How I Learned to Embrace Family Philanthropy’s Contradictions (And Why This Matters in Today’s Urgent Social Justice Moment)

Act I: Family Philanthropy = Bad?

My siblings and I found out that we were on the board of a family foundation six years ago over Christmas dinner. “Surprise! We are now the Pink House Foundation!” my parents announced over root vegetables and waning holiday cheer. (Our house in Northwest Washington, DC was bright pink.)

My parents—whose wealth had been earned over the previous ten years of my father’s work with a rapidly growing biotechnology company—decided that rather than continue to accumulate the wealth (with personal donations here and there), they wanted to start giving in a systematic, accountable way that included their four young adult children.

As my white Midwestern parents, who came from middle-class backgrounds, explained, their intent was to create a shared culture of giving so that their new wealth would not be normalized and/or misused in the years to come. The foundation’s presidency, they had determined, would rotate between the six of us every year. Each year the new president would, completely autonomously, select a giving theme (the first year’s was Eating Disorder Awareness), send out a targeted request for proposals, review all of the applications, and pitch the board on whom to fund.

Despite my parents’ solid intentions (I’ve since learned that many young people are actively kept out of family foundations), I felt a deep dissonance as I reviewed the articles of incorporation. One year of college under my belt, I had recently started awaking to the realities of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (h/t bell hooks). The on-going genocide of Native people, the horrific history of slavery and the racist policies it has informed, the ever-growing wealth divide, hetero/sexism and rape culture—these were (are) huge problems in the US that demanded collective action led by the communities directly affected by them. It doesn’t take much digging (none at all, really) to uncover the generations of wealthy white people who have benefitted financially from the suffering of these marginalized communities, for whom oppression is a keen business strategy and philanthropy the twisted art of avoiding responsibility.

The way I saw it, another foundation led by wealthy white people removed from most of these realities could do little to change the root causes of oppression and suffering.

Act II: Family Philanthropy = Bad But Maybe Kinda Helpful Sometimes?

For several years after the official establishment of the Pink House Foundation I tried to avoid it completely. Since avoidance was impossible (we meet twice a year as a board), I became a version of the Sloppy Shaming Radical—I would ignore all e-mails and conversations related to the foundation, then, when the board meetings came around, would unleash six months of pent up rage in a charming more-intellectual-and-enlightened-than-thou way. It was not great. For anyone.

Luckily for me (and my family), after college I started to spend more time in the community organizing world, learning how to (a) listen and (b) respond earnestly and skillfully. (This process is—and will be, for my entire life—on-going.) These skills were hugely important in learning how to engage one-on-one, whether door-knocking for good jobs or entering a foundation board meeting with my family. I was able to experience winning campaigns as part of my work with a labor-community coalition in Connecticut (yes, labor still wins things), while successfully moving some of the foundation’s money to environmental and economic justice work.

Being a part of grassroots organizing taught me a lot about the realities of transformative social justice work in the US—it is inspiring, yes, and it is also deeply under-funded. I learned that there are some kickass anti-oppression organizations that choose not to rely on foundation grants (and for good reasons—autonomy, membership accountability, etc.), but most must seek foundation funding in order to have success in their mission-driven work.

I saw how much time it took to write grants that paid just enough for the time that it took to write the grants, how each social justice organization staff member is expected to do the work of 2-5 people, and how an endless cadre of phone bank volunteers are needed to raise money just for month-to-month operating expenses. I heard leaders of organizations that I worked with calling for funding that came without project-specific stipulations, without overly complex grant applications, and without burdensome reporting guidelines.

Aware of the financial needs of social justice movements and my access to a funding source I was still somewhat avoiding, I decided it was (beyond) time to start being more intentional when it came to the foundation. I started to piece together that between rejecting privilege and relaxing into privilege there is the option of leveraging privilege. This is by far the most active choice—to leverage is literally to insert force between two seemingly unmovable entities until—voila—there is space.

It was time for me to move toward what I was uniquely positioned to offer social movements rather than what I considered to be the purest or most radical. But how, exactly?

Act III: Family Philanthropy = A Contradiction We Can Leverage for Justice

This is where Resource Generation came in. It wasn’t until my first Resource Generation retreat (Making Money Make Change) that I started to accept the truth in Angela Davis’ statement, “Maturity is knowing which contradictions you can live with.” Yes, foundations are established on the unjust, racialized accumulation of wealth, and there is a deep need, particularly in this moment, for foundations and donors to stand on the side of justice and dedicate their resources to transformative social change.

At the end of 2015, encouraged by organizer friends and RGers alike, I made the choice to leave my social justice work in Connecticut, move back to the DC area, and take on the challenge of these contradictions by running for president of our foundation. Since my family had encouraged a rotation of presidents, and my siblings had become disillusioned to the administrative work that they did not have time for in their post-graduation lives, being elected president was fairly straightforward. That I was no longer side-eyeing everyone at all of our meetings—and actively engaging with them about their opinions and perspectives—did not hurt my campaign.

A few months into my new leadership role I was able to attend RG’s Transforming Family Philanthropy retreat. There I found myself in sessions led by social justice leaders and funders who gave highly specific suggestions for how to leverage privilege to support social movements.

Mijo Lee from Social Justice Fund Northwest dug into the grant application process, encouraging funders to remove budget questions (which are not legally required and are often a waste of applicants’ time) and ask about the demographics of an organization’s leadership so as to ensure that funding gets to organizations led by the community members they seek to help. Lori Choi of Veris Wealth Partners talked to me about socially responsible investment opportunities that further our impact by putting our foundation’s endowment to good use in addition to our grants budget. Dozens of other young attendees involved in family philanthropy shared with me what had and had not worked for them in their own efforts, the success stories often centering around intentional relationship-building with board members/trustees.

After TFP I had a one-on-one phone call with each member of the board/family and presented them with everything I had learned (pages and pages of notes condensed into twenty or so bullet points) and, more importantly, asked them open-ended questions about what they thought about these potential changes for the foundation, what seemed most important and/or doable, and what other priorities they would add to the list.

Despite the comforting vision of myself as the sole (and inimitable) purveyor of justice in my privileged family, every single board member offered ideas that have since been incorporated into our shift toward prioritizing social justice. Through their input on dozens of phone calls, meetings, and videochats since that post-TFP call, my entire family has helped shape the core values and mission, reviewed and given feedback on strategy, criteria, and priorities, and much more.

Since then, we at the Pink House Foundation have taken huge steps when it comes to integrating social justice principles into our work. In just under a year we worked together to institute a broad set of changes that included:

  • Giving grants to 15 transformative social justice organizations led by people of color in 2016 (see here for a full list of our awesome grantees)
  • Increasing the size of our grants from $5,000/year to $20-40,000/year
  • Extending grant terms from 1 year to 1-3 years
  • Doubling our grants budget
  • Shifting from having a different grant focus every year to a commitment to funding social movements for the long haul
  • Rewriting our mission statement to solidify our social justice focus (with key language about incorporating a racial justice and intersectional analysis)
  • Hiring a badass consultant with ten years of experience supporting social movements (who also acts as a facilitator at our board meetings)
  • Starting to fund 501(c)(4) organizations that engage in issue-based and political campaign work
  • Removing budget requests and other burdensome questions from our grant application
  • Engaging in socially responsible investing

All of these changes were made with the needs of grassroots movements in mind, as informed by RG organizers and conference presenters, our consultant’s relationship to organizers on the ground, our grantees themselves, and organizers/friends in social movements. That we are working to be accountable to movements rather than forcing them to be accountable to us is at the heart of the shift that we are trying to make.

