Musings on Philanthropy

Musings on Philanthropy

Lately I have been pondering the role of philanthropy in ending some of the most pressing social issues we face, including gender based violence in all its ugly manifestations. We all know that the non-profit sector is under-resourced, and employee burn out is high. Many organizations remain stuck in a reactive position, always scrambling to meet payroll, deliver and evaluate programs that demonstrate positive outcomes, reapply for the next round of grants, build social capital, challenge the normalization of violence, and create empowering leadership development opportunities for emerging voices while balancing the budget. Move to End Violence Cohort 1 recommended three foundational pivots our movement needs to adopt in order to end gender based violence. The first pivot – shifting from a reactive to proactive stance – is absolutely vital to our sustainability and our success, but what the heck does that actually look like?

I just read an article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Fall 2009) called Catalytic Philanthropy by Mark R. Kramer. Mr. Kramer posits that individual donors and other philanthropists can catalyze social action campaigns by tightly focusing and investing strategically on a key issue. He argues that listening to stakeholders, building coalitions, and targeting resources are under-utilized techniques that can influence social change. His arguments are not without flaws, but for the most part the article presents a basis for some honest dialogue about what it will take to end violence against girls and women, particularly as it relates to our first pivot.

The amount of time spent on simply securing the resources to do the work is social and human capital spent in a revolving door proess that continues to keep us in a reactive stance.

My experience in running a non-profit is this: foundations, government funders, individual donors, and corporations all play an extraordinarily important role in helping us do what we do best – working in community. When adequately resourced, non-profits create culturally grounded services, engage communities in solutions, and drive policy advocacy that is beginning to deliver positive outcomes. To deliver these outcomes, I must spend at least 40 percent of my time on one task – fundraising. I have one full time development staff person who spends 100 percent of her time on this task. Other team members, including the business office and other staff, devote significant amounts of time to tracking, reporting, evaluating, and reapplying for a wide variety of funds. This is in addition to all the other administrative tasks that any small business conducts in order to ensure sound operations; things like risk analysis, cash flow management, auditing, human resources, marketing, and facility maintenance. The amount of time spent on simply securing the resources to do the work is social and human capital spent in a revolving door process that continues to keep us in a reactive stance. In addition, non-profits must be rigorous about keeping overhead costs low, and navigate government re-imbursement based contracts with frequent payment delays. Don’t get me wrong, I understand and accept our due diligence and fiduciary responsibilities. We are accountable for how we allocate and report on resources and outcomes. But the sheer volume of funding sources we have to chase just to keep operating is an enormous amount of administrative time that no one wants to pay for. Time that could be spent in more of the activities that Mr. Kramer identifies as tools to get better results. Things like proactively mobilizing stakeholders, raising media and public awareness, strengthening alliances, and building a core team of highly effective staff who are nurtured and supported in their work. This means that in an industry largely staffed by women we should be able to pay an equitable wage with adequate benefits consistently.

The challenge presented by Mr. Kramer is that a small set of donors who have the “desire and opportunity to achieve change…must step forward to become catalytic philanthropists”. Jennifer and Peter Buffett at the NoVo Foundation have taken this challenge and created the Move to End Violence. It is an exciting opportunity to begin shifting our work to a proactive, forward stance. But it is not enough. We need more visionary, courageous philanthropists who understand that mobilizing social change cannot happen without some essential cross-sector reforms.

Non-profits respond to needs in the community by seeking opportunities created by funders to provide services. Programs working to stop violence against women and girls are not often prioritized, and yet this violence is a root cause of some other social issues that are more palatable and therefore more highly prioritized, such as education. There is little argument that education is a fundamental right in this country and that all students deserve a chance to receive a quality education that prepares them to be part of a vibrant workforce. Education is a hot funding topic these days, with more resources being targeted to close the achievement gap and prepare all children for academic and employment success. It is not a divisive issue. Yet achievement gaps in education will not be resolved without addressing interconnected issues such as intra-familial violence, poverty, homelessness, or sexual assault. Employment programs that move people from poverty into the work force are also prioritized, as they must be. But the intersection of poverty and gender based violence receives scant attention. The majority of families living in poverty in this country are single-female head of households. A significant number of these women are fleeing domestic violence, or struggling with trauma from early sexual abuse. Programming to close the achievement gap and provide employment services are badly needed, but without incorporating a holistic approach to solutions that includes naming and stopping the pervasive violence perpetrated against girls and women in this county we will continue to fall short of our goals. This concept is at the heart of Pivot #2 – moving out of silos and embracing interconnectedness.

Mr. Kramer urged philanthropists to take the lead in mobilizing a campaign for change. Our Move to End Violence recommended third pivot is to incorporate a more integrated approach that combines services with social change. I propose that systemic reform in creating truly transformational social change begin with honest dialogue about how non-profits, government, and philanthropy can work more cohesively to address root problems like violence against girls and women. When we are an equal partner in deciding how resources are targeted, when our sector is valued for the incredible, empowering work we do each day and is adequately resourced, we will then be in a position to catalyze philanthropy and social change in a way that is proactive, interconnected, and transformational. Our goal is to change the persistent social norm that has allowed gender based violence to remain a silent epidemic. We can create communities where every last child is valued and safe. It will require taking risks and being willing to change the way we have been doing business. If not now, when?

Suzanne Koepplinger
Suzanne Koepplinger
Catalyst Initiative Director
The Minneapolis Foundation

Suzanne Koepplinger, M.A., is the Catalyst Initiative Director at The Minneapolis Foundation. Before joining this foundation, Suzanne served as Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. Learn More

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