Philanthropy’s Role in Holding Tension

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, Megan Armentrout, Program Associate at the Incarnate Word Foundation and St. Louis local, reflects on the possibilities of shifting philanthropy's focus to long-term change.


headshot-megan.jpgWhen I first started in philanthropy just two years ago my boss said, “Keep an eye out for Neighborhood Funders Group - they are your people”. I had just missed the 2016 convening in Oakland and learned I had to wait another two years before the next convening. To my surprise, the 2018 convening was being held in St. Louis and I was asked to serve on the Program Committee as a local partner. The decision to hold the convening in St. Louis, the city I call home with such a rich history and recent national spotlight, only made sense. 

Raise Up: Moving Money for Justice highlighted issues at the intersection of race, class, gender, and environment. Activists and funders held space for discussion around strategy (how do we actualize the deep change that must take place) and contemplation for healing (how do we encourage a movement rooted in radical self-care). Strategy and healing, an interwoven cycle, must be at the heart of our movements and philanthropy must do better to support those integral parts.

In his opening keynote, Rev. Starsky Wilson rooted people in place as he spoke of St. Louis. A city caught in the tension between what it thought it was and the wounding underbelly beneath. In 2014, a movement of the people did not allow for that underbelly to remain just under the surface. The Ferguson Uprising brought it out to the streets and forced the city (and the country) to take a long, hard look in the mirror and wrestle with its “soul-trauma” - and I can think of no better imagery of this than the mirror casket created by local activists and carried to the Ferguson police department during the uprising. 

This is a deep tension and Rev. Wilson urged us to “hold the tension long enough for people’s actions to change”. I’m left contemplating the role of philanthropy in holding this tension. In our fast-paced world, driven by the forces of instant-gratification and capitalism, philanthropy continues to shift priorities every 3-5 years. What would it actually look like for philanthropy to join the long-game with organizers who are in it for the long-haul? Are we well situated to use our power to hold the tension long enough for things to shift around us? What does that look like and how do we do this well?


I kept these questions close to my chest as I navigated through the rest of the conference. 

Organizers, funders, and neighborhood activists helped answer this question in pieces and it is up to us to work this out; to stay accountable to the movement before us for a more just and equitable society. Post-conference I’m still ruminating and a couple key points have stuck with me. Edgar Villanueva brought me back to hope rooted in forward progression in his session on Decolonizing Wealth. He spoke of this process as a path toward healing the trauma so many communities have faced so that their “possibilities are endless”. Philanthropy is a center of power and concentrated wealth existing at the core of capitalism and yet I believe philanthropy has the ability to create lasting change in the world around us and liberate itself from the strongholds of white supremacy and colonization. As we decolonize wealth, we can move toward the solidarity philanthropy Aaron Tanaka spoke of when he said, “if the money isn't ours to begin with, solidarity philanthropy would urge us to put money back into the communities that money was taken from”.  

Holding the tension requires a recognition of the root of the problem, holding fast with an unwavering stance until others begin to recognize the complex nature of justice issues plaguing our nation. In this way, I believe philanthropy does have the power to hold the tension, both in funders’ ability to shift and move conversation as well as long-term, continued support of folks on the ground doing the work day in and day out. 

I knew by the first program committee phone call that I had found “my people”. It was by the end of this convening that I knew I found “my home”. This beautiful, radical, intentional group of people, representing a multitude of institutions across the country, is a mirror of the philanthropy I want to see in the world. The philanthropy I now have hope in to hold the tension, to enter into brave space with others, and play an active role in the healing of systemic wounds. May it be so.

Connect with Megan on LinkedIn.

Follow the Incarnate Word Foundation at @IWFSTL.

Find more posts about the NFG 2018 National Convening on our Member Blog.