Funding and Privilege

By: Jessamyn Shams-Lau

Recently, I was reading about race and discrimination. A key theme reoccurred: most people with privilege are unaware of, ignore, or deny their privilege.

Perhaps this is obvious. But it's a powerful idea to consider and apply personally. Where do I benefit from what Peggy McIntosh describes as an "invisible package of unearned assets"?

The privilege of being on the funder side of the funding spectrum is inherent. We're an advantaged bunch. We (generally) don't fund raise, aren't boot strapping, and get to dictate more timelines than are dictated to us. 

Do we work hard and fast? Do we manage complex tensions? Do we work to enact someone else's vision? Of course. However, when looked at in context, we, as philanthropy professionals, enjoy an unearned advantage over the fund raising organisations we work with every day. We also experience an unearned disadvantage in some areas, but on the balance I think it's fair to say we typically land a net positive for privilege.

But do we recognise the privileged situation we are in as funders? Not so much. Just like most other groups who are in a privileged position we minimise and justify the effects of privilege.

So how can philanthropy recognise and address the privilege it enjoys? 

Here are some outstanding examples of funders I've seen who clearly take their privilege in to account:

  1. The Whitman Institute has developed a whole methodology that acknowledges the importance of equity in their practice of grant making and relationship building with their grantees.
  2. The Jacobs Family Foundation took the (unfortunately) unusual step of moving their offices in to the community they sought to 'serve', and then started door-knocking to truly understand the needs and priorities of the community.
  3. Northern California Grantmakers and San Diego Grantmakers have launched the "Real Cost Project", to address the unearned disadvantage grant-seekers face when it comes to funding overhead, reserves and R&D. The project trains and supports foundations developing grant making practices and standards based on what it really costs for grantees to deliver outcomes.

If you've got other examples to share, that we need to hear about, please share in the comments.