I’m Not Afraid to Say It - Foundations Need to Do Better
By Santana Moreno, CFRE
Recently, I became an official Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), reaching an incredible professional achievement that proves my dedication to the career of resource generation and showcases an exceptional understanding of the standard donor-centered fundraising model. I am proud to be a CFRE and happy to join a community of professionals equally dedicated to this work.
Working in our field, I do think it’s important for us to understand the standard fundraising principles needed to become a CFRE - but I also believe that after you have laid that groundwork you should build your own thought leadership and develop a divergent fundraising philosophy that’s an extension of your own authenticity. What that has meant for me is that I rarely refer to myself as a fundraiser, instead seeing myself as a philanthropic organizer working within resource generation and aiming towards a philosophy that sees resource reclamation as reparations - this is who I am as a philanthropic change agent and what drives my work in the movement.
One of the most widely understood basics of fundraising is to follow a donor-centered fundraising model. This model centers the interests of the donor, aiming for a collaborative approach that prioritizes the donor’s needs and gives them control in the donor-recipient dynamic. Of course, there are many definitions and iterations of donor-centered fundraising, but the gist is pretty much what the name sounds like - the donor is right and the donor comes first.
As BIPOC and queer liberation, social justice, and criticism of capitalism takes front and center in our society, these same reckonings have been happening within our field. There are inherently white supremacist dynamics within institutionalized social justice and philanthropy that have silenced the voices of the disenfranchised from leading the conversation and deciding how resource generation works. But that conversation is changing. There are initiatives like Community Centric Fundraising and the Decolonizing Wealth Project, influenced by BIPOC and other underrepresented philanthropic change agents, daring to question the status quo and reimagine resource generation. I don’t adhere to every single belief within these models, again because I have shaped my own philanthropic philosophy, but these models are the closest out there that I have seen to my beliefs in this work.
I mention all of this as context to the point I really want to make. Amidst the broader social justice reckoning occurring all around us, and as one of the few Black-Latinx queer development professionals, I no longer believe in silencing myself and my organizations to dangerous and harmful donor choices. The idea of completely acquiescing to a donor is built on white supremacy and feeds a dynamic that I do not abide by. One of the 10 guiding principles within Community Centric Fundraising states: “We treat donors as partners, and this means that we are transparent, and occasionally have difficult conversations.” Working within foundation relations, I have watched many large foundations over the years make sweeping grantmaking changes that have entirely destabilized the very movements their resources critically helped to advance. These foundations have either divested their portfolios entirely from issues areas they supported for decades, or are wholly and quickly turning away in either direction between funding national vs. local groups. As foundations make these sweeping actions, their suddenly unfashionable grantees suffer silently, holding our terrified conversations in private and in community with our partners.
My opinion on this is clear and possibly radical. We know that the resources we reclaim from foundations are the result of gross wealth hoarding - wealth hoarding from these institutions generally came as a byproduct of slave labor, generational wealth, over-corporatization, and labor abuse. Therefore it is my belief that every private social justice foundation’s resources deserve to be entirely redistributed out into social justice organizations and funders must be held accountable to these organizations. I am always surprised when foundations claim that these drastic shifts are in effort to become better justice funders. There is nothing justice-oriented about building the strength of a movement only to entirely destabilize it.
We need to drastically push foundations to increase their 5% federal minimum payout. We need philanthropy to put the mirror back on itself - the movement doesn’t have the problem here, the problem with imbalanced funding will always lie with those who hold the capital and hoard their wealth. Philanthropy needs to externally and internally have these conversations much more openly and radically. Philanthropy has to work with the movement in a dualistic strategy - to both urge individual foundation boards to commit to increasing their percentage payouts (some have already done this) but, maybe more importantly, we have to work together to support federal policy efforts that officially increase the minimum payout percentages. Perhaps Big Philanthropy needs to take a page out of our books as philanthropic organizers - foundation staff should organize their board and their donors to double their minimum payout, while working with nonprofit policy teams to push for legislative reforms that transform the role of foundations within our capitalist system and decreases the amount of wealth they can hoard. Maybe if we were able to push institutional philanthropy to invest into more organizations instead of creating economic insecurity for the movement, then they would maximize their impact as philanthropists by continuing to support their historic grantees while also being able to newly direct resources to other areas they seek to invest in. I don’t think philanthropy deserves the right to claim social justice while making actions that completely disrupt and threaten movement leaders and organizations, while claiming to know better than us. That’s not economic justice, that’s economic injustice. And, frankly, it feels dangerously close to wage theft.
I’ve seen the responses from some foundations, rejecting the growing grassroots call for foundations to increase their payouts - honestly, these responses mirror what we hear billionaires say who are against higher taxes for the rich and corporations that resist greater accountability. “If you increase our payouts, we’ll just stop funding altogether” or “We didn’t do this after 9/11, why should we do it now?” I challenge this rebuttal by saying - well isn’t that abhorrent? The little guy shouldn’t fear standing up to those in power because the powerful can intimidate and dangle a dollar in front of us. As a nation and as a planet, especially with the younger generation coming of age and stepping into their power, we are on the precipice of a global reckoning about our economic relationships. The needle is moving toward demanding more equitable resource sharing and distribution. In response to this fear tactic, I choose to believe that progressive foundation leaders will lead a movement to push their colleagues in the right direction. Philanthropy plays a hugely important role in supporting the movement and I believe there is a beautiful but transformed future ahead of us where it can continue playing that role. It is ultimately going to be philanthropy’s responsibility to recognize that the work they have been doing, just like the work everyone else has been doing, isn’t enough and we need MORE - MORE from the movement, MORE from philanthropy, MORE from the public. Holding funders to a new standard is a moral responsibility that we all need to get onboard with. If foundations are just going to keep cycling through drastic grantmaking shifts that destabilize movements every decade or so then clearly a far more radical approach is needed.
Another one of Community Centric Fundraising’s principles is: “Nonprofits are generous with and mutually supportive of one another.” Essentially, this principle is to help us get away from the scarcity mindset that pits nonprofit against nonprofit. What’s troubling about Big Philanthropy dramatically redirecting their 5% from one tactic to the next is that it encourages scarcity mindset and competition. The problem is...nonprofit organizations aren’t the ones with the problem, unilateral decisions by funders are the problem. Nonprofits shouldn’t be in competition with one another and it’s wrong for foundations to encourage this by continuing these ping-pong grantmaking shifts. I want every just and progressive organization to be supported by the most progressive funders out there - the only way for us to do that is to completely reimagine institutional philanthropy and to challenge them the way our movement challenges other large financial institutions. There are some funders that single-handedly keep national movements thriving in reproductive justice and rights, racial justice, climate justice, LGBTQ liberation, and economic justice. These funders have a responsibility to the history of human rights and social justice - increasing the minimum payout by a relatively measly 5% more is a small ask during this turning point in our nation’s history. We should challenge ourselves as philanthropic organizers to call into question funder actions that threaten our organizations. It shouldn’t be philanthropy that decides where the needle sways anymore, we should step into our power and tell funders when they are getting it wrong. We can band together, organize philanthropy, and have a greater say in how capital is redistributed in our movements. The organizations we work for have developed incredible partnerships with these institutions but that doesn’t mean we can’t demand better from them and speak up for what is right.
*This article is part of a larger series of content produced by members of the AFP-NYC Mentorship Cohort. We thank the authors for their contribution to the chapter. To learn more about the program, click here.