Democratize Decision Making: A Guide to Navigating Today’s Charitable World
During the last decade, the landscape of philanthropy in the United States has changed profoundly. Some of these changes, like the increasing demand for accountability among individual donors and institutional grantmakers, have been gradual. Others, driven by the ripped-from-the-headlines developments of the recent past—Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, COVID and the growing awareness of the climate crisis facing humanity, to name a few—have been more sudden and, seemingly, more consequential.
All of these new dynamics pose multifaceted challenges for the philanthropist seeking to make a meaningful impact and have important repercussions in terms of both what their donations are funding and how these decisions are made and implemented. In order to help its readers better understand this evolving context, Worth has asked two experienced advisors in the philanthropic sector, Eric Nonacs and Ehren Reed, to share their views on how to navigate the shifting sands of today’s charitable world.
This month’s article is the second in the series, and focuses on the question of how individuals and organizations can adopt more transparent practices, build trust-based relationships and open up their decision making in an effort to democratize their giving.
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The signs are ominous and obvious—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the rolling back of voting rights in the U.S.—democracy is in retreat. According to Freedom House, 2022 marks the 16th consecutive year of declining freedom. This has prompted increasing discussion of how best to protect and secure our nation’s democracy, and how to ‘democratize’ our nation’s institutions. But what does it mean to democratize philanthropy?
There is perhaps an analogue in, and a lesson to learn from, America’s health care sector. As the coronavirus tore through our communities, it pushed our health care system to its limits and left in its wake catastrophic financial challenges, overworked and exhausted health care workers and hundreds of thousands dead. It also had particularly devastating effects on how care was delivered. During the worst surges, in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus, health care providers were forced to limit their interactions with patients and their families. Those decisions ran counter to the principles of patient-centered care, which has been the predominant practice in health care for the last 20 years.
The core tenets of patient-centered care include:
- Transparency: freely sharing data and observations with the patient about conditions and treatment;
- Customized: recognizing each patient as a unique individual and presenting them with a range of options as it relates to their care; and
- Shared Decision Making: allowing patients and their families to direct how health care providers can best cater to their needs.
In adopting these principles, the medical field recognized that an outsider’s perspective is fundamentally insufficient. Even the doctor with the deepest understanding of the science and the literature cannot presume to know what is best for a patient. Our implicit biases involving race and ethnicity make any such presumptions especially problematic. The best care focuses the doctor’s knowledge through the values, experiences and feelings of their patient.
Philanthropy, like the health care sector, is rooted in the benefit of others. But, unlike doctors, there are no rigorous educational requirements or credentialing required of philanthropists. And, like doctors, our implicit biases result in problematic decisions. It is thus doubly important that we embrace these same values—transparency, trust—and democratize our decision making. Let’s call it community-centered philanthropy. Like its health care analogue, it promises a series of benefits, including enhanced efficiency and the ‘holy grail’ of giving: greater, more enduring impact. So, what might it look like to adopt this perspective?
In undertaking a more ‘democratic’ approach to giving, you should transparently share what you know—and what you don’t know. In philanthropy, we tend to clearly communicate our goals, our strategies and even the nuts-and-bolts of our grantmaking processes. Yet, it would be better if you also more proactively shared your judgments and your perspectives on progress: What is working well? What is not? What lessons have you learned?
As a first step, open up the lines of communication between your philanthropy and the communities you aim to serve. This involves both more listening and more sharing. If you want to improve your giving, you need to actively invite input from your grantees and the communities most affected by the problems you hope to address. This might involve site visits to grantees or listening tours of a community or the regular convening of an advisory committee. Many foundations gain valuable insights through the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report, which gathers honest (read: anonymous) feedback and benchmarks those results against other foundations. Likewise, the Fund for Shared Insight’s Listen4Good initiative empowers nonprofits and funders with critical feedback directly from the communities they aim to serve.
It is critical that you value and, ultimately, trust the unique perspectives of your grantees. If you want to garner and support those unique points of view, refrain from imposing a narrow or pre-defined template for structuring donations and measuring progress. Instead, let your grantees describe what success means to them.
Moreover, if you truly value a grantee’s perspective, you will recognize that they are best positioned to understand how to allocate the resources you have shared with them. This might mean doing away with grant restrictions and offering unrestricted multiyear general operating dollars (or MYGOD!). This type of funding has the benefit of simultaneously better supporting grantees—by providing them with greater flexibility—and incentivizing better information because grantees will be more honest with their funders in a longer-term relationship founded on trust.
Democratize Our Decision Making
Ultimately, community-centered philanthropy requires moving beyond trusting grantees to know how best to make use of your support and invites those you seek to help into the decisions about where and how you give.
Consider diversifying your board to invite different perspectives into the governance of your philanthropy. Some foundations have more formally shifted their grantmaking strategy to be community-led. Another option, which does not involve altering your strategy or governance, would be to support a community-led fund, managed by and designated for historically underrepresented populations. Borealis Philanthropy, for example, guides both the Black-Led Movement Fund and the Disability Inclusion Fund, among others.
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Keep in mind that community-centered philanthropy as proposed does NOT mean doing away with clearly defined goals; it means defining those goals more collaboratively with your grantees and the communities they serve and involving those perspectives again when it comes time to reflect on progress and inevitably adjust and update your objectives based on initial returns.
Community-centered philanthropy, like patient-centered care, will yield a better informed and thus more effective approach. There is also efficiency in it. Rather than staffing up your philanthropy’s in-house expertise, recognize that there are others who already understand these issues tremendously well. Then, when the inevitable need to pivot occurs, your philanthropy will be leaner and you will be able to turn your attention to whatever new and pressing concern arises.
Eric Nonacs is the principal at Golden State, a Nashville-based strategic consultancy. He draws on over 30 years of international experience in the nonprofit and private sectors in providing advisory services to philanthropists and entrepreneurs as they navigate the strategic, leadership, communications and operational challenges associated with moving their ideas from conception to implementation.
Ehren Reed is an independent advisor to nonprofits, funders and social enterprises, helping them better understand their work and developing tools and processes that enable quicker and more informed decisions. He brings more than two decades of experience in evaluation and impact assessment, with a particular expertise in the evaluation of complex initiatives, such as those aiming for policy change, systems change or movement building.