Triple A Advice for Philanthropy: Become Advocates, Activists and Accelerants

October 31, 2011 at 2:05 pm Leave a comment

Sherece West

This week we are pleased to share the keynote address of Sherece West, Ph.D., Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

Thank you for the invaluable opportunity to participate in the OGF Philanthropy Forward ‘11 conference. Ohio is a beautiful state and I am blessed to work with many of my grantmaker colleagues in attendance. Ohio has a robust funding community, especially community foundations doing innovative and thoughtful grantmaking. In preparation for this keynote I picked up the phone and called on a couple of Ohio funders for your wisdom and advice because of the many similarities between Arkansas and Ohio. Ohio and Arkansas are challenged by poor education outcomes at the high school and college levels. We are challenged with the social and economic costs of persistent poverty due to lack of access to opportunities that can lead to success. Poor people have less access to health insurance, well-funded schools, livable wage jobs, better service in the justice system, access to opportunity to benefit from public systems and private markets. We are challenged by the transition that seems not to want to end from an agricultural to manufacturing to knowledge and technology-based economy with livable wage jobs. We are challenged to stem our brain drain in rural parts of Ohio, bridge the digital divide and build communities that will sustain entrepreneurs and attract commerce and economic opportunity.

Now we all know our challenges and what we are up against. I am not going to use my 20 minutes to go through Ohio and Arkansas’ negative statistics on child and family well being. We know them so there is no need to rehash them. I will use my 20 minutes to pose the question “what are we going to do?” What are we going to do to fund our future? What are we going to do to move philanthropy forward? What are we going to do?

  • What are we going to do to make rural Ohio a priority for national funders and the federal government?
  • What are we going to do to attract public resources to leverage our grantmaking and make scalable best practices?
  • What are we going to do to influence public policy decisions?
  • What are we going to do with our limited resources to be part of the solution as opposed to continuing to perpetuate the problems through grantmaking practices and approaches?

So what are we going to do? What can we do to fund Ohio in the 21st century? Here is what we can do. We can become the advocates, activists and accelerants our Ohio communities need us as funders to be to create vibrant communities through homegrown philanthropy. Whether you are a private foundation with an endowment, a public charity with a significant donor base, a community foundation or local affiliate or a family foundation, there is much you can do as a funding community in Ohio and an individual foundation to push the envelope to fund Ohio’s future.

Advocates to move Ohio Philanthropy Forward
Grantmaking in the 21st century should invest heavily in advocacy and organizing. It’s the best way to leverage our limited dollars. The scope of the problems we are trying to address is so large – government spending dwarfs foundation giving on every single issue – that we’ve got to fund civic engagement and community organizing if we hope to have real impact. A series of reports from NCRP’s Grantmaking for Community Impact Project shows a high return on investment from these kinds of foundation investments. Across the seven sites and with 110 nonprofits in the sample, the ROI was $115 to $1. For every dollar invested in this work, the community saw $115 in benefits. Regardless of the issue or constituency that is advocating or organizing, we all benefit from the ripple effects, social inclusion and deliberative democracy/civic engagement are advanced.

Foundations as advocates is crucial in the 21st century. Foundations can go to Capitol Hill and state legislatures and talk with our congressional and state representatives about funding formulas. We can support data and research that informs the policy debate. Bring technical expertise to help us consider the best short-term and long-term approaches. We can use our convening power to spur conversation and educate policymakers and advocates about what is best for our Ohio communities. We can go to the Department of Agriculture, Education, the White House, Surgeon General’s Office. We can meet with local school boards, Ohio Department of Education, Ohio Health and Human Services. If your foundation does not have the resources to go to Washington or visit the state capitol, collaborate with one that does and shares your point of view.

Your point of view determines your advocacy agenda. We’ve got to strategically target our investments in the 21st century. Wanting our grantmaking to benefit the entire community is a noble goal. But if we aren’t intentional about making sure that our grant dollars are benefiting disenfranchised folks – lower income communities, people of color, women and girls, you name it – then those groups are going to get left behind. The way we make sure our dollars benefit everyone in the 21st century is by being intentional about making sure everyone is included. Then those groups benefit and so does the entire community. Unfortunately, philanthropy hasn’t been too good about that in the past. NCRP’s research has shown that only 10% of arts funding benefits underserved populations, only 28% of health funding and only 11% of education funding.

