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Transforming Philanthropy: The Courage to Do Things Differently in Uncertain Times

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

As part of a global webinar series by RTLWorks, Impact Launch practitioners and alumni are joining Dr. Monica Sharma, Sudarshan Rodriguez, Srilatha Juvva and speakers worldwide to discuss key issues and the application of Radical Transformational Leadership for enduring results. There has never been a more critical time to courageously do things differently to generate tangible results. Over the next few months, we will share highlights of this webinar series. To learn more about the webinar series and to register for an upcoming webinar, please visit RTLWorks.

In this post, we focus on the changing landscape of philanthropy and giving in the context of Covid-19 and beyond. Impact Launch founder Megan Joseph, Marin Community Foundation Director for Economic Opportunity Barbara Clifton-Zarate, and Impact Launch practitioner, grant-writer and city council candidate Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson share their perspective on transforming philanthropy below.

Realizing the Full Potential of Philanthropy

During Covid and Beyond

By Megan Joseph

As a community leader and social impact professional, I work with individuals, collaboratives and organizations to design and implement strategic projects for greater impact. I came to this work, and to the unique Radical Transformational Leadership methodology for results through wanting to live and act on my core values of dignity, equity and justice. I’ve worked with the Radical Transformational Leadership model at the local, regional and state scale for over a decade and in the field of community development and social change for over 20 years. In that time, I have never experienced a more critical time to do things differently and leverage change.

The funders and change agents we work with – from Bay Area California based community foundations to family foundations and individuals- have been in action for decades on economic inequalities, health disparities and other social issues and are raising awareness that this pandemic and our global response will undoubtedly permanently reorient us to ourselves, our communities, our government and our accepted systems and norms as a society.

As communities and as a society we can no longer accept that some workers’ health and safety is valued over others, that adequate healthcare services are accessed by certain swaths of the population but not others, that one’s life expectancy, right to dignity of labor or access to safe housing be determined by one’s race, class or address. These inequities and isms have been in place in most cases for hundreds of years, and change makers have been working to shift them for generations. So, while this change is long overdue, a new opening and momentum for action is emerging.

We have been reflecting with our philanthropy partners and their grantees on how to leverage this new opening for change, and we have collectively been driven by 3 key questions:

· How do we fund both immediate needs and long-term sustainable solutions that shift systems and norms?

· How do we address the underlying causes of the issues we are trying to solve?

· How do we shift from funders as resource providers to funders as partners for enduring results.

Both immediate needs and long-term solutions

At Marin Community Foundation for example, we are facilitating a series of strategy sessions with the foundation and key community-based organizations, asking ourselves these questions to reimagine how we can develop alignment across the community for key shifts that need to occur for long term equity and sustainable change, and to support the capacity of service providers and government to courageously do things differently.

In Contra Costa County, we are working with a partnership of local funders and the local business leadership council to reimagine and redesign their annual philanthropy awards event, to shift from a feel good celebration of charity that has helped address basic needs in the community, to an event that does this while embodying and amplifying the core values of the Black Lives Matter movement and centers on celebrating equity and conscious reciprocity.

Addressing the underlying factors of social issues

Funders of course want to see the impact of their gift – and with this they often want immediate results and approach an issue with a “fix it” mindset – counting short term outputs as results rather than long-term impact. This can lead to shifting resources and attention to an immediate solution without looking at the underlying factors that continuously give rise to the issue. A cycle of problem, immediate solution, problem, immediate solution arises – without action that breaks the underlying pattern for sustainable change.

One of the key underlying factors we are reflecting on with our funding partners are “isms”. Underlying inequitable access to healthcare, safe housing, income, childcare, education and more are historical and current isms including racism, classism and sexism. Giving today must address these underlying causes to generate equitable and sustainable change.

We are also reflecting on our own responsibility for equity, starting from the inside out. We cannot expect to change what we have not reflected on for ourselves. Change begins with us, and being accountable for noticing our own gaps in generating equity and inclusion. As a leader of social impact projects, I have paused to reflect on my own expressions of racism and how I perpetuate inequities, a continuous journey while I am in action.

Many organizations we work with are also pausing to look internally, to not only support community led anti-racism efforts, but to support internal assessments and capacity building to ensure their internal systems and policies are in alignment with the values behind their funding – that they are walking their talk. This includes building a culture within their organization to be one explicitly focused on equity and inclusion, including respect of differences without polarization.

