Sitting at the Intersection: Affinity

Philanthropy411, in partnership with the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Colin Lacon, President and CEO, Northern California Grantmakers.

By:  Colin Lacon

Each year during the Preconference sessions of the Council Annual meeting, several affinity groups gather and hold sessions that range from issues that reflect what has brought them together to challenges facing philanthropy viewed from the lens of the communities they represent and work on behalf of. Groups organizing these sessions include; the Association for Black Foundation Executives (ABFE), Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP), Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP), and Native Americans in Philanthropy.  To many attendees of the general conference, these sessions go un-noticed and when stumbled upon they are generally viewed as having very little to do with their interests, the grantmaking they do, or learning that might give guidance to the field or what is on the horizon for philanthropy.  This is an unfortunate conclusion, and in my opinion a misguided lack of attention and participation.

Part of the reason these groups were formed, beginning nearly 40 years ago, and has continued through the years, is that in doing the business of philanthropy and practicing grantmaking; several individuals believed that the interests, needs, and partnership with these ethnic populations and communities in philanthropy were very incomplete –and in some ways simply excluded from engagement.   These groups have worked over the years to build knowledge about these communities that can be shared with philanthropy. They have tried to lift the work of these communities that reflect the long history of philanthropy that is within these communities, and the promise provided by their ability to keep hope through the giving practice.  The affinity groups bring attention and clarity to the specific needs faced by these communities and over the years these groups have learned and shared a great deal with the greater philanthropic community.

At a time when the consideration of how we do our work in this field called philanthropy with an aim to be more effective, there are echoes of words like diversity, inclusion, equity, community, civic participation, and grassroots partnership.  Each word signaling new engagement of communities that would provide pathways to improve our work. It has been suggested that our field would be stronger if we are to really understanding the needs and the potential of the communities we work with in our grantmaking. These are the very topics and struggle for understanding that the affinity groups have been working on over these 40 years.

I believe it is time that we stop thinking of the work of these groups as isolated, specialized, or minimal fringe efforts.  Rather, this work is core to what we have been calling engaged and new philanthropy.  Deep partnership, authentic value based learning alongside communities, and the development of measures and aspiration that arises out of knowing the uniqueness and complexity of communities.  As a community of learners, we must begin to embrace the calling and the knowledge of the affinity groups within the way we look at our work.  We must begin to see it as a deep strand of what can guide our sense of effectiveness through understanding.  As well, the Council on Foundations should seek to incorporate this knowledge not only as part of a preconference agenda -but as a thoughtful and practical approach to addressing the issues we face in our work.  Engaging these groups to be part of the conference planning, active participants in sessions of a variety of subject topics, and allowing space to have their learning be explored as ways to discuss effectiveness not only as a goal, but as practice of how we work, who we work with, and allows communities to be part of the evaluator of success.

This may seem very abstract, and I can imagine that some reading this may shrug my comments off as another singular voice that has a particular interest in a community or issue.  My comments may be viewed by some as another splintering of philanthropy and a narrow look at how we approach this work.  However, I offer that this is a way to look at our work more broadly.  It is a chance for us to put the character, the promise, and the power of the communities we work with at the center of our strategies and have our work be about their vision, not ours.  I urge us all not to think of the work that the affinity groups are doing as singular, but lighted doorways into the means by which we can make a difference working alongside the communities we work with everyday.  There is so much to learn, there is so much to be gained.  Learning for much of philanthropy is present in this work, and we are missing out when it is not given the platform and honest acknowledgment by our leaders and lead institutions. We must find ways to embrace these communities and this work not only as inclusion, but as a framework for giving and a practice toward change.  The grantmaking community would learn a great deal, and I believe the field would move forward in significant measure if this learning became part of our open and central deliberation.