In June 2018, Neighborhood Funders Group convened hundreds of local, regional, and national funders for the NFG 2018 National Convening, Raise Up: Moving Money for Justice. Here, Dr. Carmen Rojas, NFG Board Member and Co-Founder & CEO of The Workers Lab, reflects on reimagining the role of philanthropy in these pressing times.
The NFG conference could not have come at a better time. We are at a critical juncture as a country, and the field of philanthropy has a number of hard truths to face if it hopes to realize a better tomorrow for everyone in the U.S.
We are living at a time when newspaper headlines are describing a booming economy. But, the truth is that four in ten workers is leaving retirement and to returning to work to cover health care, housing, and living expenses. The vast majority of working people earn less than $15 an hour. Only 15 percent of workers have access to paid leave. And half of the people in the U.S. do not have $400 to address a financial emergency. This means that when a child unexpectedly breaks an arm or a car breaks down it can throw the lives of working people into disarray.
There simply isn’t a fair return on work right now. No one who works full (or more than full) time should be living in poverty. And this shouldn’t be the reality in the richest country in the world.
Philanthropy can play a critical role in calling out this absurdity and supporting organizations that are organizing, building, and delivering a better future for working people in our country.
At The Workers Lab, we’ve been thinking about how to partner with our funders and donors to do the work necessary to truly change the lives of working people. The three things that we are encouraging them to do and consider are:
- Recognize the difference between branding the change and being the change:
In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of the rebranding of philanthropic organizations. More people of color protesting on websites, more of the word “power” emblazoned on materials, more mostly white organizations going through anti-racist training. We need to do more to challenge the norms and change practices in our field. There are a handful of foundations having honest and hard conversations that fundamentally change their composition, practice, and leadership.
- Provide a greater set of incentives that treat people as whole:
Most people in this country don’t understand what philanthropy does or can do to make their lives better. This is because the siloing of programs treats people as fractions of themselves and not as whole human beings that think about paying rent, buying food, making it to work, and having the capacity to dream better days all at the same time. We need to create incentives that work across issues and communities. We should fund in ways that reflect people as whole.
- Fighting for what we deserve, not what we can win:
We are entering an era when our democracy is actively and publicly being set on fire. There are those who do not believe that we should put working people ahead of corporate profit. There are those that do not believe Black lives matter. There are those who believe that immigrant families should not have the right to be together. Those folks are unabashed about their agenda. They are clear about their north star. We, who believe in justice, need to stop the calculations for what is palatable and feasible. We need to be public and unabashed in fighting for what people in this country deserve, not simply what we can win.
Now, is the time to think in new and creative ways. We must experiment — both with how we fund and what we fund. We must continue to seek innovative capital structures to accommodate a variety of programmatic interventions. We must be open to viewing philanthropy with more flexibility. We must seek new solutions to rebuild a social safety net fit for the 21st Century. Equally important, we must seek innovations for worker power. This could be reimagining new worker ownership structures like worker cooperatives.
Needless to say, the NFG conference did come at the right time — for the country and for me personally. It gave me hope. If you’re reading this, I likely don’t have to tell you that these are challenging times for those on the side of justice. Being in a room with like-minded leaders who are speaking truth and reimagining a new role for philanthropy was both reassuring and reinvigorating. I left even more committed to this cause and grateful to have NFG as a partner.
Connect with Carmen on Twitter at @crojasphd.
Follow The Workers Lab at @theworkerslab.
Find more posts about the NFG 2018 National Convening on our Member Blog.