Another path to addressing underlying factors is through inequitable policy. In one community, for example, funders and community-based organizations are working together to address policies that are rooted in ideology and narratives steeped in racism and other isms. For example, In order to address local policy that allowed housing evictions and rent increases during the crisis when so many were facing unemployment or income restrictions, a group of funders came together to collaboratively support a multi-pronged approach that included a grassroots effort to put in place an eviction moratorium, education of existing leaders on the historically racist roots surrounding evictions, as well as support for capacity building for community leaders to move into decision making roles and elected positions.

A new paradigm of philanthropic leadership where funders are actively partnering for solutions and enduring results

We are working with funders to support the emergence of a new paradigm of leadership that shifts from top down or bottom up leaders to a holistic approach that allows every individual in any position or role to be an agent and architect of transformation, with equal authentic participation. This includes the funders themselves.

We are working with foundations to be an active participant in designing and generating change with the humility of learning and acting with communities rather than one way giving – conscious reciprocity in action. We are working with foundations to build the capacity building of community leaders in all roles through our programs based on Radical Transformational Leadership. We have enrolled over 900 participants across northern California and beyond in these programs, breaking the pattern of who is traditionally seen as a “leader”, creating an opening for those without formal authority to build their capacity for using their influence to generate change. These programs provide space for every individual’s capacity for radical transformational leadership, generating the potential for change from every level of a system – generating a movement. Importantly, we have had participants from the foundations themselves participate in these programs to build their own leadership capacity and to be true partners in the work.

There is no more critical time for a movement of courageous and influential leaders to take strategic action and to support investment from funders to go beyond small fix-it programs to programs that help address the immediate need while generating new norms, policies and systems and activating the inner potential of the grantee and their sphere of influence. It is up to each of us to harness the urgency and momentum of this time, and to shepherd the possibilities and opportunities upon us.

Philanthropy's Role in Creating a

Post-Polarity Society by Strengthening

Nonprofit and Community Ecosystems

by Barbara Clifton-Zarate

Throughout my career and personal life I have been dedicated to addressing the inequities and disparities that so many are negatively impacted by, and to transforming the systems that perpetuate them. I stand in this work and world with compassion and love for all beings. 

I will share a few thoughts on how we might create a post-polarity society by Strengthening Nonprofit and Community Ecosystems, and by  Investing in Effective Collaboration and Ethical Leadership Development.

The Marin Community Foundation was founded with one simple aspiration: to make a difference in the lives of others through thoughtful, effective philanthropy. The Foundation’s focus is to encourage and apply philanthropic contributions to help improve the human condition, embrace diversity, promote a humane and democratic society, and enhance the community's quality of life, now and for future generations.

Right now with Covid-19 and the civil uprisings, The Foundation and it’s donors are focusing on immediate response, relief, AND a recovery that is transformative. BOTH/AND - the immediate AND the enduring long term shifts that create prosperity, equity, and opportunity for everyone.

With Covid-19, the full extent of the pandemic’s tragic human impact isn’t yet known, but we can already see dramatic implications, particularly for low-income communities. Our response locally has been to invest in strengthening the resiliency of Marin’s most impacted populations and the organizations that serve them. We are supporting our local nonprofits with general operating support, and capacity building resources, we have relaxed restrictions on current grants, and reduced reporting burdens, and we are providing direct resources in to the hands of those that need them the most.

With our partners, other funders, local government and nonprofits we have begun thinking about what a vibrant, post-COVID-19 civil society that transcends polarity could look like; which actions are conducive to (re)building it; and how to finance its different elements.

In Marin, we are creating conditions that shift minds, narratives, systems, policies and practices through innovative and impactful efforts such as the Leadership for Equity and Opportunity learning-in-action program that equips a diverse group of community leaders from all sectors with the skills, tools, and practices necessary to produce extraordinary results for equitable systemic change.

The Marin Community Foundation has fully funded the Marin cohorts. Now over 200 people have gone through this program and we anticipate over 100 more in Spring 2021. We have supported a first-ever Bilingual program, provided stipends, child care, transportation, and meals to assure inclusive participation. 

Participants learn transformative leadership and project design skills to break through the challenge of working across sectors to shift systems while solving problems. They apply cutting edge leadership principles that have been tested globally to local efforts in order to create positive systemic and equitable change. LEO provides valuable connections and opportunities for our county and systems-oriented leaders to move beyond siloed, individual or competitive efforts and work across organizations and sectors to transcend the status quo and traditional authority structures.

We have had participants from a range of sectors; the Chief of police, superintendents, and principles of schools, business, CEOs, executive directors, and staff of nonprofits to lay community health workers all in the same room. They have learned how to operationalize the Conscious Full Spectrum Response model to transcend how they do their work, how they show up in public, and how they shift the issues they care about. As a funder it is powerful to experience and see visible shifts across the county. 

