The Benefits—and Challenges—of Adding an Equity Lens to Philanthropy Practices

Compton Foundation grantee Bold Alliance. © Eric Galushi / Bold Nebraska

Philanthropy is rooted in and continues to operate within inequitable systems and structures. Philanthropists have long sought to address these inequities in their grantmaking, and in recent years many have begun to examine how they can further address inequities in their practices. At NCFP, we see equity as a core principle of effective family philanthropy. We believe that equity begins with recognizing that individuals and communities have different lived experiences and identities that require tailored and specific approaches to build trust and repair harm and injustice. In other words, what worked for one person in one set of circumstances may not work for another person with different circumstances. And yet, so often in philanthropy we have assumed that we know how the communities we support should live and what solutions will work to address the challenges they face. Effective family philanthropy requires shifting our organizational culture and demonstrated practices to extend equity to all—staff members, family members, grantees, and community members. It requires intense interrogation of the systems and structures that have led to inequities so that we collectively can find the way out.

In family philanthropy, conversations about equity have additional layers. These conversations confront how families accumulated (and still accumulate) wealth and can be uncomfortable, hard, and scary. In most cases, wealth holders have already benefitted from advantages that those without wealth have not, such as access to mentorship, high-quality schools, and capital, to name a few. Additionally, in some cases the inequities perpetrated were more blatant and egregious; people built wealth on the backs of enslaved and/or woefully underpaid and exploited labor. Conversations about all this may disrupt long-held family histories and legacies. Some family members may see connecting inequity and their family’s business success as discounting the hard work and effort that drove that success. Often, those same families are working very hard today to correct societal inequities through their philanthropy.

Advancing equity in family philanthropy requires intense vulnerability and a willingness to shift views, and it opens a family to criticism and challenge from outsiders. This can feel threatening to family bonds and counter to a value that may have driven the philanthropy: family togetherness. However, doing so is a critical component of philanthropy and necessary in making progress on the most pressing challenges to which funders devote their resources, time, and effort.

To explore these tensions between establishing equitable philanthropy practices and examining what that means for a family’s sense of self and legacy, we spoke to June Wilson, executive director of the Compton Foundation, former NCFP fellow, and current NCFP board member.

What does equity in philanthropy mean to you? Does anything change about how you think about equity in philanthropy when you add a family lens to it?

What it means and how to practice it involves taking a hard look at where and how philanthropic institutions and structures contribute to systems of inequity. This includes examining how wealth was accumulated, how those with wealth use their economic and political power, and the ways in which philanthropic families’ power itself contributes to systems of inequity.

You’ve been practicing in the family philanthropy space for a while. What progress have you seen in how the field has embraced equitable practices in the past few years?

The field has changed a lot because people are less afraid to talk about equity. It’s changed because there’s been some norming and institutionalizing of structures regarding equity, such as the growing interest and practice of trust-based philanthropy. However, while it’s been normalized, it’s still hard. It isn’t necessarily easy for folks who aren’t comfortable to be comfortable, but there is certainly a lot more context around equity and frameworks through which people can engage.

Particularly for families from generational wealth, starting an equity journey requires vulnerability and a willingness to shine a light on family legacies that may not stand up to scrutiny today. What advice and encouragement might you offer those families to push through their hesitancy and fears and how to work through anything uncomfortable, sad, or surprising that they might find?

My advice is to think about it as a developmental and ongoing process. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back. It’s a constant exploration and an expansion of perspective. When families start looking at their family lore and history through the lens of equity—understanding the ways that unearned advantages and disadvantages operate invisibly within systems of supremacy and hierarchy—they have an opportunity to add context and nuance, sharpening and expanding what their legacy can mean. When families do this work, it can open pathways to seeing and understanding two things at once, making space for holding the ideas of both/and. It also expands our capacity for greater empathy and nuance, traits important to guiding change in complex systems.

Also, it’s good to keep in mind that feelings of shame will arise. Resisting the impulse to blame in response to shame is key. Blaming, and feelings of being blamed, become defense mechanisms or projections that limit a person’s ability to experience the grief that is arising. Acknowledging and having an appropriate container to feel the grief, while it may seem counterintuitive, is actually an effective antidote in transforming the shame.

What might you say to someone who sees righting past wrongs, such as reparations and land repatriation, as beyond the scope of their work? That it’s not their problem to repair someone else’s errors?

In family philanthropy, we can’t make excuses not to do the work because what is uncovered about the past occurred in a different time or wasn’t directly perpetrated by the family itself. If we believe that harms of the past are no longer being perpetrated, why are we afraid to interrogate the past and the structures that contributed to those harms? While the forms in which inequities manifest may look different than in the past, there is still a kind of enslavement operating that we can take a hard look at. There is a systemic extraction that continues to happen that privileges capital and wealth and patriarchy and race, to name a few. In short, extraction based in systems of supremacy.

There are some who say that philanthropy shouldn’t exist since it was built on inequities and perpetuates inequities. You work in philanthropy. What’s your response to that?

This is a provocative question and one I contemplate often. If philanthropy exists because of, not despite, social inequities, can it solve problems that, ironically, the financial system surrounding philanthropy often perpetuates? If as a society we supported one another and treated one another as if everyone belonged and was worthy of care no matter their failures, faults, or foibles, would there be a need for private foundations in the first place? As implied in the premise of this conversation, our system of capitalism is rooted in exploitation, extraction, individualism, and the accumulation of wealth; when we understand that philanthropy is born out of—and reinforces—the status quo, can we begin to reimagine and design new structures and models for this system we call philanthropy?

Learn more about how equity is an essential principle of effective family philanthropy here and in the video below.