Opinion
Performing Philanthropy

Speaking Truth to Power

Critiques of philanthropic practices are coming from every direction, prompting some foundations to change their behavior.

Speaking Truth to Power

It’s never been easier for nonprofits, academics, and policymakers to review and critique the funding practices of the U.S. grantmaking sector.

Social media channels alone have offered grant applicants new ways to rage against the funding machine. Foundations have made progress in their own transparency practices, making it easier to see what they do, who they fund, and what difference they think it makes. And new efforts are underway to help those seeking grants deliver anonymous feedback through Yelp-like channels.

Piling on are the authors of several best-selling books that critique philanthropy. If you’re interested in the practice of philanthropy, you should, at the very least, read the reviews. Check out just three of the recent books provoking conversation in the nonprofit sector: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance by Edgar Villanueva, and Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better by Robert Reich.

Important questions are being raised about philanthropy’s intent, structure, and responsiveness.

Of course, not all critiques are fair and well-informed. But the confluence of intense critiques is notable. Increasingly loud critical voices represent not only an assessment of results after a generation of expanding professional philanthropy, but also the analysis that philanthropy is mainly directed toward what are judged as elite causes—or, in Reich’s description, show “plutocratic bias.”

Many people and organizations in philanthropy are stepping up efforts to listen and respond to critics’ rising voices. Recently in Minnesota, for example, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) held its national conference, and Aaron Dorfman, president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), spoke to a gathering of nonprofit leaders sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

Serious questions are being raised about philanthropy’s intent and responsiveness to nonprofits.

CEP says it is an organization wholly devoted “to improving philanthropic performance through data and insight … based on a vision of the world in which pressing social needs are more effectively addressed.” CEP has developed adaptable customer surveys for foundations to use to assess grantees’ perceptions of their work. Multiple Minnesota foundations use CEP’s survey instruments to strengthen communications with local nonprofits and change processes that grantees identify as needing improvement.

Learn more about this work by visiting the McKnight Foundation’s website, where it’s been reporting on McKnight’s work with CEP since 2003. You can find biennial perception reports, and McKnight president Kate Wolford responds to grantees’ ideas with a commitment to changes in practice. (Not every foundation that uses CEP’s grantee perception tool demonstrates the same level of transparency as McKnight, which shares the usually confidential reports in their entirety and responds to each one with significant changes in practice.)

Conference sessions for philanthropy leaders during CEP’s sold-out Minneapolis–based conference included sessions such as Money and Markets in a Just Society; Philanthropy and Public Policy: Undue Influence or Crucial Strategic Lever; and Philanthropy’s Role in Moving Beyond Political Divisions.

CEP doesn’t advocate for a particular funding strategy, but rather that foundations should pursue their chosen strategy effectively. NCRP’s work is more targeted, with a stronger point of view on where philanthropic dollars should be spent.

NCRP’s advocacy is to push private foundations “to do more for those who are marginalized, underserved, and disenfranchised.” In a recently updated strategic framework, NCRP promises to “drive resources toward social movements” in fields such as immigrant rights, education equity, and the movement for black lives.

NCRP also has created a toolkit for foundations called Power Moves. The online kit includes a self-assessment guide for reflecting on how a foundation builds power with its constituents, shares power with stakeholders, and wields power through public advocacy for change. 

Some of NCRP’s most visible work is its research and reporting on grantmaking patterns and trends, and its active set of blog posts, case studies, and research highlights that amplify the work of funders that are committed to spending their dollars on those most in need.

If all this seems like a lot of reading, just skip it all and read Vu Lee’s laugh-out-loud and spot-on weekly blog, Nonprofit AF. In it, he tackles tricky subjects like grantseeker-grantmaker relationships, spotlights inspiring work in the sector, and courageously critiques the grantmakers he encounters as the development director of a Seattle–based nonprofit. If you subscribe, his posts will hit your inbox on Monday mornings, offering a fresh take on the struggles of raising money to support a social justice nonprofit and dropping what Twitter calls #truthbombs.

Many more #truthbombs are being launched at philanthropy today. Watch for changes in practice as these voices increase in strength.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul–based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.

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