This is one example of how we are working to co-create for equity and dignity. We know our work must be based on principles and values, on ethical leadership, on effective and responsive philanthropy, on challenging the current paradigm and creating a new one that transcends polarity. And we know that our work influences our neighboring counties, our state, our nation, and the globe. This is why we have joined the global movement for ethical leadership and conscious reciprocity, in embracing our interdependence, and to paying attention whether lives are better off.

We are in a place of possibilities right now. Right now we have an invitation, an invitation on this planet to transform. So much has aligned to allow for this moment. And here we are. We have a lot of work to do. We are at a critical crossroad and everyone has a choice, a role, and a responsibility.

What are two things we can do differently in philanthropy?

  • Strengthen Nonprofit and Community Ecosystems 

  • Invest in Effective Collaboration and Ethical Leadership Development for an equitable and inclusive Post-Polarity Society

Community Transformation through Conscious Full Spectrum Grantmaking and Program Implementation

by Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

My name is Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson. I care deeply about equity, dignity and compassion for all. This is what drives me to do the work that I do and wear the many hats that I wear. I am a grant writer, I am a project coordinator for grants I’ve secured, and I sit on giving boards and committees.

I am one and the same in each of these roles and that has contributed to my success in grant writing…program participant, grant recipient, and funder are all the same when they are partnering for enduring results. Writing for impact rather than activities and outputs only can generate synergistic partnerships and unify towards mutually benefiting results.

I have been supporting some programs that I helped secure funding for during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funded Youth Homeless Demonstration Program-working to end and prevent youth and young adult homelessness. Our comparably small community in Santa Cruz California, was one of ten awarded across the nation in the first round of funding.

When the funders gave us feedback on why they wanted to fund us, they shared that a partnership with our community meant that we would be working towards thriving youth and community, and that together we would shift the community norm that youth are to be ignored or feared, to youth will be valued and contributing members of the community.

And it was clear to them that our work is centered in our universal values of equity, justice and dignity for all and guided by principles of authentic inclusion and transparency. I was able to clearly articulate:

● The problems we are solving

● The systems and norms we are shifting

● And the universal values that fuel all of our work

This is the Conscious Full Spectrum Response model in Radical Transformational Leadership.

Through this design, we have seen results. In less than two years we have transformed the way youth engage and help design their own programs, realizing one of our key shifts from youth ignored and feared to youth as valued contributing members of the community. We have generated synergistic partnerships among providers. And we have seen outcomes such as permanent housing, employment and attaining higher education. This was a significant shift in how program participant, grant recipient, and funder related to and worked with one another.

Through this work, we shifted from top down charity only to flattening hierarchies, and generated synergistic partnerships to work towards mutually benefiting enduring results. We shifted from funding for activities, such as handing out food at shelters, to funding for activities AND outcomes and impact, such employed, housed thriving youth.

Then COVID-19 hit. The initiative and the service providers went into crisis mode. Our funders met us where we were at and loosened restrictions on funding. It was essential to pivot in this way so that we could meet the immediate needs of the youth and the community—food, shelter, testing. It was a matter of life and death.

Service providers, government departments and funders all came together to act swiftly. We were able to respond effectively because of the transformative work that we have been doing over the last several years. We have cultivated deep trusting relationships that have allowed us to act.

And now four months have passed. We established a safe place for over 30 youth to shelter in place and we have been able to avoid an outbreak among the youth homeless community. Over a two-month period we were able to permanently house 12 youth and help secure employment for seven youth.

My heart was moved when a young woman came to me after moving into the shelter site and told me this was the first time in weeks that she truly felt safe. This is what this work is about. And I know that shelter alone is not enough for this young person to thrive.

It is easy to become complacent and go back to business as usual. Focusing only on the immediate needs, putting one foot in front of the other so we can just get through the day. But it is as important now if not more, to identify and work toward specific long-term systems and norms shifts, such as:

● From youth as ignored and feared to youth as valued contributing members of the community

● From funding for charity only to funding for synergistic partnerships that generate enduring results

● From funding for activities only to funding for outcomes and impacts

And to have this work rooted in our universal values of equity, dignity and justice.

I wear many hats…As a grant writer I know I can write grants that will be funded for enduring results. As a grant funder I know I can ask for proposals that shift systems and norms. And as a program coordinator I know I can design and implement through synergistic partnerships.

When I use the Conscious Full Spectrum Response framework, articulating clearly

● Problems I want to solve

● Systems and norms I want to shift

● And rooting my work in universal values

I am able to use grants as a vehicle for transforming giving.


Please share with us how you are transforming giving in the comments! We’d love to learn from you.



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