At a group convening I attended a while back, we discussed some of the challenges facing leaders of color in the sector, including how 90% of funding still go to white-led organizations, how funders still use a very white lens in what is considered good data and effective programs, how the smallest and most burdensome grants are often the only ones accessible to marginalized-communities-led organizations, how white foundation boards are, the general lack of trust foundations have for nonprofits, and how progressive foundations spend endless amounts of time intellectualizing, which disproportionately harms marginalized communities because they cannot afford to wait months or years for funding decisions.
This was a group of all leaders of color, so it was cathartic and affirming for many attendees to hear that their frustrations were not imagined. As we started talking about potential solutions, though, the group’s conversation and energy quickly took a detour. A foundation program officer, who was of color, started talking about how the foundation she worked for was not like that, how they had been changing, how it felt like we were attacking and “vilifying” foundations, how we needed to not be “divisive,” etc. The previous momentum was cut off as several people in the group in succession started affirming this program officer and reassuring her that she and her foundation were great and helpful and generous and amazing. A conversation on systemic challenges suddenly became about one funder’s feelings.
This experience made me realize there is a “Funder Fragility” that parallels the other types of fragility we have been seeing a lot of in our sector and in society: White Fragility, Male Fragility, Heteronormative Fragility, Cisgender Fragility, Able-Bodied Fragility, etc. These fragilities all have similar patterns: A group that has privilege and power is criticized, and a member of that group becomes hurt and defensive instead of reflecting on and trying to see systemic challenges and their role in it. Often times, the conversation is derailed and enormous time and energy are spent to reaffirm the offended/defensive individual and make them feel better.
At the foundation level, I see it all the time. There are plenty of amazing foundations and program officers, but there are a few who get easily offended, and being around them is like walking on eggshells. This is not good. Just like society cannot effectively address racism if the people with the most racial privilege are too emotionally fragile to handle hearing hard truths, nonprofits and funders cannot work effectively together if the people with the most resources and thus influence are too fragile to discuss their role in perpetuating inequity. If you are a foundation program officer or board trustee, please spend some time reflecting and acting on these things:
Acknowledge power dynamics and your privilege as a funder: Fragilities are harmful to our work because they take us out of focusing on systemic issues. They are incredibly effective at shutting down or diverting conversations. With Funder Fragility, though, there is an extra element of danger brought on by severe and pervasive power imbalance, and the consequences of offending a funder may be dire to nonprofits: the damaging of relationship, the loss of funding, the blows to reputation, the loss of access to other funders. We nonprofits are careful not to piss off funders, and to be quick to assuage any hurt feelings, for good reasons. It is therefore critical for funders to understand the power and privilege they wield just simply by being funders. No matter how nice you think you and your foundation are, there is ALWAYS power imbalance.
Be aware of when and how you get riled up: Maybe it’s when people bring up the lack of diversity of foundation boards, or the criticism that foundations tend to provide restricted funding instead of general operating funds, or the feedback that most grantmaking processes waste thousands of hours each, hours that could be spent helping people, and this might actually be driving nonprofit leaders to abandon the sector. Perhaps it’s intersectional, with your white or male fragility, or both, also triggered and reinforcing the funder fragility; considering that most foundation leaders are white and male, this may be a likely possibility. Whatever it is, figure out what type of criticism especially riles you up and try to figure out why it has that impact on you.
Be sympathetic: Remember that it is about you and your foundation and also it’s not about you and your foundation. Nonprofits have been frustrated by crappy funding practices for decades. The frustration we have is often not about individual foundations or program officers, but about the entire funding landscape which we have to navigate every single day. Try to be sympathetic instead of defensive. One time, on a panel, I brought up all these challenges we nonprofits face and how exhausted we nonprofits are, and a funder said, “I just want to point out that giving away money is just as difficult as running nonprofits and programs.” No. It is not. Please don’t ever say that. It’s like a white colleague saying, “I grew up poor, so I know what it’s like for people of color.” I’m not implying that funders don’t work as hard (I have friends who are program officers, and I see the long hours they work and the difficulties they face), but the challenges are not the same. Until you’ve broken down in tears because your foundation may not have enough money to pay your staff this next payroll due to a late payment on a reimbursement-based grant, please do not compare your work to nonprofits’.
Understand that fragility takes on many forms: You don’t have to be openly vocal or argumentative to demonstrate funder fragility. Just like white fragility can take the form of silence or mental disengagement or withdrawal from the conversation (sometimes physically, by leaving a space), as indicated in the above article, so can funder fragility. Examine whether you are still engaged or you have shut down because you are no longer able to hear feedback. If you have a strong urge to leave a conversation, figure out why.
Appreciate the feedback given and the risks nonprofits are taking: You don’t have to agree with everything people say, but it goes a long way just to listen and to confirm that you actually understand someone else’s perspective. Before you instinctively break out the counterarguments, remember that it probably took a lot of courage for someone to criticize a funder or donor. Because so many of us nonprofits have been conditioned to tell funders what you all want to hear and how awesome and amazing you are, the occasional honest feedback is rare and should be appreciated. This is not how it should be. Nonprofits and foundations should operate like equal partners. However, until we fully achieve that reality, it is often risky to criticize a funder, so be appreciative when someone does it. (This is why we started Grantadvisor.org, so nonprofits can provide anonymous but public feedback)
Find areas of validity: Likely there is some truth in what people are saying. However, fragility often prevents it from getting through. As soon as we feel personally attacked and become defensive, we may no longer be able to see any merit in someone’s perspective. Defensive individuals often engage in “predatory listening” (discussed here, and mentioned here at Fakequity.com), where they only listen to get ammo in hopes of destroying the other person’s argument, instead of listening for understanding or points of agreement.
Commit to implementing changes in the spirit of true partnership: As I mentioned in a previous post—“Hey people with privilege, you need to be OK with making mistakes and being called out”—the burden weighs on those with more advantages in society to understand their power and privilege and to use it to effect change. As a staff or board member of a foundation, you have more resources and influence than nonprofits do. Instead of being defensive and dismissive, understand your role in the system and help find ways to fix what is not working.
A note to program officers of color: If you are a program officer of color, your challenge is unique. You are one of the few POCs at a foundation across the entire sector. I’ve talked to so many POC program officers who tell me of their isolation and frustration in navigating a mostly white space and trying to influence their foundations to be more equitable. However, POs of color are not immune to power dynamics or to having funder fragility. You still represent an institution that has power. Therefore, understand the privilege that you hold, reflect on your role, and use your position to push for changes.
I know for the past few years funders have been trying to be more thoughtful at seeking feedback and listening more. This is much appreciated. And it should be acknowledged that there is still a significant amount of feedback that goes unheard, despite countless people saying it over and over in multiple ways, because of the fragility that many funders carry. As Robin DiAngelo, who created and pioneered the term “white fragility” has said:
I ask, so what would it be like if you could just give us that feedback and we [white folks] received it with grace, reflected, and sought to change the behavior? I’ll never forget a man of color who raised his hand and said, ‘It would be revolutionary.’”
If we have privilege (white, male, cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied, etc.), we bear a larger burden in listening with empathy and responding with humility. If nonprofits and foundations are to be effective partners, funders must acknowledge the privilege and power they have and the fragility that may come with it.
Vu Le's column, Point of Vu, appears monthly in the GuideStar Blog. This article is a cross-post of a January 28, 2019, piece from his blog, Nonprofit ... And Fearless. Vu Le is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.