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Philanthropy fails in its approach to inequality. Here’s a way to change it. | Opinion

One paradox of working to build a more just world is that you often find yourself depending on the same system you want to change.

Jennifer Jordan (right, front) practices fundraising pitches with her Giving Project group.
Jennifer Jordan (right, front) practices fundraising pitches with her Giving Project group.Read moreCourtesy Bread & Roses Community Fund (custom credit)

One paradox of working to build a more just world is that you often find yourself depending on the same system that you’re demanding to change. Nowhere is this truer than the world of fund-raising.

Many of the movements chipping away at systems of racial, social, and economic injustice — and building alternatives — traditionally rely on money raised from predominantly white, wealthy donors. A $100,000 donation from a wealthy donor can fund a year of organizing for a higher minimum wage, or purchase land for a co-operative farm.

That money is usually raised by professional staff at nonprofits, coops and collectives, and the organizations that fund them, all folks you’ll hear from a lot during the holiday giving season. Even more than in other kinds of philanthropy, the philosophical contradictions of fund-raising for justice movements are hard to overlook. Those conversations between staff and donors leave all the power in the hands of the donors, at the exclusion of everyone else. It is anticapitalist work dependent on capitalists. The people the work is meant to help are not even in the room.

In almost 20 years of experience as a professional, volunteer, and board member in and around movements, I’ve seen this happen over and over. Traditional fund-raising does nothing to address an unequal society where 1 percent of Americans have more wealth than the entire U.S. middle class.

To be clear, the ongoing support of wealthy donors is deeply important to our work, and many of these folks make meaningful impact. But this cycle often overlooks the contributions of non-wealthy folks and silences those with the most incentive to change the systems that have failed them.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve participated in a radically different approach to funding organizing work here in Philadelphia. It’s called the Giving Project, and it combines training, community-building, and opening up the fund-raising process to the community. It is reimagining philanthropy and challenging some of capitalism’s unspoken rules about who counts and who doesn’t.

I was skeptical at first. I serve as cochair of Bread & Roses Community Fund, the Philadelphia area’s leading funder of grassroots organizing for racial, social, and economic justice, which adopted the Giving Project model in 2016. From its inception more than 40 years ago, Bread & Roses has rejected traditional philanthropic practices where donors and staff completely control the flow of money, by inviting community members to decide where grant money should be spent.

However, on the fund-raising side, Bread & Roses evolved to look like other nonprofits, with most funding generated by conversations between one tireless staff person and a finite list of long-standing, dedicated, and wealthy donors. It’s hard to build such a steady arrangement, and I was hesitant to disturb it.

Ultimately I found the project compelling enough to join myself. In the fall of 2017, on the heels of the white supremacist Charlottesville rally and other unsettling displays of anti-black vitriol, Bread & Roses convened a Giving Project to raise money for black-led, black-centered organizing here in Philly. I signed up and the experience transformed me.

That’s the simple yet radical idea at the heart of the Giving Project: By starting with diverse fundraisers, it brings in money across race, class, and age.

Giving Projects start by bringing together about 20 people recruited to be diverse in race, class, and age. Bread & Roses staff recruit these folks through our long-standing network of grantees, donors, and allies, but as word of mouth has spread, participation from outside our community has grown.

Each group engages in a series of deep discussions around race, class, and the systems that maintain oppression. I’ve sat through countless anti-oppression trainings, but these discussions have gone deeper than any I’d previously experienced. As a black, queer woman, I usually wind up spending mental energy defusing the guilt or defensiveness of white folks in the room. But the Giving Project centers the voices of people of color. It allowed me to face the complex reality of being both black and middle class in a capitalist, white supremacist society. It made me both bold and accountable in a new way.

We had some of the most honest conversations I’ve ever had about money and capitalism, challenging messages we had internalized — don’t tell people how much money you make, savings accounts equal safety, and poverty is shameful — that prevent us from unlocking our giving potential and maintain the status quo.

At the end of the training, each of us committed a personally meaningful gift. I gave more money than I had ever before: $5,000. But we all acknowledged that a $40 gift held the same significance, if not more, from one of my co-participants with less access to money. What mattered was not the amount — it was the action of committing meaningfully to a shared goal. The $130,000 we raised from 365 donors would go toward 13 grassroots groups doing black-centered organizing in our region — including the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, which organizes to resist displacement and gentrification; Soil Generation, a coalition of gardeners, farmers, and others building power to regain control of local land and food; and Womanist Working Collective, which is building anticapitalist alternatives like its Time Bank Project.

A simple yet radical idea

Armed with fund-raising training from our discussions, all of us — not just those with wealth or previous fund-raising experience — went out to raise money from our own communities, friends, and families. That’s the simple yet radical idea at the heart of the Giving Project: By starting with a diverse group of fund-raisers, it brings in money across race, class, and age.

Overall, the project has trained 150 people in fund-raising across Philadelphia. Our overall giving has grown by more than 250 percent. As of this year, we topped $1 million in Giving Project grants funded by more than 1,700 donors.

Clearly, the Giving Project isn’t the only solution to philanthropy’s problems. But it is building concrete action from the principle that everyone deserves a role in funding change, and that every contribution has value, no matter the size. And that it is possible to practice your values in both what you do and how you do it.

Jennifer Jordan is cochair of Bread & Roses Community Fund. To learn about or apply to join a Giving Project: