On Fire


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 Rebecca Arno, Vice President of Communications at the Denver Foundation.

by:  Rebecca Arno

How do you set a room full of philanthropists on fire? Put Gara LaMarche from Atlantic Philanthropies in front of the crowd with a panel of eight keynote-quality speakers and have them dissect social justice philanthropy. The crowd hooted and applauded like it was the state of the union address – which, in a way, it was.

After a “lightning round” of definitions for social justice – liberty and justice for all (Van Jones), giving people tools, capacity, and lawyers (Constance Rice from the Advancement Project), challenging both attitudes and systems (Avila Kilmurray from the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland) – Kumaran Naidoo from Greenpeace asked the first incendiary question: How does change happen when you give 80% of philanthropic dollars to service delivery, and far, far less to advocacy and macro issues?

Akwasi Aidoo from TrustAfrica responded with a challenge: perhaps social transformation can start as service delivery. Naidoo agreed that advocacy can certainly be strengthened by a connection with service, but that it is seductive for philanthropic professionals…because we seek quick returns on our investments, when social change can take generations.

As a communications professional, my personal fire burned at the discussion of the role of media in social justice. Ana Paula Hernandez from the Angelica Foundation urged strategic media work for social justice advocates. Kilmurray reminded the crowd that media is ever more localized and suggested that even “beer mats” (known as coasters here in the States) in pubs and discussions at hairdressers’ shops might be appropriate strategies for changing attitudes. “We need to get to people where they actually decide what they think about issues.”

The crowd revved up as conversation turned to the current philanthropic fascination with metrics. Naidoo fanned the flames with observations about philanthropy’s “cultural infection with business values”…but Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change reminded us that a lot of well-intentioned mediocrity passes itself off as social justice, so some kinds of metrics are needed. One of my favorite observations on the metrics front came from Eboo Patel of Interfaith Youth Core, who said that they envision their outcomes “not as Monets, but as detailed Polaroids.” Rice noted that if philanthropists would put up the kind of money needed to accomplish the appropriate strategies, she could provide metrics. But in the absence of a large enough investment, metrics can be a distraction.

This was a room where truly powerful voices told truth to power. While I don’t yet know how they will influence my work at The Denver Foundation, I can say that I’ve never seen a room at a Council on Foundations conference like this one – with more than 200 people on fire for social justice, nine remarkable evangelists at the ready to spark us to action. Now, will this conference offer us more fuel for the fire?

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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