Amy’s Story: Using Privilege to Promote Equity

Editor’s Note: Amy Mandel of the Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Fund shares how her experiences have shaped her giving and how taking a pause to reflect on your philanthropic and programmatic offerings can be extremely rewarding. This piece originally appeared as a three part series on the Tzedek Fellowship website, with Spanish translations provided. 

The History of the Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Fund

In the late 1980’s, my parents, Barbara and Mort Mandel, directed funds for my brother, sister and I to use philanthropically. These funds are held within their foundation, The Barbara and Morton Mandel Family Foundation, and are renewed annually.  My fund is now called the Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Fund (AMKRF). Generally, 75 percent of the AMKRF’s funds comes from my parent’s foundation, while 25 percent comes from my personal trust.

With the goal of utilizing this wealth for social justice, I immediately sought out others, including  The Haymarket People’s Fund, to help me figure out how to best use this money in the service of justice. At the time, Haymarket was a Boston-based collective of folks with inherited wealth committed to using money for change. My participation introduced me to an alternative vision of philanthropy. Haymarket has since evolved away from a funder-driven model and now defines itself as “an anti-racist and multi-cultural foundation that is committed to strengthening the movement for social justice in New England.”

For many years, the work of AMKRF was informal. As health permitted, I did research to find new-to-me organizations that were doing the kind of work I admired while also making grants to organizations and leaders I already knew. But the spring of 2010 brought a severe, four-year relapse of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Even with Katina’s input and collaboration, it became increasingly difficult to research best practices, maintain relationships with grantees, and develop the work strategically.

In the spring of 2011, I made my first staff hire and Jennifer Langton was brought on part-time to manage grants and to continue building relationships with grantees. One year later, Jennifer began working full-time. The Tzedek internship launched in winter 2012. Eventually this program grew into the Tzedek Social Justice Fellowship, and I hired a full-time staff person to manage this program, and created a part-time staff position to assist with operations in 2016. (Heather Laine Talley and Lindsay Majer currently serve in these capacities, respectively.) As our programming offerings grew, it became clear that we needed to expand our capacity. Marsha Davis joined our team in April 2018.  AMKRF staff bios are available here.

In AMKRF’s first years, grants were made largely to non-profit organizations that worked toward equality and equity for LGBTQ people and to progressive Jewish organizations that worked toward social justice.

Over the past six years, as my analysis around racial justice has deepened, it became more obvious to me that there can be no justice without racial justice and that efforts toward reform within this system are just not enough. I’ve also grown to understand how difficult and time consuming it is for the small grassroots organizations and individual change makers who are so indispensable to social justice movements to find adequate funding to sustain their work. Currently, our work focuses on fortifying non-profit and grassroots organizations and activists working in three major areas: LGBTQ Rights, Racial Justice, and Combating Anti-Semitism. Increasingly, the fund’s grantmaking supports work in Asheville and the surrounding region. (A recent summary our current grantees can be found here.)

In 2017, we also made the decision to pause our programming to build and deepen our analysis as a team and to refine, clarify and add to my vision so that it is our vision – one that matches the realities faced by our community and one that the team can easily hold and develop, if I need to back off to tend to my health. What we learn will inform both our programming and our philanthropy moving forward.

My learning journey is ongoing, and as of this writing, I am exploring what truly just, equitable, and impactful philanthropy looks like. Along with staff, I am working to bring our programming efforts and our grantmaking activities into alignment with our values, knowing that there is never a path forward that is simply “right.” We’re continuing to find our way.

One of the first steps we took was an anti-oppression audit, conducted by the Adaway Group. Until 2018, our staff had been exclusively white women (a pattern too common in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector), and this audit began the process of unraveling the deep and insidious ways white supremacy was reflected in our organizational culture and practices.

In 2018 the AMKRF team and I began working with three stellar consultants: Tamiko Ambrose Murray, Beth Trigg, and Gita Gulati-Partee. Beth and Tamiko are guiding us through several processes including 1) building a collective analysis about white supremacy, power, and liberation; 2) facilitating a participatory research project in the Asheville community to assess how the Fund can best serve both in terms of grantmaking and programming; and 3) establishing internal practices that utilize transformative approaches to communication, power, and decision making. Gita Gulati-Partee is guiding us to align our grantmaking practices to be increasingly strategic, equitable, and transparent.

As the Chief Visionary Officer of AMKRF, I am primarily focused on our team building authentic relationships with grantees, stakeholders, colleagues in progressive philanthropy and members of our community. These relationships help us build on our strengths, understand where we are missing the mark, and implement best practices in grantmaking.

There is a movement in philanthropy to spend down a foundation’s funds, to essentially liquidate accumulated wealth in an effort to counterbalance the inequity intrinsic in philanthropic work. I have not chosen this route. The fund is currently funded yearly from my parent’s family foundation, and it is unlikely that the funding will be renewed if I take that course.

One of the reasons that our current pause in programming is so important to me is because it gives us an opportunity to build and deepen our analysis as a team and to refine and perhaps reform my vision so that it is a vision created in collaboration with the team and the local community.

This is the second installment in a series. For part one, click here. For part three, click here.