Break on Through (to the Other Side): Creating Spaces for Authentic Dialogue in Philanthropy

posted on: March 14, 2013

By Lisa Ranghelli


Recently I had the good fortune to attend an intimate meeting of funders who were all there to learn from each other so they could do their grantmaking better. I was struck by the degree to which individuals wanted more spaces like this one, where, regardless of their foundation’s issue focus or location or size, they could relate to one another one-on-one and in small groups—not merely interact, but tackle deep and thorny questions without easy answers.

Many talked of being siloed in their day to day work, and not just by issue or geography. Some had a hard time connecting meaningfully with other funders working on the same issue, or even with coworkers working in other program areas within their own institutions.

An image formed in my mind. I saw myself opening a series of boxes. First, a big box labeled “The Sector” and another container inside titled “Issue” (such as education, health, environment), within that one another labeled ”National/State/Local” and inside that box  a smaller one inscribed with “Foundation” and finally in that, one marked “Program.”

Inside that littlest box I pictured the lonely grantmaker. I imagined the poor program officer or vice president trying to punch, saw, kick, dynamite, chisel or otherwise break through each wall, one at a time, to bust free of all of those boxes. It exhausted me, just thinking about the Herculean effort that must be involved to do so. And this set of boxes doesn’t even encompass all the silos, including that between different types of foundations, between philanthropy and nonprofits, and between different strategies such as direct services and advocacy.

And then I thought about all the infrastructure groups that exist to help grantmakers connect with each other and learn about best practices. There are affinity groups organized by issue and by foundation type and by geography. There are conferences, “communities of practice,” group email lists, conference calls, webinars and so forth. To what extent are these institutions and venues helping break down walls? How much do they reinforce silo effects? How could these be more effective at helping individuals relate to other individuals in substantive and meaningful ways?

This is a question that I suspect Grantmakers for Southern Progress (GSP), a new working group of Neighborhood Funders Group, will take up in response to its findings on social justice grantmaking in the South. As the South Goes: Philanthropy and Social Justice in the US South is based on extensive collection and analysis (by OpenSource Leadership Strategies) of data from social change nonprofits and from grantmakers that fund and don’t fund their work in four states: Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.

A key finding is that Southern and national funders of social change nonprofits each use different language and focus on different strategies from one other. Not surprisingly, given the history and politics of the region, Southern funders are less likely to use terms like “social justice” and are more oblique about race. National social justice funders talk more explicitly about confronting inequities and changing power dynamics. An illuminating companion brief, Words Matter: Language and Social Justice Funding in the US South, describes the reactions that various terms elicited among Southern and national funders, such as “opportunity” (very positive) and “equity” (mixed reactions). This exploration of language revealed there is no silver bullet word or phrase that everyone can get behind.

Regarding strategy, the executive summary noted:

National funders tended to promote broad-scale change and altering power dynamics, which means they employed strategies such as policy and legal advocacy, community organizing and movement building. Southern funders of social justice work – whether they called it that or not – used a range of strategies including community economic development, youth leadership and human services. Additionally, several Southern funders were more open to strategies like organizing, while national funders tended to be narrower in the strategies they supported. (p. 2)

Similarly, NCRP’s report on advocacy and organizing in the Gulf/Midsouth noted the frustration among local organizations that provided services, advocated on behalf of communities and organized citizens to action because this dual role was not supported or validated by certain funders who narrowly construed “social justice” work.

Another barrier GSP identified is that some funders don’t fund in the South because they believe there is a lack of infrastructure, capacity and funding partners. They may even view the South as a “lost cause” politically. Yet, they may be underestimating the actual number of social change nonprofits and foundations that do exist in the South, as well as the potential to make change with national ramifications. GSP hopes to correct these misperceptions, in part by making information about Southern groups and funders more widely available.

What does all this mean for those who seek greater resources and collaboration to grow social change work in the South? GSP urges national and regional funders to spend more time engaging in intentional, one-on-one conversations to deepen relationships and ultimately overcome these barriers of language, strategy and perception. In the coming months, GSP leaders will be exploring ways to facilitate and structure such conversations. Check their website for information on upcoming events and to be in touch with GSP.  

Their efforts to do so can be instructive for the sector as a whole, as funders of all kinds seek ways to break out of myriad silos to engage in authentic and meaningful dialogue. As one funder quoted in the full report observed:

What I need is an informal space for co-conspirators. As funders, we are very formal with each other. … We have very few conversations and spaces to talk about these things — no frank, facilitated conversations about how we view power, how our work is synergistic, how we fill the gaps, and then a space to actually do something about it. It’s hard, but what I find most valuable is that space where we have frank conversations, strategize, and move to action. (p. 21)

Where do you find spaces for authentic and meaningful dialogue?

Lisa Ranghelli is director of NCRP’s Grantmaking for Community Impact Project.