Love in Philanthropy

Sharing Power And Building Transparency

F. Javier Torres and Leila Tamari

How does philanthropy stay accountable to the values we claim to espouse? Over the past seven years, ArtPlace America invested $87 million in supporting artists as allies in equitable community development. The National Creative Placemaking Fund (NCPF) funded 279 creative placemaking projects in 208 communities of all sizes across the United States. As that fund came to a close at the end of 2017, we decided to interrogate how effective we had been at aligning our values with our assumptions and philanthropic practice.

ArtPlace America (ArtPlace) is a ten-year collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions. It supports creative placemaking — an approach “in which art plays an intentional and integrated role in place-based community planning and development” — across the country. As a time-limited project supported by endowed foundations, we had the opportunity to take risks and challenge traditional philanthropic systems. We struggled with our assumptions of how “radical” we thought we were and how “easy” we thought it might be to shift these long-standing systems.

As we reflected on what drove our decision making in this program, we found that our work was rooted in one central value: love. Love can be an uncomfortable word, feeling, and theme to discuss at work, as we have been socialized to be “objective” in professional settings. Love is a feeling normally relegated to personal spaces. But in an age in which we spend most of our waking hours working, what does it mean that we don’t bring love to our work?

Talking about love in the workplace can be difficult because we don’t have a working definition for the word. We will use Erich Fromm’s definition from his 1956 book The Art of Loving, in which he says, “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of feeding one’s own or another’s growth.” We learned that a loving practice takes work and ongoing commitment, and we wondered to ourselves, “Well, what does love look like in grantmaking?” We think it begins by remembering that behind each proposal, set of guidelines, and evaluation criterion are human beings: the people who do the work. And that to incorporate love, we need to find ways to share power, be transparent, and prioritize relationships. In some cases, we succeeded; in others, we missed the target completely. In each scenario, we stayed committed to a loving practice and continued to learn how we can do things better next time.

Sharing Power

The system of philanthropy is rife with privilege. Because of the inherent power dynamics of this field, many grantmakers and funded projects alike operate under the false assumption that the perspectives, experiences, and opinions of those working in philanthropy are more valid, important, or significant and that somehow the financial resources we steward are more valuable than the work grantees are doing in their communities. If love is about investing in one’s own and another’s growth, sharing power is essential for philanthropy to effectively build just societies.

In designing our program, we attempted to address issues of power by decentralizing decision making. Before our open call was launched each year, we selected forty-eight readers from diverse communities across the country to help us evaluate the over one thousand applications we received. In this process, we used a complex matrix with demographic, geographic, and professional characteristics to construct a review and site-visit panel that statistically mirrored the composition of the United States. When selecting both finalists and projects to fund, we were guided by the expertise of these panelists.

Once grant recommendations were made and approved, we developed customized memorandums of understanding (MOUs) instead of grant agreements. We chose MOUs because they are intended to be jointly negotiated. They allowed us to share power and build consensus about our relationship and expectations of each other (beyond the financial investment). Through this back-and-forth process, funded projects could request nonfinancial resources in support of their goals.

While using MOUs was a step in building a more equitable power dynamic, funded projects rarely took advantage of this opportunity, and we recognized we still had the ability to “reject” a request as the holder of resources. We also realized that we had not accounted for the spectrum of political and economic values our panelists held. If we could go back to 2014, we would ask potential readers and panelists to rate themselves along those two continuums from conservative to progressive. This additional dimension would have supported the selection of a panel that not only mirrored the US population demographically and geographically but also culturally and psychologically. We believe this kind of “diversity” would have enriched the quality of reviews and, ultimately, might have changed the investments made through the NCPF.

Far too often in social justice spaces, we set tables with like-minded people only to close ourselves off from the growth that happens when we engage in healthy discourse with those who do not share our perspectives. These conditions are further exacerbated in our field, specifically because most foundations don’t invest in panel processes to select grantees. The field fully empowers program officers and directors to make choices that are for or against a particular social issue, investment, or partnership.