Activists to Move Ohio Forward in 21st Century
Sherece, are you saying to me I should engage in vigorous action in support of or in opposition to one side of a controversial issue? Yes I am. Do we want our Ohio 3rd graders to read on grade level by the time the reach 4th grade? Then we need to be activists and fiercely support policy and practice that support that goal or fiercely oppose policy and practice that go against it. Do we want to increase Ohio’s college graduation rates? Then we may need to fiercely support performance-based funding, and/or shorten the time to degree completion and/or reduce remediation.

The creation of new economies in rural areas of Ohio with livable wage jobs is more likely to happen with activism. Building the capacity of Ohio’s nonprofit infrastructure to play its role in civil society generally and rural society if you will specifically is more likely to happen with activism. Bringing to scale the outstanding work of many of our nonprofits to provide services and supports to rural citizens is more likely to happen with activism.

The concept of activism as a funder is scary to most. We may need to get over our fear as funders in Ohio communities of activism. Being quiet and passive and polite may not be as effective as collecting data to educate your constituency to develop community change goals and work aggressively and proactively toward influencing how resources are used in a community and advocating for the appropriate amount of resources to accomplish community change goals.

Much of Ohio is in decline for one basic reason – opportunity is shrinking. The demand for Ohio workers – skilled or unskilled – is less today than previously. Ohio areas have more people than there are jobs, especially living wage jobs. Poverty is prevalent. Moving from poverty to prosperity means fighting for the resources within and outside our communities to successfully make the transition. It may require Ohio funders changing current behavior to activism versus passivism. We ought to proactively garner the resources and supports we need, especially local community foundations, for a long term systemic change agenda.

Ohio grantmakers as Accelerants for Change, Light a Fire
Organized philanthropy can only succeed if the human, financial and organizational resources it offers are deployed strategically and appropriately alongside other public and private sectors and actors in society. Philanthropy is called the research and development arm of society. At its best, it uses its unique role to identify and understand the dimensions of deeply-rooted societal problems, test strategies to address them, lay the foundation and serve as the catalyst for change.

The tax exempt status granted foundations compels us as grantmakers to be the catalysts for change. As seen in the Occupy Wall Street movement, the public is ready for change – we need it desperately. Now is the time for us to leverage our power as the potential catalysts for systemic reforms that strengthen our democracy and advance life opportunities for all. Practicing philanthropy in these ways is one route to achieving our shared purpose of catalyzing change.

We need to be that substance that speeds up a process. We need to light a fire under Ohio grantmaking. Community foundations’ infrastructures need to grow. Community philanthropy must include those who live and work in their communities as part of the solution and not as the recipients of benevolent gifts. If strategies to address root causes of problems and to move those families on the margin of our communities toward the mainstream are to be effective, individuals and communities must be included in their development. Philanthropy can be that catalyst to speed up the development.

Use philanthropic tools such as program-related investing and mission related investing to accelerate funding Ohio’s future. We have made several PRIs to venture capital funds, loan funds, business incubators and the like to spur development, spur innovation and entrepreneurship and create jobs in Arkansas on a small scale. Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation made a deposit to Hope Credit Union in College Station, a disinvested community in Little Rock. The deposit helps to build the credit union’s capital that will focus the use of the deposit on housing development. We have switched our banking to Southern Bancorp a CDFI that WRF founded.

Some of you may see your role as an advocate, some as activist and others as accelerants lighting a fire on home growing philanthropy. You may be all three or two of the three. We are all working in common unity to fund Ohio’s future. In common unity as a community your role as Ohio funders must advocate for equitable distribution of resources since federal and state governments are significant funders in our communities. We must work as activists to stem the tide of poverty caused by lack of access to opportunity in Ohio communities by attracting outside resources. We must work as accelerants on growing the capacity and resources to our community foundations that are invaluable to getting this work done and look at additional tools at our disposal such as PRIs and MRIs.

The future of funding Ohio future is in your hands. What are you going to do?


Entry filed under: Annual Conference 2011, Commentaries, OGF News.

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