Two years ago, I wrote a piece advocating an approach to philanthropy grounded in a place-based, social movement strategy for systemic change. For the Chorus Foundation, this approach began with a critique of business as usual in climate-driven funding, but it has since led us to a broader critique of philanthropy as a whole. Even when we aspire to fund the right things, the ways in which we provide that funding run the risk of undermining the transformative potential of such work. As funders, we desperately need to learn how to let go and get out of the way.
With all of this in mind, my original piece focused on making the case for long-term, general operating support as a concrete tool for letting go. It also made brief mention of the fact that the Chorus Foundation is spending down; our final year of grant making will take place in 2023. Now, I’d like to take a step back and talk about why we’re spending down – both in terms of our immediate approach to the work, as well as our long-term vision for philanthropy as a whole.
As always, my thinking has been informed by two underlying assumptions about the nature of transformational philanthropy: First, if philanthropy as a whole requires the presence of systemic inequity, then truly transformational philanthropy must directly challenge the root causes of that same inequity. Second, if progressive philanthropy aims to acknowledge and address the power imbalances inherent to our work, then truly transformational philanthropy must explore what it looks like to hand power over entirely.
Authentic transformation, of course, can be challenging stuff – downright uncomfortable, even. I should be transparent in saying that this piece has the explicit goal of pushing philanthropy out of our collective comfort zone.
The Seeds of an Idea
As with so much of the Chorus Foundation’s work, our thinking on spending down has gone through over a decade of reflection and revision. Each phase of revision was inspired in some way by conversations with our peers in philanthropy. I’d like to acknowledge the Gill Foundation, the Beldon Fund, the Quixote Foundation, and the Fund For Democratic Communities for their willingness to share their own insights on spending down.
Even at the beginning, when Chorus was just an idea, there was never any intention of creating an institution that would exist in perpetuity. As the primary donor, I’ve never had any interest in burdening others with the task of determining whether or not a given activity aligns with my founding intentions. Quite to the contrary, I’ve always believed that the process of personal wealth redistribution is something that I need to take responsibility for and see through within my own lifetime.
Beyond my own personal beliefs, we were also wary of what can happen when our insatiable appetite for institution-building risks conflating form with function. We’ve all seen examples where “existing in perpetuity” has become a mission in and of itself, and we wanted to do everything we could to inoculate against that particular scenario.
As we deepened our work, the urgency of the climate crisis provoked us to refine our thinking around spending down. We are approaching a dangerous ecological tipping point – in fact, we may have passed it already – and there’s simply no excuse for withholding resources until it’s too late. With this in mind, our vague intentions to eventually “sunset” became a concrete plan to spend down the entirety of our corpus within a ten-year time frame.
At the risk of being too much of a downer, I'd argue that something similar could be said of our current political and economic crises as well. They too have their own tipping points beyond which we risk spiraling out of control. The climate crisis may be a poster child of the failings of our current economic system, but it is certainly not the only one, and it behooves us to trace the connections between them.
Putting Ourselves Out of Business
Throughout all of our work, the Chorus Foundation has been guided by the transformative vision of our grantees, especially those working under the banners of just transition, new economy, and an overall call for systemic change. This vision has led us to revisit our thinking around spending down once again. When our most inspiring social movements proclaim that another world is possible, we must ask ourselves: what does this mean for philanthropy?
It is our deeply-held belief that philanthropy – at least as it's conventionally defined – requires the extraction and consolidation of wealth. Which is basically just a long, fancy way of saying that philanthropy requires systemic wealth inequality. This feels like it should be a totally uncontroversial statement, and yet it remains uncomfortable for many of us in philanthropy to say out loud.
And so, when we speak of “another world,” it's clear to me that we’re referring to a world in which this extraction and consolidation of wealth no longer takes place. In a truly just and equitable world, the pressure release valve of philanthropy would not only find itself with fewer demands, it would also find itself with little to no pressure to release in the first place. Philanthropy is needed to compensate for the inherent flaws and injustices built into our current economic system. Our goal, and that of our grantees, is to create a system in which we can safely put philanthropy out of business.
If we’re going to have any hope of bringing such a world into being, then we’re going to need to start learning how to return consolidated wealth to the communities from which it was initially extracted. And, by spending out, we believe that we have the opportunity to model what this might look like. In that sense, we see our work as a form of reparations. We may not see mainstream philanthropy joining us any time soon, but we believe deeply in the power of demonstrating what's possible.
There is an Alternative
We’re not under the illusion that any number of foundations spending down will somehow erase the need for financial resources at the community level. Instead, we want to challenge our collective assumptions about what the mechanisms for resource allocation ought to look like. And, as usual, it is our grantees who are leading the way.
Not surprisingly, this quickly becomes a conversation about investment capital just as much as grants. For example, many of our grantees are actively building their own democratic, politicized, and networked financial institutions. Some, such as The Working World, are international in scope and have been active for over a decade. Others, such as Cooperation Richmond, Cooperation Buffalo, or the Boston Ujima Project, are place-based and are just getting started. Some, such as those listed above, are based on a financial cooperative model (essentially a cooperatively controlled revolving loan fund). Others, such as Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, have pushed the community development financial institution model in promising directions.
Instead of casting ourselves as smart investors who can “do good and still make money at the same time,” we're supporting our grantees to build their own financial institutions so that capital can be handed over to them permanently. That way they get to be the smart investors, and the return on investment stays in their own communities for guaranteed future use. For us, this is the ultimate expression of what aligning investments to mission can look like: let your capital become the community’s investment.
In the meantime, as we work collectively to bring this new world into being, we’ve been exploring ways of democratizing our grant making processes in our current world. We seek guidance from our grantees on any major decisions, we make new funding commitments based on their direct recommendations, and we support the creation of community-controlled re-granting mechanisms that allow the resources to be handed over directly. We’ve even gone as far as to re-write our mission statement based on candid grantee feedback. While we still hold the power, it’s important that we learn to share it as much as possible.
But What Do We Really Hope to See After Ten Years?
If the community-controlled financial institutions described above had already existed when we were first considering what to do with the resources that I'd been given, then it may not have made much sense for us to start our own foundation. Why build a new organization – with new structures of decision-making, new processes for resource allocation, and new challenges around accountability – if such structures already exist on the ground? Given the Chorus Foundation’s mission, it would have made much more sense to simply hand the resources over to direct community control.
Our hope is that, by the time Chorus makes our last grant, our grantees will have been able to bring a number of these community-controlled financial institutions into the world. Together, we will have been able to shift the conversation around how consolidated resources should be (re)deployed for community benefit.
The full vision of philanthropy putting itself out of business may not come to fruition anytime soon – perhaps not even in my lifetime – but we believe that it remains an absolutely critical point of reference nonetheless. Without a long-term vision of what's necessary, we will never be able to make the most of the short-term opportunity of what's possible. Our goal is to have effectively demonstrated that handing resources over to direct community control is possible, equitable, and strategic.
Where Are You in Your Journey?
While the concepts above may be crystal clear to us, forging the path forward will always be a process of reflection and revision. And, knowing that ours is but one approach, we're always curious to hear where it resonates with others (as well as where it doesn't).
With that in mind, I’d like to end this piece with an invitation to my peers in philanthropy to think about how far along in my recounting of our story you were still with me. If I took a step outside your comfort zone at any point, please bear with me; that doesn't mean that the earlier assertions no longer hold!
Can you find that point? Where are you in relation to that point now? What would one step further look like for you? How would that feel, and what would it take to get there?
I’d absolutely love to talk about any of these questions. And, as always, thanks for reading!