The 2020 crucible: How will philanthropy change (or not)?
By Guest Columnist FRANK FERNANDEZ, president/CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta
The world has changed. Twice. I’ve heard dozens of variations on this theme over the last five months since the pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice began.
For COVID-19, these vary from the small – we will stop shaking hands and wash them a lot more (and longer) – to the large – there will be a “hard reset” of our economic system and a seismic shift away from global institutions. For racial injustice, the responses are more tempered, but still significant – we will finally do something about systemic racism. I take these prognostications with a grain of salt. Uncertainty abounds. We are all guessing at what the future holds for us, for our communities, for our world.
So far, not much has changed. We are seeing people of color – especially Black and Latinx communities, in places like Atlanta’s Westside, Peoplestown, Buford Highway and others – with disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19 related infection and death. Indeed, a recent study suggests that over 80% of COVID-19 related hospitalizations in Georgia were Black Americans. Working class and lower income folks are experiencing higher levels of job losses, pay cuts and furloughs. Those who have jobs are working under a greater risk of infection because they are deemed “essential workers.” And, unfortunately but not surprisingly, many of the public sector responses intended to help protect Americans from the negative impacts of this global crisis are out of reach and inaccessible to those very individuals, small businesses and nonprofits that they are meant to support.
Our racial injustice “awakening” is similarly fraught. Over the last six weeks we have seen tremendous public outcry and protests across the nation, hearteningly led by young people in response to the deaths of Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. My son was one of those who protested, telling me that, “This has gotta change.” It will change. And then, a few weeks later, white officers kill another black man, Rayshard Brooks, here in Atlanta, the Black Mecca.
Like I said, not much has changed.
If the last five months have shown us anything, it is that we don’t have two different crises right now. We have one deep-seated, long-term crisis. Namely, that our American economic and political systems suffer from a fairness and equity deficit. This deficit affects the most vulnerable: Communities of color, especially Black Americans; folks struggling with poverty to make ends meet; and immigrants and those living in rural America, to name a few. This was the case after the Great Recession, Hurricane Katrina as well as after 9/11. It is one of the defining features of what happens when we experience major crisis – those least equipped to deal with the negative shocks are those most negatively impacted. That is true whether it is natural disaster (COVID-19) or human-made one (systemic racism and oppression). And, while there will hopefully be substantive improvements to our public health infrastructure to better equip us to deal with future pandemics, our fundamentally unjust society, I fear, will not change.
It is said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but people do. If the world is to change for the better, we have to change. We have to think and act differently. For those of us in the philanthropic sector, that means recognizing that the political and economic systems in which we operate, and largely benefit from, are broken and riddled with institutional bias. While they work for many, they do not work for all. To bend the arc of the universe toward justice, the philanthropic community needs to change its modus operandi.
First, collaboration is bedrock. Foundations do an excellent job of promoting the importance and value of collaboration, but many of us do a poor job of living it, especially here in the Atlanta region. We have our theories of change, action and investment, and our chosen impact areas. Those are all important, necessary and additive. However, given the scale and complexity of the societal challenges we are grappling with during these tumultuous times, we have to work together more and better. That means not only dedicating more of our collective resources to shared community priorities, but being willing to give up control and autonomy, at least for a portion of our resources, to each other and our partners.
While at the Blank Foundation, that translated to working with a COVID-19 rapid response taskforce and identifying and supporting together local partners (like the Atlanta Community Food Bank, YMCA of Greater Atlanta, CARE) and national partners (like CORE) who are on the front lines of addressing the most immediate and urgent needs related to this crisis. And now, as the new president/CEO at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, I will be focused on bringing together our donors and fellow foundations to align how we together can better address this fairness and equity deficit that plagues our community. And we also need to find additional ways to deepen and strengthen ties to the business community and engage them constructively as part of the solution and not vilify them as the problem.
None of this easy, but it is necessary.
Second, we must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Within philanthropy, we often debate whether we should support direct services that meet the immediate needs of vulnerable people, or address “systems change” that will fix our broken system. Do we want to focus on reducing injustice within an unjust system, or do we want to dismantle the unjust system? For foundations individually, there is no right or wrong answer. Both approaches are impactful and should be guided by the differentiated value-add that each respective foundation brings to its work. However, as a sector, we do not have the luxury of choosing. Systemic racism doesn’t allow it. We need to do both because neither is sufficient (or moral, for that matter) on its own to address the scale and complexity of the challenges we are now facing.
Third, we have to step into the arena. Having been in the nonprofit sector for 15 years prior to entering into philanthropy, I did not always have the most favorable view of funders. They would require me to jump through hoops that didn’t seem necessary, push me to do things that I didn’t think made any sense, or give me X to accomplish Y when it really required 5X. Now, sitting on the other side of the table, I have a greater appreciation for and more nuanced view of philanthropy. I am able to better see the full picture beyond the limited issues of my nonprofit. And, I also am keenly aware of the need to be cognizant of the power imbalance between funders and grantees, and how critical it is to listen to those closest to the work.
However, this does not absolve philanthropy from engaging more deeply in the mud of the work. Effecting positive, meaningful, lasting change in our respective communities is hard, high touch, sometimes racialized, and often messy. We have to be willing to roll up our sleeves, take risks, be open to others telling us what to do and be humble. We hold our grantees accountable to certain grant outcomes. We also need to hold ourselves accountable to them and the broader community that we are doing everything we can and should be doing. Mutual accountability is paramount when the stakes are this high.\
The COVID-19 crisis did not create the inequities and racial injustice challenges we are experiencing today. It just exacerbates and makes them more urgent during this singular historic moment. Fortunately, the changes necessary in philanthropy are ones of kind, not degree. Collaborate more and better. Embrace complexity. Be willing to have uncomfortable conversations about race, privilege, bias and oppression. Hold ourselves mutually and transparently accountable. Actions many of us already take, but not nearly enough.
Whether the events of 2020 will serve as a crucible for fundamentally addressing our nation’s, and our region’s, fairness and equity deficit remains to be seen and will be a function of the choices we make. Ultimately, it always comes back to our individual and collective choices. Philanthropy needs to do its part.
To all Atlanta funders and philanthropists, I challenge us to choose wisely.
Note to readers: Frank Fernandez is the president/CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, the metro area’s endowment dedicated to inspiring philanthropy to increase the vitality of the region and the well-being of all residents.