Advancing a loving grantmaking practice will require each of us to make space for those who disagree with us and to spend more time in the rich murky spaces that exist beyond binary ideals. Taking these steps will allow us to get very clear about what just communities look like and how we will work collectively to improve them. Ultimately, our efforts to share power through panel processes and the use of MOUs were simple ways to begin to defer expertise to people working on the ground. There’s still much more work to be done in equitably sharing power through a loving grantmaking practice.


Grantmakers are gatekeepers of financial resources and social capital. When we attempt to define the impact of our work, we may further add to our “power” by creating complex rules for applicants. By no means do we disagree with the creation of guidelines, eligibility requirements, and criteria. We do believe, however, that philanthropy can employ them better. For example, if we simply state the “rules” without providing context about why we created them or what we hope to learn by asking certain questions, we have designed systems that overwhelmingly provide funding to those privileged enough to know how to play this game, not those who may truly be aligned with the mission of a program or portfolio but speak a different language.

When we embarked on refining the application process for the NCPF in 2015, we asked ourselves, “How do we benefit by holding our cards close to the vest?” Lo and behold, we found ourselves replying, “There is no benefit!” This realization spurred us to provide thoughtful explanations for why we request information in a certain format. We also pushed ourselves to remove as much jargon as possible from our materials. Additionally, through our webinars and extensive FAQs, we provided the answers our reviewers were looking for within each application question and worked to explain what we fund and why. During the open-call process, we used targeted Facebook advertising, visited underrepresented areas, provided in-depth FAQs on the front page of our website, and provided webinars and outreach visits to hundreds of attendees. In the next stage (in which approximately 7 percent of applicants were invited to submit a full proposal), we made the process more open by providing all applicants with what we would actually be looking for in the full proposal and site visits. This is the same material we provided to panelists who reviewed all the projects and provided funding recommendations. Additionally, our process included site visits before a full proposal was due, phone calls, and virtual office hours for prospective applicants. All of these measures both increased opportunities for applicants and grantees to gain clarity about what we were looking for, and allowed us to get clearer about what their projects were attempting to accomplish.

One of the unexpected lessons from our efforts to be transparent was that sometimes they encouraged an applicant to “work the system.” This happened in 2016 when we chose to publish that we were particularly interested in projects focused on community development sectors that were underrepresented in our portfolio to date. We received hundreds of submissions in which applicants attempted to alter the goals and strategies of their projects to fit into one of the sectors we listed as being “of special interest,” believing this would make them more competitive in the funding process. More often than not, these projects would have been strong had they been framed in a community development sector more authentic to the work instead of the ones we stated as priorities for the year. As a result, these proposals were received by our peer review panel as round pegs attempting to fit into square holes, which ultimately decreased their competitiveness.

Despite such setbacks, transparency was key to ensuring everyone was operating from the same information. And as we heard from the field, increasing the transparency of our process was a mutually rewarding approach that supported applicants at all stages in putting their best foot forward.

What Makes Upholding Transparency Difficult?

As grantmakers, and even just as human beings, we often disregard transparency and in turn create barriers. Barriers keep people — “others” — at a distance and prevent them from knowing who we truly are and what we desire. Sometimes we do it to protect ourselves in dangerous situations; other times we do it to protect our own assets. In the case of philanthropy, it is often the latter. But what is philanthropy working so hard to protect, and why? If our aim is to distribute resources, shouldn’t we want as many people as possible to benefit from them? Why create barriers to shut them out? In her book All about Love, published in 2000, bell hooks says, “In our culture privacy is often confused with secrecy. Open, honest, truth-telling individuals value privacy. We all need spaces where we can be alone with thoughts and feelings — where we can experience healthy psychological autonomy and can choose to share when we want to. Keeping secrets is usually about power, about hiding and concealing information.” Can we create a loving practice of philanthropy that is based on a core tenet of “truth-telling”?

