PACS Blog/December 7, 2020

Reimagining Philanthropy Series, Part 5

Lucy Bernholz wrote a five-part series for The Chronicle of Philanthropy exploring what’s next for foundations and nonprofits.

What Now? The Philanthropic Future Our Democracy Needs

by Lucy BernholzSeptember 22, 2020

November … Two-and-a-half years … Never … Each of these is a prediction I’ve read in reputable national newspapers about when the pandemic will end.

The most optimistic predictions generally focus on when a tested vaccine could be ready for production. The two-and-a-half-year forecast takes into account the reality of America today, including vast disparities in health care, employment, and schooling that could hamper the distribution and effectiveness of a vaccine. And the “never” prognosticators point to the link between climate change and infectious disease, noting that even the end of this coronavirus won’t mark the end of pandemics or other health and environmental catastrophes.

In truth, no one knows when the pandemic will end. And Covid-19 is far from our only unpredictable challenge at this moment. The centuries-old struggle for racial justice continues. Income inequities are growing. And then there’s the 2020 U.S. election — perhaps the biggest wild card of all.

So, where does this leave us? We can seek paths forward by imagining a better future and expand on efforts that have already shown us what “better” can look like. At the same time, we need to also look backward to identify and fix what’s standing in our way. My provocations below are meant to do both.

New Rules for Collective Action

Nonprofits and foundations are defined by laws. They exist to provide an alternative or complement to governments and markets. They are by no means the only such alternatives. We worship together; we create aid networks or cooperatives; we pool our resources to build everything from libraries to independent neighborhood Wi-Fi networks; we provide care to others as acts of reciprocity; we share our voices and our resources; we build digital communities and physical communities, and we take action by connecting the two.

The laws that define which organizations and forms of donating are given tax breaks, required to report on their activities, and recognized as community assets need to change. They need to account for the differences between deeply rooted cultural traditions of care, such as mutual-aid networks, and decentralized global grass-roots movements such as those currently pushing for government action on climate change. To understand our public life, we need greater visibility into the data that flows through proprietary payment and crowdfunding platforms that power all this civic action.

We also need ways to determine how digital platforms shape whom we associate with — an important issue for membership organizations whose ranks are increasingly filled by those who “find” them on Facebook and other social-media platforms. Given everything we’ve learned about the spread of disinformation online, we should investigate how digital profiling shapes what groups we learn about, what events we attend, and which organizations we ultimately join. Without new rules to guide us, we are in danger of allowing the companies that sort algorithms to determine our engagement in civic life.

Beyond Tax Exemptions

Tax systems and budgets are signs of a society’s priorities. As long as the U.S. tax system prioritizes wealth accumulation over fair economic participation, the social issues that nonprofits and foundations address will get worse, not better. A tax agenda that seeks to limit wealth inequalities would provide greater public funding for social, educational, and environmental services. While it might limit the growth of new philanthropic contributions, the sum of resources available and the public control over those resources would likely lead to more equitable systems of care than any amount of private philanthropic largesse.

Philanthropy and nonprofits have the potential to demonstrate practices that other institutions might follow. We’ve seen this with mission-related investing and grant-making approaches that shift funding decisions to groups and individuals in the communities that foundations serve. In recent months, foundations and nonprofits have made statements of solidarity with the cause of racial justice, and some have made real changes in their practices. Justice Funders, for instance, is a community of philanthropic leaders committed to redistributing wealth and shifting power and economic control to communities most in need. Liberated Capital applies the lessons of decolonization by trusting and supporting those harmed most by historical and systemic racism.

But much more is needed. Might we, for example, see a foundation not only pledge to engage community members in selecting grantees but also go further and dedicate its assets to the communities and people from whom the wealth was originally extracted? Will foundations pay reparations to descendants of the enslaved people whose labor capitalized them or the indigenous stewards of the lands on which they sit? Some white-led nonprofits are beginning to embrace the “spread the abundance” model practiced by bail funds, which give any extra money raised beyond what that group needs to other bail funds — rather than stashing it away for themselves. This erases the normative model that says donors should dictate where their money goes and instead puts the decision in the hands of those closest to the need. These are edge practices now, but what would “better” look like if such approaches became the norm?

While tax changes that encourage more equitable participation in civil society are worth considering, we should keep in mind that money is not the only thing we donate and tax breaks aren’t our only motivator for participation. We have plenty of room here to get creative. Perhaps greater civic participation rests not on tax cuts but on broadband access? Universal child care or kindergarten might unleash more civic and political involvement than any tax benefit. Economic policies that center equity and environmental care might do more to save the planet than tax changes.

We have countless ways to participate, to organize, and to make change in our communities. It’s time we expanded our imaginations about the policy levers we could use to support them.

Better Digital Systems

Digital systems can fuel collective change, as long as people have agency over them. Digital systems are on/off switches for many more aspects of our lives than we pay attention to. They connect our energy networks and our schools; we use them for health care and managing public utilities; we rely on them for news and personal communication, transportation, public safety, political participation, civic action, employment, and almost every interaction we have with an organization.

If these systems and the data they generate and rely on are to serve us, we must govern them to ensure that equitable access — not profit — is the priority. We need laws, public policy, and regulations that put society in control, rather than allowing companies to define the digital bounds of our daily lives. This is particularly important for nonprofits, foundations, and civil society, which cannot function as a counterweight to governments and corporations, given their dependence on digital systems made and monitored by companies and states.

Redefining Where ‘Good’ Happens

The enormous growth of nonprofits and philanthropy since the end of World War II has limited our imaginations about where society’s good works happen. But these entities have never made up the whole of civil society. Since the turn of the 20th century, numerous new options have come knocking at the door. They include impact investing, new forms of journalism; giving circles, B corporations; open-data collectives, native American repatriation funds, and a horizon’s worth of other “nonprofit-adjacent” institutions that have taken hold.

It’s a critical time to look at this spectrum of structures and strategies and reconsider what gets privileged, certified, and supported in this country. If we are to plan for a better future, we need to remind ourselves that we are starting from a much more dynamic, diverse, and inclusive space than we officially credit.

At the beginning of this series, I referred to a term used in medical anthropology — syndemic — to describe the challenges when multiple crises intertwine. In 2020, those crises — structural racism, a novel coronavirus, climate catastrophe, and the uncertainty of electoral democracy — threaten to overwhelm us. But as we’ve seen, this time of profound need is also teaching us positive lessons about collective care and action. Let’s remember those lessons as we consider where we go from here.