Breaking Bad Philanthropic Habits: Disrupting 3 Habits that Prevent Equity

January 20, 2017 8:15 AM | Administrator (Administrator)


“Your beliefs become your thoughts
 Your thoughts become your words,
 Your words become your actions,
 Your habits become your values,
 Your values become your destiny.”
-Mahatma Gandhi

In the field of philanthropy, we often seek systems change, without asking: "What beliefs and thoughts lead us to the actions we take?" And, "what are the collective practices that reflect our values?" In their publication, The Source Codes of Foundation Culture, our colleagues at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) note that “the assumptions, values and practices of foundations often reflect the cultural “source code” derived from banks, universities, and for-profits.” Resulting from these source codes, we believe that unconscious mindsets and corresponding habits from the for-profit sector and academia limit the impact philanthropy can have, especially when addressing issues of equity.

Last year, the Bay Area Justice Funders Network (BAJFN) launched a new leadership development program for grantmakers called The Harmony Initiative. This ten-month action-learning program is based upon the supposition that funders have acquired grantmaking habits that are reinforcing inequities. By replacing those habits with intentional practices based on social justice values, philanthropy can better achieve systemic and sustainable change.

So what are some of the specific habits that get in our way? And what are the intentional practices that could advance equity?

1) Habit: Believing “we can solve the problem alone!” One philanthropic organization generally can’t solve a chosen problem on its own. Yet many foundations have a habit of developing individualistic strategies that may not align with where there are expressed needs from the community.

Towards eradicating social injustice, solutions can be informed by the impacted community and allies, rather than being internally developed. The resultant philanthropic theory of change would acknowledge the larger landscape and where the foundation’s work aligns with other funders and the broader field.

To shift towards this, a funder could develop practices like:

  • Engaging with the larger ecosystem of communities, organizations, and funders to identify issues and the solutions at a systems level; and
  • Working with grantmakers addressing the same issues to understand the landscape and where their support could be additive rather than “unique.”

2) Habit: Believing that “solutions need to go to scale.” A related habit is looking for a “silver bullet” solution that can be scaled, or a single approach that can be accelerated to reach more people. Yet the scale of any one organization or solution will never be sufficient to address the failures of multiple systems in any community. Too often, philanthropic leaders come to the false conclusion that Organization X or Strategy Y was not scalable, instead of realizing that a different mindset is needed.

It may not even need to be a completely new mindset, but rather a more nuanced approach. Instead of scaling a single solution or organization, scale the number of folks involved in the systems change. Complex social problems need complex solutions.

Practices to replace such habits might include:

  • Injecting resources to address and issue at multiple leverage points;
  • Trying unproven approaches that build on the existing assets and infrastructure; and,
  • Committing to long-term partnerships with shared responsibility for success.

3) Habit: Believing that “we need to maximize financial profits”. In for-profit companies, the imperative is to maximize profits in the short-term while providing the most opportunity for growth in the long-term. Translated into a philanthropic context, that means creating as much impact with the 5% required payout, while also creating the highest financial returns with the 95% of a foundation’s endowment investments.

Instead, what if our philanthropic practice was to focus on creating social impact with all 100% of financial assets? Investments could be used in a values-aligned way that prioritizes creating meaningful social impact while also creating positive financial returns.

Practices to replace such habits might include:

  • Creating screens for investments that take into account the social impact of businesses
  • Divesting from fossil fuels which perpetuate a number of inequities; and,
  • Investing endowment funds in community-owned enterprises that involved affected communities in driving the solutions forward.

Why does this matter?

Philanthropy as a field will not get to equity - let alone justice – without creating intentional practices that reflect the values we’re trying to espouse. As funders, unconscious philanthropic habits can exacerbate the very conditions our foundations want to impact.

Developing intentional philanthropic practices can increase our impact, disrupt the status quo, and allow us to conduct our work with values that will create the positive conditions for change. We have seen this firsthand through the 25 leaders who are currently in or graduates of the Harmony Initiative. By breaking unconscious philanthropic habits, participants have lifted up these values-aligned practices already:

  • Developed more organizational capacity around Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI);
  • Decreased the burden of applying for grants from community-based organizations;
  • Connected public and philanthropic efforts state-wide; and,
  • Increased the impact of grantmaking, by including investment dollars.

Have you seen examples of the practices and habits we’ve described? What other bad habits do you see in philanthropy? What values-aligned practices are working for you? We would love to hear what you are seeing and learning and how we might break bad philanthropic habits together.


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