The Problems With Philanthropy, and What We Can Do to Fix Them

Carmen Rojas headshot
As I step into a new role where I can provide support for people of color, I recognize philanthropy’s faults. I was not raised with ambitions of becoming a philanthropist or an understanding that a system existed to incentivize people to give their wealth under the guise of helping others.

I grew up in a household that didn’t need those incentives. We just gave. My parents were the first two people in their respective families to immigrate to the U.S. from Nicaragua, and with that came a responsibility to open our home to those making the journey to this new country.

My mom was one of the first homeowners in her family, making our kitchen counter, our living room, and our space the obvious places to eat, celebrate, and plan for our collective future and freedom. My family didn’t do the calculations of tax breaks or write-offs. They just did, like so many others do, the work of remembering that our fates are tied together and when one of us has some space to breathe, a place to rest, and food to eat, we are all better off.

I heard the whispers after meetings about how to “talk” to funders and manage them so that good work could still have the resources it needed.

Like many young people who wanted to be of service, I spent the early days of my career navigating the idiosyncrasies of foundations and funders. I witnessed some of the smartest people I knew folding themselves into pretzels for grants. I saw how consultants who had never lived in my community were funded to shape its future. I heard the whispers after meetings about how to “talk” to funders and manage them so that good work could still have the resources it needed.

I have since spent most of my professional career working with donors, foundations, and funders. My first fellowship out of college was mapping grants going to organizations led by Black and Latinx leaders in California — research that would lead to a push to legislate funding in the state. I’ve worked with donors seeking to protect and expand the right to vote and address our climate crisis, as well as funders who were reluctant to talk about the impact their dollars had on immigrant communities, communities of color, and low-income communities. I’ve been a program officer, grantee, and a board member of foundations. In each of these jobs, I have done my best to plant the seed that another way of funding is possible.

In 2020, I will assume the role of President and CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation. I will be leading one of the only nationally endowed foundations to primarily offer multiyear general operating support to organizations overwhelmingly led by immigrants, Black people, and people of color. It’s worth mentioning that I will be the only Latina and one of the youngest presidents of a nationally endowed foundation. Giving has never been more important in my life.

Philanthropy is experiencing an existential crisis. Academics and journalists argue the destructive role of institutional and individual donors purporting to advance racial and economic justice in communities across the U.S. These writers and researchers have highlighted the conflict between the often exploitative process of getting rich and the seemingly absolving process of philanthropic giving that follows. They demonstrate how the history of giving in this country has in fact threatened our democracy and exacerbated income inequality.

From within the sector, there have been less sophisticated calls for reform. We have witnessed the rise of a consultant class, promising to show donors the “right” way to give away their money or the “clean” way to support movements. I am less convinced by these claims and deeply compelled by assessments of those looking at us from the outside. What I know to be true is that both within and outside the field of philanthropy there are important questions about our role, value, and future that deserve our attention.

We are often motivated by a belief that our institutions are more precious than the people we purport to serve. This is not true.

On the one side, philanthropy is increasingly calling for transparency, more progressive people of color in leadership, and accountability for the ways our dollars can distort and destroy. On the other side, we value presence over power. We are unwilling to engage in the debates of our time beyond websites and newsletters. And we are often motivated by a belief that our institutions are more precious than the people we purport to serve. This is not true.

In my first year of community college, I read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Over the years, I have come to deeply admire what she had to say. Her stories about Black women, families, and communities helped this young Latina imagine an America that was not on my TV or in my textbooks. She was a Black writer who told stories for Black people that offered us all a richer American history and narrative. She is known for telling her students, “As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.”Dreaming is the gift we have at foundations, and it is often lacking from our most visible leaders.

Too often, when we make it to the top of our fields and institutions, dreaming is discouraged. We are, instead, told to assimilate and conform. We are told that in order for us to stay in these coveted positions, we must sacrifice some of our own. We are told not to be too political. The unfortunate result is that we often confuse ideology and values with partisanship, leaving a whole universe of dreams and possibilities on the table.

Here are my dreams: I dream of a world where everyone sleeps with a roof over their head and can eat when they are hungry; where everyone can see a doctor when they are sick; where everyone can provide care for themselves and their loved ones; where we are all stewards of the natural environment. I dream of a world where our democracy is representative and transparent; where taxes are the way we build a safety net and serve the majority of us; where cages aren’t how we heal or keep people; where we are not afraid to name those who work against our collective well-being; where social movements aren’t tethered to those who may not want them to win; where we can grapple with the White supremacy of our founding while building the anti-racist institutions of our future. I dream more about ending racial capitalism than I do about diversity, equity, and inclusion. I dream a lot about us and the greatness that we can achieve when giving to and of each other is incentive enough.

So, I am committed to giving all of myself in this next chapter of my work. I am committed to using every resource available to me — from the dollars to the platform — in service of social movements and storytellers. To lift up those building a democracy and an economy that works for everyone. To stand shoulder to shoulder with my trans and queer brothers and sisters. To make people of color and immigrants the protagonists of our collective story. To address the needs of those who work and are poor and those who are unhoused. Most importantly, I am committed to being of service to those who dream in ways that may not be my own but dream in the direction of freedom nonetheless.

Article reposted with permission from Zora by Medium