As a family funder, how can you acknowledge and responsibly navigate the power of your position? How does the power and privilege you hold affect those you interact with and support? How can you use your power for good—to make lasting impact?
This Passages Issue Brief features stories, perspectives, and practical tips on power, and suggestions for how family funders can work toward bridging the power divide with grantee partners and the communities they care about. Enjoy this excerpt from Bridging the Power Divide: How Family Funders Share and Shift Power, featuring the Chorus Foundation.
As a teenager, Farhad Ebrahimi’s father gifted him a significant sum of money. His first reaction? Deep discomfort.
“It took me a long time to get my arms around how I wanted to respond,” he says. “I had the sense that ‘this money shouldn’t be mine; it should be used for social change work.’ I felt a responsibility that there was a moral, equitable thing to do.”
Growing up in a family that talked a lot about politics and culture, power and power dynamics surfaced for him at a young age. “Both my parents were refugees: my dad from Iran and my mom from Cuba. I remember my parents yelling at the TV. It was a form of political education for me, and on the history of disastrous US foreign policy and interventions led to revolutions in both of these countries.”
“Those early experiences influenced what the Chorus Foundation does now,” he says. As its mission, the foundation focuses on ‛supporting communities on the front lines of the old, extractive economy to build new bases of political, economic, and cultural power for systemic change.’
“People who live in a place should get to decide what happens in that place. That’s true for Indigenous Peoples, for Black folks, for immigrants and refugees of color, and for working class folks. Too often, that ability for community self-determination is undermined,” he says.
The entire sector of philanthropy is predicated on consolidated power and privilege, says Ebrahimi. “As funders, we are already showing up with a disproportionate amount of economic power. And here we are trying to build power in other ways, such as ‘we’ve figured out the policy,’ or ‘we will only fund service providers that agree with the policies we believe in.’ This causes groups to contort themselves. We need to be careful we’re not trying to exchange our economic power for political or cultural power.”
“Foundations, and all power structures, are extractive in many ways. We have to acknowledge that and be willing to dismantle that. And if we really want to try to make reparations for a history of oppression, racism, and other forms of injustices, that means facing a future where wealthy family foundations are less wealthy because the resources are shared more equitably,” he says.
“Things get done, across relationships, at the speed of trust.” – Farhad Ebrahimi, Chorus Foundation
How does the Chorus Foundation recommend sharing resources more equitably?
Transfer decision making.
“I hear lots of conversations in philanthropy about who sits on boards. Our approach is different. Rather than the board as the locus of our decision making, our board has a specific role: to push decision making to other formations outside the board. Instead of asking community members to sit on our board, we create processes and structures where folks can have a direct role in how resources go out in communities, and how connections are resourced.”
Additionally, the Chorus Foundation makes long-term general operating commitments, and lets grantees decide where they go. “We make eight to 10-year commitments to anchor organizations within our four focus geographies. Beyond those anchor organizations, we have democratized our process, asking our long-term grantees to help us design a grantmaking program that was accountable to folks on the ground.”
“In this way, the board embraces the overall strategy, but is not a decision maker,” he says. “This means trusting that community members are going to be doing the right thing, that they are the experts.”
“Relationships hold all this together. It means checking in with the folks we trust, and that know and trust us. Sometimes we design a structure and it’s imperfect, or we have a blind spot. Folks will let us know when there’s an ‛ouch,’ and we will change things accordingly,” he says. “Things get done, across relationships, at the speed of trust.”
“The only way to truly dismantle power is to move the resources to the community.” – Farhad Ebrahimi, Chorus Foundation
The Chorus Foundation plans to transfer 100 percent of its wealth into communities. The foundation will sunset in 2024: “the climate crisis is simply too urgent for us to do otherwise,” says Ebrahimi.
Family foundation boards that make plans to exist in perpetuity are in direct opposition to sharing power, he says. “With perpetuity, you are interested in maintaining the status quo. The only way to truly dismantle power is to move the resources to the community.”
When the Chorus Foundation decided to spend down, the board saw it, again, in terms of relationships. “We looked at how much capacity we had to get to know people and build trust with them. That mattered more than how much money we had in the bank.”
“Foundations need to be honest with themselves: Is this family philanthropy about the family, or is it about the philanthropy?” he says. “If it’s truly about the philanthropy, it needs to be about shifting power and privilege in a way that benefits other people.”
View and download the full Passages Issue Brief on NCFP’s website.