Not our Father’s Philanthropy

By Courtney E. Martin & Christine Grumm

Over half of wealth in the U.S. is now in women’s names (notice we did not say “controlled by” women). In the next 30 years, the majority of the 41 trillion dollars in intergenerational wealth in this country will be transferred to women, both from parents and husbands/partners. Large gifts from women—defined as being six figures or over—have increased dramatically in the last decade, evidenced by campaigns like Women Moving Millions, co-created by sisters Helen LaKelly and Swanee Hunt and the Women's Funding Network, which will re-launch as a 501c3 organization this September.

But before you start declaring it the age of women’s philanthropy—as so many media outlets as of late have—consider this: it is not just the increase in women-controlled dollars that matter, but the ways in which women will use this potential power to transform the world. If the ends is change, than the means must not be old-fashioned charity, but courageous, conscious, and reciprocal relationships where money is but a tool. 

It is our belief that philanthropy needs to be re-imagined to more accurately reflect women’s continued existence at the epicenter of society’s most inexcusable ethical fault lines—the haves and the have-nots, the educated and the disenfranchised, the supported and the abandoned. Women are more likely to have an intimate awareness of poverty (we are still over half of minimum wage workers) and relational wisdom--rooted in our long history at the center of most community organizing and healing work.

Little of this is reflected in the current philanthropic structures, which were created by wealthy aristocrats with a vested interest in charity, not large scale justice or equity; early American dynasties wanted to figure out how to give back while also getting back—giving money to save money, essentially, all while looking generous in the process. They didn’t want paradigm shifts; they wanted tax breaks.

Today’s philanthropist may benefit from the tax exemptions, but in our increasingly interdependent world, she’s got far more substantive incentives than that for investing in social justice. None of us can inoculate against current environmental and economic instability, no matter how wealthy. And culture is more ubiquitous than ever before; early sexualization, gratuitous violence, and dehumanizing stereotypes affect everyone.

None of us can realize the transformed world we crave if we don’t start questioning the very foundations of the ground we’re standing on as philanthropists, organizational leaders, fundraisers, community organizers, and grassroots activists.

For starters, if we are trying to uproot injustice, we cannot expect to pluck it out with one hand, while fortifying it with toxic water in the other. Money that keeps the old guard in place (investments in companies with few to no women or people of color on their boards, for example) will never effectively de-stabilize gender or racial inequality. Women with wealth at all levels, must do the intricate and powerful work of examining how their money is invested and interrogating whether these choices have integrity with their proclaimed values; they must insist on closing the gaps wherever and whenever they exist. The oft-quoted maxim of Audre Lorde is apt here: “The masters tools will never dismantle the masters house.”

Further, having both worked within the philanthropic and social justice sectors in various capacities, we’re struck that too often the relationships formed between funders and their grantees replicate the worst of racism, classism, and other –isms that these very relationships are formed to fight. 

Philanthropy only works as a social justice tool if everyone is included in the conversation, valued for the variety of resources that they bring—financial and experiential. As philanthropy grows in influence (with decreasing government dollars available), having those controlling the philanthropic purse strings making all the decisions about what problems to focus on and what strategies to employ only compounds injustice.

If we are committed to social change philanthropy, then we need to create systems that reflect that commitment, beginning with how dollars are invested and how they are distributed. Women as both holders of  “new wealth” and carriers of a disproportionate share of poverty and violence must share leadership in this new movement. This means making sure that people with experience on the ground and hailing from the communities aimed to benefit from philanthropy are invited to decision-making tables. It means having real dialogue between donors and recipients about our respective theories of change, making space for transparency about “good failure” in grant reporting, and developing whole, sustainable relationships, not transactional, trendy ones. 

Philanthropy should not be a table for a select few. It should be the most open table in civil society and yet it continues to be largely invite-only, more focused on making the wealthy feel generous than provoking the transformative discomfort and learning that comes from breaking bread with those across class, race, and ideological borders. As Lynne Twist, the author of The Soul of Money, writes, “The biggest, most unquestioned answer of our culture is our relationship with money. It is there that we keep alive--at a high cost--the flame and mythology of scarcity.” 

So we leave you with one question: who is at your table?

Courtney E. Martin is the author of  Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, among other books, and is currently working on a white paper about online feminist activism. Christine Grumm is a speaker and consultant on philanthropy and social change.

image: Mindful One