Archive for January, 2009

For me, “charity” has come to symbolize a sympathy gift. The giver perceives a deficiency or difficulty for the receiver, formulates and offering and makes it. The receiver usually accepts because it is better than what they had, though not what they might have chosen or perhaps not the best solution for their needs. The gap between intention and solution is perhaps partly because the gift is made at arms length. Most philanthropists have recognized this phenomenon: an international example folks might recognize is that of installing wells in 3rd world countries only to discover folks are still using contaminated vessels to carry the water. Domestically non-profits have described a problem of sometimes being driven off-mission because of the constraints placed on available grants. Government welfare programs can set up catch-22 situations where they offer enough support to keep people housed, but benefits are quickly withdrawn once someone tries to bootstrap themselves up.

Many funders have instead moved to empowerment models which use community engagement to define mutually acceptable goals. I found this fairly challenging with our family foundation. I used a community advisory board to make grant decisions, but I couldn’t figure out how to work “with” them and defuse the power imbalance. It strikes me that here’s where it can be helpful to be/have foundation staff, because the power position bridges the gap better.

Some interesting principles for shifting from charity to empowerment come from the United Nations declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – there was a panel discussion at SRI in the Rockies 2008 that is available as a podcast on their website. The panelists talked about how a company will often set up a revenue-sharing agreement with the local government or community as their way of being socially responsible. However that’s more an example of charity – empowerment is more about the relationship between the company and the community, their ability to raise issues and get them resolved. In the UN declaration, indigenous peoples have a right to Free, Prior & Informed consent. Essentially, it’s the right to say no. This doesn’t come up so much with grant funding but is an issue with investing.

I can see why so few asset-holders would want to risk making this commitment. It’s difficult to move forward if everyone has veto power. We need instead consensus – the idea that the remaining few who still don’t agree will at least agree to not block the process in respect of the larger good. It seems like we get stuck when we don’t even share a vision of a larger good.

And that leads me nicely into “solidarity”, though it’s not how I got there in the first place. As I research and dialogue around how granting and investing combine with social justice, I find I have arrived at economic development and the concept of building community wealth. Success in that arena seems to be all about the network – consistent across what I read in small business and entrepreneurship, about career and job finding, and about housing – that old adage of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” crops up again and again. The network of customers, suppliers and lenders for a small business is what contributes to long term success. Good jobs are found through personal networks, not want ads. Successful housing for the formerly homeless means stable housing connected to services in a network. To be a funder or investor and make long term impact, I think the view needs to shift from project to network. Like in community organizing, the success or failure of each “action” is less important than how the creation and execution of that action helps build the community.

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