2017 was not a year TWI could have withstood alone. Thankfully we didn’t have to. Figuratively and often quite literally, we got by with a little help from our friends.
Grantmaking Loves Company
Like many social justice foundations, our board immediately authorized a rapid response mechanism post-election. We made a set of grants that represent many stands for dignity, democracy, and liberation. Mid-year, in looking to a new round of rapid response, we hesitated to repeat the previous cycle in exactly the same way. Frankly, we were unhinged by the depth and breadth of the rollback of civil liberties, public services, and environmental protection at the policy level–in conjunction with violent white nationalism at the street level. And we also imagined that funding towards civic and social infrastructure might look different than rapid response, so we wanted to balance the short and the long view.
This was a moment where we were thankfully pulled into action with a little help from some funder friends–the very same network of funders we circled up with just after the 2016 presidential election to make meaning and deepen relationships. We joined General Service Foundation, Hill Snowdon Foundation, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, and Hyams Foundation for the second round of the Defending the Dream Fund. We are still digesting the many lessons learned from group decision making with shared values and sense of urgency. One lesson is crystal clear: working together at the speed of trust builds more trust in the decisions, the process, each other, and ultimately the incredible groups the fund supported. (Five of those are found among our most recent rapid response awards.)
Friends Call Friends To Action
We were also buoyed by philanthropic colleagues calling on our sector to look the threats to democracy and human dignity in the eye and act unflinchingly on behalf of those we serve. Inside Philanthropy gathered a round up funder friends doubling down on social movements of this era. Pamela Shifman at NoVo Foundation gave us radical hope for the liberation of women and girls all year long. Max King at the Pittsburgh Foundation challenged philanthropy to be a bold and unwavering roadblock to the rise of fascism in our country. Vanessa Daniel at Groundswell Fund gave us a withering moral call to directly address systemic white supremacy. These summons to greater risk and courage from our sector fall on welcome hearts and minds, and we hope as the year turns towards the next that we keep each other focused with our minds stayed on freedom.
Trust In Our Sails
We are not alone in promoting trust as essential in funder-grantee relationships. We’ve always known that. Yet something profound happened when we saw on Robert Sterling Clark Foundation’s new website that they were sailing alongside us with the words “Trust Based Philanthropy” waving in the wind. While many of our funder and donor friends actually do practice multi-year, unrestricted funding in thoughtful, equity-driven ways — it was invigorating to see another institution naming and claiming the importance of trust in the power-fraught funder-grantee relationship. In writing. On the website! How many does it take to make a fleet?
We are very different institutions with very aligned core values. TWI is spending out while Robert Sterling Clark (RSC) is in perpetuity. TWI funds nationally while RSC is place-based in NYC. RSC has an open application process while TWI is invitation only. TWI is west coast and RSC on the eastern seaboard. But we share many values – which we demonstrate in part by making unrestricted, multi-year grants through streamlined applications and reporting processes, and placing great emphasis on relationship.
We had the privilege of learning from and with Philip Li and the RSC team when we teamed up to share our experience of trust based philanthropy at Grantmakers For Effective Organizations’ Leading Change 2017 Conference, a great setting to dialogue with our peers about the need to radically shift philanthropic practice in these troubling times. If you are of the “I can watch one hour videos of people talking in a hotel conference room persuasion,” the session was documented here (you’ll need to be logged into Facebook).
To 2018 And Beyond
Our grief for our nation’s continued failure to realize democracy and dignity for all is outmatched by gratitude for the ways that so many stood for dignity and liberation at every twisted turn. I’m reminded that the pain points revealed and exacerbated in 2017 existed long before the Trump era, so that some communities have greeted the new legions of disturbed Americans with a “welcome to the other America” nod.
Count us among the (long-time and more recently agitated) legions of the disturbed who intend to fight for true democracy and universal dignity for all, in the company of the tireless many who have been the human wall between hope and despair. We end the year grateful and humbled, wishing you, our beloved network, deep restoration in the coming weeks. Our invitation for the winter break is to let the nervous system rest from the news cycle; sleep, hydrate, and play; rekindle relationships; let our souls dream and create new worlds; and to acknowledge that we did our best, we were not alone, and that, with a little help from our friends, we can do more than get by. We can win it all.
Rest deep, friends. We’ll see you on the other side.