For many, “philanthropy”—both the word and the field—conjures up images of elitism. Questions are proliferating about philanthropy’s power dynamics and whether billionaires benefit more than average citizens do: for example, Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All, Rob Reich in Just Giving, and Edgar Villanueva in Decolonizing Wealth.
As good as those published works may be, the discussion about them reinforces the elitism that they decry. Even worse, while these book are often described as a new wave of criticism, that is hardly the case: There have long been valid critiques of philanthropy, especially from community organizers, grassroots nonprofits, and innovative social entrepreneurs.
Drawing perspectives from a broader range of voices will introduce a richer debate, informed by more-varied experiences. I’d also argue that it will make philanthropy itself work smarter.
As I talked with friends and colleagues about the need to find a more diverse range of voices, I decided to challenge myself to just do it.
I could rattle off names of brilliant people who comment on philanthropy, but my list would still be less diverse than I’d like. So, I turned to my favorite problem-solving tool—crowdsourcing—by asking on Twitter:
The response was unexpected and amazing. In under 24 hours, 85 people suggested 269 names, which I compiled into a Twitter list. The recommendations represent a range of geographies, affiliations, ages, experiences, and varied roles at organizations. Many of the names were familiar—people who speak at conferences, write blog posts or interesting tweets, or otherwise come up in conversation. But few were those whose perspectives are spotlighted in the same way traditionally published authors are. (Reader: Please stick with me, even if you yourself do not tweet. I promise, this is of relevance to you.)
I didn’t vet or curate the list. After all, to exclude anyone would suggest that I didn’t value the expertise of all who shared their thoughts; tamp down energy that had clearly been pent up; and, most important, limit the possibilities of what we can learn and build together.
Simply asking the question and building a list has already produced some outcomes. Several journalists reached out to get the list; people started to follow and engage with new people; panelists, conferencegoers, and authors quoted and offered leadership examples from women. New groups are forming, and other lists are popping up. Women on the list started sharing some of their writing or others’:
So what now? What steps can we take to ensure that more people from a wide range of backgrounds are shaping discussions in philanthropy?
To start, here are the challenges I’ve issued to the media, donors, the people included on the #WomxnTalkPhilanthropy list themselves, and everyone else:
We also need to challenge our traditional notions of listening, learning, and advancing knowledge. We need to get more comfortable with ideas that are shared in places other than books and peer-reviewed articles and TED Talks. The red tape for getting published or asked to speak in such places is tangled, already narrowing the field of who can participate to those with sufficient access, time, resources, and privilege.
What’s more, many of the people who have the most interesting perspectives are those who choose to work to advance the social good rather than talk about it. If people are sharing through more-accessible outlets—Twitter, their organization’s blog, a community meeting—we need to value that knowledge where it is being shared and connect it to broader conversations happening elsewhere.
For those who curate information, sharing, partnerships, communities, or events, that means seeking out these voices. It also means valuing expertise that takes nonacademic or credentialed forms—key for a field eager to combat the elitist perception.
At philanthropic and nonprofit conferences, encourage active debate by building panels that present diverse and fresh thinking, and by allowing enough time for people attending sessions to engage with one another and react to what they’re hearing. In blog posts and articles, quote diverse sources, share resources from overlooked people and places, and think hard about how we talk about others versus letting them speak for themselves in the language and format most comfortable for them. On social media, we should go beyond sharing content written by sources with academic credentials or who have been published in prominent places. And at in-person meetings, sometimes we-the-extroverts need to shut up and listen.
We need to create space for diverse people in philanthropy to engage with others about the work itself. Looking in the mirror for reflection, critique, validation, and purpose is important, but not everyone can take the time to do that. Foundation and nonprofit leaders can create ways for staff members, especially those who don’t have seniority or high rank, to reflect on what they’re learning. Leaders can also invite staff members to participate in conversations, briefings, and other places normally reserved only for those with more institutional power.
Grantmakers can invite not-the-usual staff to weigh in and share their views on topics related to the institution’s mission and be sure to include people who work at nonprofits as well. And, most important, they can create ways to get ideas and questions from all perspectives, even those not popular or mainstream. I hear from far too many women throughout the nonprofit world that, for fear of consequences, they are not comfortable voicing critiques of the system. That’s something we need to work at every day to change because it requires long-term cultural shifts and much more.
Perhaps most simply, if you have power, recognize those who don’t, and shift the conversation to them. Whom should people be hearing from that they’re not? Everyone with a sphere of influence can wield and share power in ways that spread the voices of those we rarely hear from.
Nothing I’m proposing is new. Some might label it noise, not edgy enough, or suggest that all we need to do is make a simple checklist to include diverse points of view. But to make “diversity” more than just a buzzword, organizations—and their leaders and boards in particular—need to do their part to shift power to those who are rarely included in public discourse about philanthropy.
Meanwhile, I’ve taken the #WomxnTalkPhilanthropy Twitter list—now with 500-plus names (I’ve been adding to it as more names are suggested)—and turned it into a spreadsheet, which I’ll be building out into a more organized list that journalists, conference planners, recruiters, and others can use. I hope the list—and all the people who have offered names and ideas—serves as a small reminder that there are good, smart people we could be hearing more loudly, and that it’s possible—and imperative—that we do so.
This post is reprinted from the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Jen Bokoff is director of stakeholder engagement at Candid.