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Yale Philanthropy Conference 2020

The 2020 Yale Philanthropy Conference hosted over 250 non-profit professionals, philanthropists, students, and experts on Valentine’s Day. The theme was “Vision for the Future” and sessions were focused on philanthropy’s involvement in issues of land conservation, intersectionality, and education reform, among other global issues.

One of the key themes that emerged from the sessions was the importance of engaging with communities in a respectful and authentic manner. Different sessions highlighted the role of community engagement and trust at every stage to create successful philanthropic programs and long-term impact. In recent years, writers like Anand Giridhardas have forced the philanthropic community to reflect on the unequal power dynamic inherent in grantmaking and its implications. This dynamic, and the increasingly influential role philanthropic entities play in policy reform and politics, means that it is vital that these conversations about local engagement take place.

Learning from the Past

Speakers on two powerful panels, “Environmental Philanthropy” and “Philanthropy, Power & Politics”, covered lessons learned from the worlds of indigenous land conservation and education reform.

Janie Hipp (CEO, Native American Agricultural Fund) and Cris Stainbrook (President, Indian Land Tenure Foundation) held a rich discussion on the way conservation philanthropies often interact with the indigenous groups whose land they are attempting to preserve and enrich. In this context, it is important for tribes to have decision-making power over conservation on their land, but often philanthropic conservation organizations do not recognize the importance of cultural conservation and of the sovereignty of tribes. Stainbrook encouraged philanthropists to “figure out how to be good allies.” He and Hipp said this may mean standing down from what you think you know and instead listening carefully to those whose goals are aligned with yours. It is important for philanthropists working within communities to be willing to hear their concerns and priorities and share space with them. It can make all the difference to have open, honest conversations; make a genuine attempt to understand the context in which the proposed initiative operates; and perhaps most importantly – to “stand down and listen”.

Dale Rusakoff, author of “Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools” narrated the story of the Zuckerbergs making a generous gift to fund education reform in Newark, attempting to use data-driven accountability and incentives to drive change. Despite the best intentions, the initiative suffered from a conspicuous lack of consultation with the people it would impact the most – Newark residents. Rusakoff and fellow panellist, Joanna Belcher (Executive Director, KIPP Newark) cautioned that systemic change takes time if it is to be sustainable and democratic, and a key part of the process is empowering people closest to the problem. Rusakoff described the understandable desire of highly successful individuals who have achieved success by disrupting the status quo in their industries, to create similar transformational rather than incremental change through the social initiatives they fund. However, working on such issues is usually most effective by building consensus with stakeholders, and this is a time-consuming process. Philanthropy can be a highly undemocratic institution and it is up to funders to start looking at the bigger picture, trusting their partners, and providing people closer to the ground with the ability and resources to make decisions. As Rusakoff put it, “You can’t empower if you don’t engage.”

Into the Future

Tied closely to the theme of “Vision for the Future” the conference included panels on the increasing use of data to drive impact, emerging philanthropic structures and innovative partnerships, and models that can enable scale, equity and financial resilience for non-profits.

Lisa Hall of the Beeck Center at Georgetown University explained that many non-profits had long-term, stable revenue models but needed equity-like investments to enable them to take risks and achieve scale with their impact. Sheri Brady, of the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, discussed the need for collaborative partnerships. Many of the issues organizations are working to improve are entrenched social justice problems that no single organization, or even sector, can solve by itself. This is reflected in SDG 17: Partnerships, that recognizes that global development actors will need to team up to tackle some of the largest challenges of our time.

Modern Philanthropy

At the start of the day, keynote speaker Brandee McHale, Director of the Citi Foundation, emphasized the importance of trust in grantmaking. She talked about philanthropy needing to take a bet on people and ideas, while providing flexible capital for them to be effective change agents. As an example, Citi Foundation commits not to burden their grantees with onerous reporting requirements. She encouraged other funders to avoid collecting data without a clear purpose, allow for a reasonable overhead spend, provide multi-year unrestricted funding, and not require detailed accounting.

Other panels during the day discussed the ‘ideal funder’ further, the impact of the next generation entering philanthropy, and how institutions of higher education are preparing students to lead social enterprises and philanthropies. Asheesh Advani, CEO of Junior Achievement Worldwide, described the ‘ideal funder’ as someone who is accessible, a strategic advisor to the enterprise, and is truly comfortable with transparency.

During the panel “Charting a New Path,” leaders of incubators at higher education institutions like Georgetown and Yale discussed the work they were doing in getting students to engage with the surrounding communities and drive social innovation. Onyeka Obiocha, Managing Director of the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, talked about how the Center aims to instill students with qualities such as resilience and listening skills that he hoped would carry through to leadership roles they held for the rest of their lives.

Finally, the panel “New Voices, New Visions” brought up early positive indicators of how philanthropy is evolving. Foundations are witnessing trends among young philanthropists who are acting with more urgency, using data to drive decision making, and involving themselves directly – beyond providing capital and networks.

It was fascinating to witness the topical thread of engagement, trust, and collaboration run through discussions about different parts of the philanthropic process. From designing grants, and executing programs, to setting up reporting requirements and fundraising – philanthropy is changing with a view to a future where it is more inter-connected, empathetic, and brave.

By Janani Rajashekar ‘21