly. This is in addition to all their existing programs. Before covid people were talking about spending down but as soon as hard times hit people withdraw. This is the time to do more. Donor organizing matters. Philanthropic courage. 

Regan acknowledged how her co-panelists are all practitioners, working in institutions that are really accountable to the communities they are in relationship with by design and by culture, a cultural accountability loop that is baked in. 

Accountability. A persistent question, including from attendees listening and writing queries in. Solome offered that it might be helpful to reframe our understanding of accountability from one of control/oversight to being in right relationship. She explained being in right relationship as that of mutuality and offered three basic questions we can ask ourselves as funders: Who are we accountable to? What systems do we have to uphold that accountability? And, what are we learning from that accountability to change ourselves and to change our sector? Of Thousand Currents, she said they have their partners evaluate them. When we develop new strategies we ask partners to inform it. It was their partners who told them they weren’t doing enough to change the sector. And later, who asked what Thousand Currents was doing about the emerging field of impact investing. These reflections are what led to the ongoing Thousand Currents Learning Academy as well as the Buen Vivir Fund

In concluding, Jim reflected on the oft used word collaboration, how often people say we’re collaborating when we’ve just had a phone call. That word can be cavalierly used. To be true partners is two things: co-laboring toward something we’ve mutually agreed on and co-elaborating on what we’ve agreed on together. 

Chung-Wha agreed, just giving money away doesn’t count as collaborating, it’s about rolling up our sleeves. I hope that after a few years, that the evaluation will not be how many masks or how many sanitizing kits were purchased with all the covid 19 funding. But rather, how did you support the resilience of the moment so that communities can take on the existing crises. She called out the flippant way funders sometimes talk about communities being resilient. Resilience needs to be replenished, supported, you can have strong communities when movement groups are organizing the communities and creating collective spaces for safety, learning and liberation. 

Solome offered a warning and a vision: extraction and exploitation prey on our disconnection and our deficit of imagination so I hope we will break our silos and connect across borders, domestic with global, within communities that are intentionally disconnected from each other and from ourselves, reconnect with nature, and reclaim our imagination in all the ways we need to. 

Regan, again declared that the typical philanthropic industrial complex must transform: philanthropy has a potential but it should be rooted in community and equity. Coming from private philanthropy, I see my role as committing to a process of metamorphosis where other side will look nothing like what I inherited… there are so many things that are now politically possible and we can make difference to make them politically inevitable if we all work together. So let’s keep doing that. 

And lastly, Nick: this opportunity before us is absolutely massive but there are a lot of challenges in that opportunity too, I’m really thinking about infrastructure – led by indigenous people and people of color is super important. There are still a lot of folks that don’t believe that, a battle ensuing in this field. If we are successful then the whole system will look radically different, shifted power in decision making to those most impacted by the problem. This would change the trajectory of many of the issues we are facing today. Development of local food systems, democratization of energy, and building of community wealth. It comes down to solidarity, to changing the philanthropic landscape.

Echoing Regan, let’s do just that. 

Thank you, friends, for your wisdom.

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