Accelerating Change: A Model for a Funding Response to COVID-19

car accelerating through tunnel

Like many of you, our fund has been rocked by this global pandemic. At The Tzedek Social Justice Fund (formerly known as the Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Fund), our staff are juggling the lack of childcare and the time-consuming, sometimes traumatizing, preparation to protect the lives of the vulnerable individuals in our families. But organizationally what we hold is small in comparison to our grantees. Given our commitment to funding organizations that are working in the areas of LGBTQ justice, racial justice, and combating anti-Semitism, particularly in Asheville, North Carolina, many of the leaders and organizations that we support are also suffering from the same injustices they work to combat.

The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted the operations of most of our grantees. Many sources of funding have disappeared overnight. As an immediate response to our current grantees in Asheville, we diverted funds from future projects to provide the organizations much needed financial relief. However, we are now months into the shutdown of North Carolina and emerging public data indicates that we need to shift our response to prepare for a year-long experience of instability and uncertainty in our community. How does a small family fund like ours build a nimble and strategic response?

An Opportunity for Intentional Adaptation

Grace Lee Boggs, racial justice activist and ancestor, had the foresight to provide advice for times like these: “Every crisis,” she writes, “actual or impending, needs to be viewed as an opportunity to bring about profound changes in our society.”

While the COVID-19 crisis is surprising, the cracks in our national infrastructure that allow this crisis to inequitably impact the most marginalized segments of our nation are not. This crisis highlights the need for our fund to remain focused on advocating for those with the least access to mainstream funding opportunities and to supporting grantees in their vital work of addressing these inequities. We are at a pivotal moment to accelerate the justice work in our communities in ways that are in alignment with the new equitable society we hope to co-create. As adrienne maree brown reminds us in her book, Emergent Strategy, we all have the ability to shape change. What type of change do we want to create? How do we intentionally adapt to ensure that on the other side of this crisis we are a more just society?

At Tzedek, we had decided to answer this question before COVID-19 arrived by reframing our view of our responsibility to our community. We are not just a fund; we are partners with grantees in the fight for liberation for all people. We are a member of a larger group of people and collectives who are fighting for change. As members of a movement, we have the obligation to act with the same level of accountability and rigor we require of those we fund.

COVID-19 has pushed us to accelerate our transition from being a family-led fund where our strategy was based on the interests of our funder to one that is responsive to the leadership in our community. Making the move from philanthropist to being a community-accountable funder is long past due for many in our sector. Instead of clinging to our old normal, we have chosen to jump headlong into our community-based strategy as a step to creating the new world that we want to see.

Some of the changes we have implemented are:

Restructuring our board to include four local community leaders who work in our focal areas (racial justice, LGBTQ justice and combating anti-Semitism). While our Funder and Founder, Amy Mandel, will chair this board, community leaders will outnumber her 4:1. We are doing this to put into practice our belief that wealth does not equal expertise. If we claim to trust local leaders, we must allow them to inform our overall strategy with the expertise gained from years of creating change locally.

Prioritizing funding for initiatives led by what we call “impacted leadership.” When we surveyed the most impactful work in our communities, we realized that those most directly impacted by systems of injustice are best situated to lead change work.

Creating the Tzedek Impact Awards for individual community leaders who have worked to create change outside of non-profit organizations. These funds are given (up to $3,000 per person) with no-strings-attached. We trust local leaders to choose whether the funds they receive should be used for a project or for their own survival. The unspoken reality of philanthropy is that we, as funders, tend to fund “the work” yet leave the leaders of the work behind. Community leaders often burn out from having to choose between their own survival and the survival of their organization. In this moment of crisis, we hope to disrupt this pattern. When we, as funders, see ourselves as part of the community we serve, it becomes clear that we are responsible for sustaining the leaders who make our cities more just. We can’t thrive if they don’t thrive.

The Importance of Deep Listening

We were prepared to make these intentional adaptations because in the past year, we have been engaged in a year-long community research and reflection process where we listened to social justice leaders, grantees, and other community stakeholders. Local listening projects reveal people and place-based strategies as well as the limits of “best practices” that are often touted by dominant philanthropic institutions.

Our community told us loud and clear that they need funders to be more humane in their funding practices. They challenged us to take a bold stance in disrupting funding practices that routinely underfund and undervalue local efforts. They urged us to remember that we are not funding disembodied entities. We are funding collectives of human beings who have sacrificed their time (and sometimes their health and livelihoods) to survive in an unjust world. They reminded us that we have deep responsibilities to those we fund beyond writing checks. They asked us to show up with the same transparency and rigor that funders require of grantees. In short, they laid out a clear mandate: if you want us to consider you a part of our movement for liberation, you have to adhere to the same level of accountability and care that we require of our movement leaders and activists. Show us that you care about the reality of doing this work on the ground.

We invite other funders to listen to these voices and take their lead. Now is the time to ensure that we are a more just society on the other side of this crisis. Take advantage of this moment to accelerate the changes we need to make in philanthropy.

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.