Act IV: Family Philanthropy = A Contradiction We Can Leverage for Justice If We Are Super Intentional About It

I want to be clear that my story is unusual; my family has been very open to doing things differently, already has a commitment to social change (despite varying political opinions), and lacks an entrenched money-protecting impulse that often accompanies wealth. They are awesome.

Still, this work can be challenging for any family and I offer some general takeaways that I hope can be helpful:

  • Always returning to the needs and priorities of social justice movements (as articulated by grassroots leaders) allowed me to feel confident in the steps that I was taking and kept me going when internal and external struggles would emerge.
  • Setting clear goals for growth and change centered on social justice principles/practices helped the board to meet on the same page.
  • Consistently engaging with board members via one on one meetings and/or calls with clear asks went a long way. Preparing for these calls in advance and being openly grateful afterwards definitely helped.
  • Hiring a consultant/facilitator with experience in social change philanthropy may have been the most important thing that we did. Having a non-family member in the room who was able to connect with everyone, see family dynamics, and articulate social justice concepts in a clear and patient way created a relaxed atmosphere where we could work together with minimal tension.
  • Finding a good therapist offered me a way to talk through tensions and patterns that emerged in this process. Counseling (therapy, co-counseling, Al-Anon, etc.) is something I recommend to everyone whose family foundation is full of complex family dynamics (they all are), especially those for whom those family spaces can be re/traumatizing. When challenging family dynamics have the power to potentially hinder the distribution of (hundreds of) thousands of dollars to social movements, working through that in some type of therapy is a hugely political act. (Note: for some people, staying away from their family foundation entirely is a valid and therapeutic act.)
  • Engaging in organizing outside of family philanthropy allowed me to stay rooted in and tuned into the work that was happening on the ground throughout this process. Being a dues-paying, active member of anti-oppression organizations—from writing press releases to making art to taking on an arrestable role at a mobilization—offers young people with wealth an opportunity to learn about the power of social justice work firsthand.
  • Having fun as a board/family has held the work together in the hard moments. When we tried to have a board meeting over a five-way skype call, when the Secretary (who shall remain nameless) was caught on Facebook during the meeting in a photo that emerged afterward, when we had a meeting in an old timey Montana bank before our friend’s wedding—all of these situations were navigable because of our ability to poke fun at ourselves.

Act V: Family Philanthropy = A Contradiction We MUST Leverage for Justice in this Urgent Political Moment

I cannot end this post without talking about the presidential election. The political moment that we are in demands so much more of family foundations than what we are offering right now. Though our foundation has made many changes, we have a long way to go. All foundations and donors should be exploring how we can do more to support social justice in this moment.

While the urgency can lead people like me to want to get back to on-the-ground organizing—to disidentify with the privileged white people who actively or tacitly supported Trump—the urgency of the moment, in my mind, demands a move toward the contradictions rather than toward a sort of social justice purity.

We at the Pink House Foundation are striving to listen to grantees and movement leaders to help chart the way forward for the foundation. A few of our grantees have recently communicated to us that social justice funders need to be more visible and organize other donors to shift their giving as well so we are now working on this (starting with this blog post!). There has also been a consistent call to expand funding for community organizing, power building and community defense infrastructure, so we are looking into ways that we might be able to increase our budget again this year to answer the call. We have also started making rolling discretionary grants so that we can give small grants throughout the year as needs arise.

Still, I know that this is not enough. We in the family philanthropy world have a long way to go on our path to redistributing wealth in increasingly transformative ways. If you are feeling at all stuck, I highly recommend Resource Generation’s upcoming 3-part webinar series on advancing social justice through family philanthropy. One of the most important things that Resource Generation taught me is that there are hundreds+ of people who have been asking these same questions—and coming up with creative solutions—for way longer than I have. Take what you can from this post, reach out to me directly, get connected with your local RG chapter—there are endless ways that you can start leveraging your privilege right now, contradictions and all.


By Hanna  Mahon. Hanna is a current member of Resource Generation and president of the Pink House Foundation.

 

Resource Generation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *