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Gaining a Say: Lifting Up Philanthropy’s Unheard Voices

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:

Tweet by Jen Bokoff , @jenbo1, [PHILANTHROPY CROWDSOURCE] Who are the womxn philanthropy thought leaders that you all are tuned into? Please share names and RT - let’s build a reading list that adds to the current male-dominated discourse.

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’:

Tweet by Deepa Ranganathan, @SinfullyAlive, Thanks Jen for getting this started! Gonna start by replugging this old yet tinely peace on #holisticsecurity and its importance in the lives of #WHRDs, especially #young ones, coauthored by @ma_diezq & me: … on @OGR_EN Avlbl in ENG AR FR ESP (1/5)…

Tweet by Ingrid Srinath, @ingridsrinath, Some of my writing is at  and I’ll upload a few more pieces soon.

Tweet by Jennifer Harris, @jennifermharris , Ideas are only as good as the solutions they enable. After 40-plus yrs, free-market orthodoxy is giving way to different ideas, ones better equipped to solve climate change, inequality, education, and so on. My latest on philanthropy's role in @DemJournal 

Tweet by Kathy Richardson, @kathyrichardson, I just published 'Cracking the code: Funders the key to unlocking evidence-based practice' 

Tweet by zohra, @zohramoosa, How the Angry Black Woman (+others) trope plays out in social justice orgs: 'In the workplace, claiming fear provides a way out of dialogue, & license to gossip about the black woman’s “communication style” or “tone” without needing to face or talk to us.' …

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:

Tweet by Jen Bokoff, @jenbo1, Media @Philanthropy @InsidePhilanthr @SSIReview @npquarterly -- I specifically challenge you to invite more folks from this list to author something or be featured.

Tweet by Jen Bokoff, @jenbo1, Funders -- I specifically challenge you to think about how you might compensate the non-funders for their time sharing their perspectives.

Tweet by Jen Bokoff, @jenbo1, ...more on that later this week. But for now, I want to challenge everyone to tweet something you published (a blog, article, notable twitter thread, book link...) and/or something you were featured in in reply to this tweet or tag me. I'll amplify...

Tweet by Jen Bokoff, @jenbo1, ....THEN, find something someone else published, and ENGAGE WITH IT. That means at minimum, share it, but more importantly, ask questions, share reflections, draw connections, and share what you're learning...

Tweet by Jen Bokoff, @jenbo1, One thing I want to challenge everyone to commit to: If you have a platform (speaking engagement, offer to be on a panel, a following, an article, a classroom...), lift some of these womxn up. Yes, you! You can do it. And I'm guilty of not myself. We should do it EVERY TIME.

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 BokoffJen Bokoff is director of stakeholder engagement at Candid.

Topics: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion DEI