Our founders built this foundation by bringing a group of women together to learn how to be better philanthropists, make change happen in the world, and be more deeply involved in their community. They believed that through learning, and by pooling smaller gifts into larger ones, collectively the women of the Foundation would be a force for positive community transformation. We would be stronger and go farther if we went together.
I believe that too. I believe in the power of women, of collective action, of learning. And I believe that the power of those things, brought together, can change the world.
For many years we at Washington Women’s Foundation (WaWF) used standards and metrics to evaluate our community transformation in ways that were considered the best practices in philanthropy. We learned to be strong philanthropists! Our grants were few, but they were large. Many members felt that a sign of our success was the hundreds of organizations that applied for a chance to secure one of our sizeable gifts—it showed that we were sought after as funders. Nonprofit staff in the area would praise our members for being sophisticated and knowledgeable donors. Our grantees told us that receiving a WaWF grant had profound and lasting impacts on their organization and the people they served. We learned how to examine a nonprofit, determine its worth, and analyze its impact from the very best philanthropists of the day.
And it showed.
Some of those best practices meant we eliminated scores of organizations led by the same people who were closest to the inequities we were trying to address. Something in our well-learned best practice had led to an outcome where, in 23 years of granting and over 100 grants given out, we had only granted two gifts to organizations run by women of color that focused on people of color. Two. In over two decades. Whatever metrics we were using, whatever best practices we were employing, BIPOC communities —and the women of those communities in particular—were being left out of our circle of support. The impacts of white supremacy are insidious indeed. We had unwittingly perpetuated our own version of the very same inequities that drove the need we were trying to alleviate, granting an overwhelming majority of our resources to white-led organizations.
Change was needed.
The current strategic framework that we adopted in 2018 laid out where we wanted our organization to go and the changes we wanted to manifest. Over the last few years, we have been making strides on that journey towards adopting new best practices in philanthropic giving, practices informed not by norms of traditional charity, but by the needs of the people we wish to serve.
One of our most visible changes has been the new grant criteria. Recognizing that racial and gender inequities lay at the heart of so many of the injustices in our society, we made decreasing those the cornerstone of our granting. In the last three years we have granted gifts to five times as many organizations led by women of color than in all of our previous 23 years combined. A remarkable shift, but we aren’t done yet!
We have heard from members and nonprofit partners alike that there are other aspects of our granting that seem to perpetuate systemic biases. We need to make our grants less of a time burden on our grantees. We need to understand what issues the people we serve hold up as the most pressing and then fund those. We need to humbly assess our usefulness to our grantees. And we need to further explore how to put our collective approach to use addressing systemic racial and gender injustice. All of these goals are incorporated into our strategic framework. Closing in on these goals is our work going forward.
I did want to point out that we are not alone in this realization that philanthropic efforts needed reassessment. Activists and change-makers and nonprofit professionals themselves have been pointing out for decades that philanthropy does not address the problems of our society with enough vigor. In the words of the immortal Martin Luther King Jr., circa 1963, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
The role of philanthropist has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Our internal realizations and the work we are now embarked on is very much part of the zeitgeist.
In 2007 INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence published a book of essays titled The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. Born of a conference of the same name, it is a read that is both enlightening and searing. The essays lay bare the ways in which foundations prevent progress through their tight control of the resources needed for transformational work. The writers, activists, and academics featured question and condemn the way in which traditional philanthropy muffles authentic activism, and they assert that true change must be grounded in the grassroots power of the people.
Similar voices followed, around the same time that we were writing our strategic framework. David Callahan’s The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age came out in 2017. A year later Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance and Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World erupted almost simultaneously onto the scene. Vu Le’s Nonprofit AF blogposts were rapidly picking up steam in the realm of social media. Community-Centric Fundraising – an entire movement grounded in repositioning the relationship between funders and nonprofits – was shooting out tendrils that would reach far beyond its Seattle origins. These thought leaders’ influences have only widened since publication. Giridharadas, for instance, was featured on Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act (Why Billionaires Won’t Save Us | Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj | Netflix ), The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Anand Giridharadas – “Winners Take All” and the Paradox of Elite Philanthropy | The Daily Show ), and even gained a brief stint as the host of his own show, Seat at the Table on Vice TV. Criticism of wealthy funders and the way philanthropy has not led to systemic change—and indeed, has even stymied it—has gone mainstream.
Meaning of course, that this an exciting time, indeed, to be part of this sector! Funders across our city, state and country—and indeed, our world—are trying out new ways of doing their work: The Satterberg Foundation with their commitment to multi-year gifts. Social Venture Partners and their decision to shift their membership donation level. Mama Cash, an extraordinary women’s foundation based in the Netherlands, who has changed their giving to being fully participatory, with grantees and former grantees making all their grant decisions. The Black Future Co-op Fund, hosted by the Seattle Foundation, created by Black people for Black people. I have been impressed and awed by so many of the innovative ideas I have seen coming forth – and I have no doubt more are on the way!
In my own learning journey, I was particularly taken by the fervent charge that came from the BIPOC ED Coalition of Washington State. A group of more than 200 nonprofit organizations led by Black, Indigenous and other Peoples of Color across the state, this group of leaders came together and issued a challenge to the foundation world. In the wake of COVID-19’s devastating impact they wrote to funders to urge them “to double the amount of funding you release to nonprofits; ensure the additional funds are going to organizations led by and serving Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color; foster long-term stability of these organizations by providing multi-year, general operating grants; and support systems-change work led by these communities.”
They further called on every foundation in our state to sign a pledge, publicly declaring their intention to work towards these goals. This is a pledge I am proud to say WaWF signed as an early adopter, and we did so because this is the work we need to do. This is what we are working towards.
We are working to increase our funding. We are driving our grants to organizations that serve communities that have had to resist appalling inequities based on race and gender. We are working to foster long-term relationships and support for our grantees – if not with our collective fund, then with our members’ individual giving. Our values themselves demand that we support efforts to end systemic oppression. As we have always done, we are learning together to guide our philanthropy to a new best practice. We are learning together that philanthropy must be more than a merely commendable act. We are learning together that our collective action as women must address the injustices that make our philanthropy necessary at all.