While each of the methods we used to increase transparency in our application process was fruitful, we want to admit that we were not fully transparent about our personal values and how they showed up in our work as grantmakers. The NCPF criteria never expressed a priority for projects rooted in social justice, yet given who we are, we believe that communities of color, rural communities, and other oppressed peoples have long been underresourced, especially by philanthropy. As a result, this lens impacted who we chose to serve on panels and, ultimately, who was selected to receive funding. If we could go back in time, we think it would be critical to share these values with all applicants in order to run a program fully rooted in love. Love for all.

We think this is an opportunity to interrogate how philanthropy “punishes” truth tellers and those who choose to speak truth to power. During my (Javier’s) time in philanthropy, I have personally experienced threats to my employment after questioning the approaches of an institution’s work. I have also heard countless stories from my peers who have experienced similar struggles. The manner in which power centers protect themselves creates deep incentives for us as grantmakers to shun transparency — if only for self-preservation. The field of philanthropy can often be risk averse, given the scrutiny under which we steward vast resources. This reality leads many of us to fear being “wrong” or the perception of having “made a mistake” and further encourages secrecy in our field. We hope we can begin to see a philanthropic field that values transparency on many levels in an effort to break down some of the inherent power dynamics we have experienced and even practiced ourselves.

Taking a nod from Maurine Knighton, who reminded us that we don’t spend enough time getting clear about what we are for and spend too much time focused on what we are against, we offer a series of questions we imagine can help us construct a more loving grantmaking process. For there to be transformation, we believe the most important next steps for philanthropy will require the field to align institutional policies, investments, procurement, and systems with our stated values. What would it look like for grantmakers to invite communities to co-determine priorities for philanthropic investments? For instance, how could we facilitate a process in which resources are placed in a shared legal trust that allows us as grantmakers to be at the decision-making table as one of many committed stakeholders with no more and no less power than any other individual in a community? How much more impactful could philanthropy be with each institution acknowledging that the amassing of generational wealth has likely been through participation in a system that makes some people “winners” and others “losers”? Can we acknowledge that we need to give up power for transformation to be imagined by those who have been systemically robbed of opportunity? Indeed, what will an equitable world look like that no longer needs philanthropy, because abundant resources have been distributed equitably, ensuring everyone has what they need?

Consider that the etymology of the word philanthropy is derived from the Greek “philanthro-pos,” which literally translates to “love of mankind.” Imagine how we could build the field from the foundation of loving each other, cultivating the will to extend one’s self for another’s growth — and how that might not even put us out of business, but instead might create a new kind of business from which we could all benefit.


We offer a special thank you to ArtPlace staff, Janet Brown, Salome Asaga, Caitlin Strokosch, and Maurine Knighton, who took time out of their busy schedules to help us develop and strengthen these reflections.

About ArtPlace America

ArtPlace America (ArtPlace) is a ten-year collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions. ArtPlace’s mission is to position arts and culture as a core sector of community planning and development toward a vision of equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities in which everyone has a voice and agency in creating contextual, adaptive, and responsive solutions.

Committed to funding both in the arts and in community planning and development across the United States, ArtPlace has adopted Grantmakers in the Arts’ national statement of purpose and recommendations for action on Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy. We believe that traditional community planning and development have not always led to communities being as equitable, healthy, and sustainable as they could be.

We believe that arts and culture have an exceptional role to play and bring new sets of tools and strategies to equitable, healthy, and sustainable community development where all people can thrive.

Advancing a loving grantmaking practice will require each of us to make space for those who disagree with us and to spend more time in the rich murky spaces that exist beyond binary ideals.

As grantmakers, and even just as human beings, we often disregard transparency and in turn create barriers. Barriers keep people — “others” — at a distance and prevent them from knowing who we truly are and what we desire.

How much more impactful could philanthropy be with each institution acknowledging that the amassing of generational wealth has likely been through participation in a system that makes some people “winners” and others “losers”?