September 18, 2012
Dear Philanthropy Community,
I’ve been thinking about our relationship for months. I wasn’t really sure how to bring this up, because I’m really worried about offending you. Making you angry has real consequences for the kids I serve. But, as I continue in this work, I realize I also have a role in making the sector stronger. This means, I have a role in making our relationship stronger. And, to be sure, that means that hard truths must be spoken.
I am the Founder and Executive Director of Reach Incorporated, a small, community-based nonprofit. We do the challenging, inefficient work with which school systems struggle. We intentionally address the significant literacy challenges faced by those students at the bottom of the distribution. We are not-for-profit. We do not compete with schools. We supplement school instruction to support those students for whom school is not working. We are justice-oriented. We are necessary.
For three years, I have been learning the ins and outs of the philanthropy game. And, though the work is often challenging, the community of philanthropists I have discovered are both well-meaning and generous. However, as “data” and “impact” have become larger factors in funding decisions, a frightening selection bias is emerging.
It has become commonplace for funders – corporate, foundation, and individual – to require “proof” before any money is provided. Often, institutional funders will not even consider a request before an organization has been operating for a number of years. So, how is an organization supposed to survive those first few years? How can a great idea see the light of day without the support of the philanthropic community? To this point, the answer has been stated without question. Those in the philanthropic community often say, without reservation, that early organizations must “bootstrap it” or “start off with friends and family.”
I did that. And, to be clear, I’ve done it successfully. Reach Incorporated has benefited from a growing number of small foundations and many generous individual donors. And, as we prepare for growth, we are getting the opportunity to compete for some larger grants. We even secured an Echoing Green Fellowship. Everything worked out as it was supposed to, right? No. The problem: This success is almost completely attributable to my own personal privilege.
My father was a lawyer and my mother an educator. I had the opportunity to go to some of the country’s best schools – the William Penn Charter School, Duke University, UNC’s School of Social Work, and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The networks I built at these places are invaluable. The generosity of my friends and family has been incredible. But, it is also illustrative of a significant issue. Put simply, the likelihood that Reach would have failed by now would grow exponentially if I had not come from a privileged background. We can’t deny this reality.
So, how do we create a world where the best ideas survive? How do we create a community where organizational success doesn’t require personal privilege?
Let me offer three potential steps:
An Innovation Collaborative: Early-stage organizations are riskier investments. I get that. So, hedge risks by working together. In communities around the world, I would love to see funders combine assets. Pool the resources, set up a competition, provide two years of funding, and set the leader up with a coach. Proposals will only be accepted from brand new organizations. This is R&D for the nonprofit sector. It encourages new ideas, challenges norms, and is good for the health of the sector.
Grants By Grantees: Like the opportunity above, funders should pool resources for use by their grantees. The organizations you fund often know the community better than the funders. These organizations know of some other all-star organizations that never make it to your office. You trust your grantees. So, allow them to give away a sizable chunk of money to new organizations or emerging projects. The money can’t be given to an organization in the grantmaking group. This forces the grantees to spend time thinking about collaboration, cooperation and systems-level challenges. You want them doing that anyway!
Revised Policies: The funding community should challenge themselves through their own policies. All grants should be for two years. Twenty-percent of all funding should go to organizations not funded in the previous three years. When you have to give to new organizations, you’re forced to go look for them (and you also can’t simply recycle last year’s grantee list). Perhaps you’d form a partnership with something like the Open Society Foundation’s Black Male Achievement Fellowship, launched in partnership with Echoing Green.
None of these is a solution. They’re simply ideas about which we need to be talking. The funding community is embracing an us vs. them mentality. We fix nonprofits. We help nonprofits. In reality, funders and nonprofits alike desperately need to embrace the entirety of the community in creating progress – both from outside and from within. Unless we recognize that privilege makes start-up success possible, true community-based interventions will never see the light of day. I’ve been successful, in part, because I’m a highly educated white male who has friends with disposable income. And I’m but one example.
The world needs the best ideas. Let’s go find them.
Founder & Executive Director