Community-Powered: Responsible Philanthropic Practice from Afar

After having heard many tantalizing snippets in previous sessions about transforming funder practices, this session was the perfect next step. It was a deeper dive into what it means to be community-driven and community-connected, but broken down as a real conversation among three women of color who are passionate about this topic, honest about their challenges, and so clearly innovative and important leaders in their field.

The three foundations highlighted here work in Detroit, New Orleans, and Puerto Rico—locales where communities experienced ecological and economic disasters that drew an influx of external funding—and hold especially intense lessons for funders in practicing responsible community philanthropy from afar.

Transforming Power Fund in Detroit was started through local activism and cultural organizing in 2015, and uses donor organizing and community-led grantmaking to model an equitable approach in philanthropy. The Maria Fund was created in 2017 after Hurricane Maria to support frontline efforts in Puerto Rico and serves as a resource mobilizing vehicle for grassroots initiatives and community organizations. Lambent Foundation works in New Orleans, New York City, and Nairobi supporting artist-centered organizations at the intersection of contemporary art, culture and justice.

The panelists shared exciting examples of work demonstrating a different way to fund (and to catalyze) community transformation. Ahmina Maxey of Transforming Power Fund highlighted The Giving Project, which trains Detroit community members in fundraising and grantmaking, while building “principled solidarity across race and class,” in order to move significant resources to local grassroots organizing efforts.

Michelle Coffey of Lambent Foundation spoke of innovations such as widening beyond the scope of funding to facilitate network building amongst grantees, and of “liberating ourselves from prescribed job roles/titles” such as program officers to create instead lead storyteller and network designer positions that build the foundation’s capacity to nurture long-term trust with communities it serves.

Some of the most compelling insights, which transcend sector, came from the panelists exploring questions of trust and relationship building—especially how to develop authentic connections when power imbalances such as money are involved.

Xiomara Caro of the Maria Fund shared her reflections about the need to keep the process simpler, to alleviate barriers for grassroots communities but also to allow funders to be in the field and in the work with community partners more as well. She reflected about the urgent need to “create structures for people to hold you accountable,” instead of hiding behind complicated process and procedure. This is such powerful advice, and applies to those in positional leadership within government and any institution really where the choice exists between power sharing and power hoarding.

The session closed with a challenge for grantmakers to commit to taking action to ensure that their work is more community-centered. A resource such as the 12 Recommendations for Detroit Funders is an invaluable bookmark for ideas and inspiration, but as Ahmina offered, you can start small with a conversation with one person about what you can do differently. It’s about the relationships, as Michelle also reminded us: “Reach out to GIA. We already know each other, and we’ll hold each other.”