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Democracy in the Shifting Political Landscape

Why we gathered:

Philanthropy has long invested and supported issues related to civil liberties.  Funding by our local philanthropic organizations traditionally support issues such as equity and race, protecting the rights of the most vulnerable, ensuring freedom of the press, counting the undercounted, ensuring voter rights, access to affordable health care, tracking and combatting incidents of hate, advancing science, preserving the environment, and valuing arts and culture. These are just a small sampling of the issues we fund related to civil liberties and democracy.

Today, many of these issues are in the news and are being raised frequently through assembly, protest, and other noticeable means.  We convened to raise the question to all participants, “What is the role of philanthropy in a time of social uncertainty?”

What we discussed:

A special thank you to Kim Philbrick McCabe (Klarman Family Foundation), Orlando Watkins (The Boston Foundation), Denise Porché (Island Foundation), Phil Buchanan (Center for Effective Philanthropy), Jim Canales (Barr Foundation) and Jocelyn Sargent (Hyams Foundation) for starting this important conversation during the program. Here are some key themes we heard:

  • Any steps we take must be grounded in our values.  Now is the time to stay true to your organization’s values and point to them.  Your focus on specific issues should not be viewed as a “political response” but rather as a response to counteracting or enforcing something you hold mission-critical. 
  • It’s important to be adaptable.  Organizations like ours are fortunate to have the ability to be flexible and nimble.  We can remain strategic (and often rigorous in our approach to measuring impact) and remain responsive. Additionally, many issues we fund (e.g. increasing equity, combatting racism and building community) are not necessarily programmatic but rather require movement building.   We need to remember that we cannot measure impact or ROI in a matter of months or one year – it’s a much longer commitment!
  • Listen to your grantees. As funders, we often forget to openly communicate with nonprofit leaders.  Now is the time to build relationships and ask them directly what they need from us as funders.


What’s next:

Additionally, we heard a number of suggestions to help us carry on the conversations and promote action.  A few of note were:

  • Create monthly learning calls based on specific issues/topics and raise implications (e.g. repeal of ACA and what is means for philanthropy)
  • Create spaces where funders could learn about potential co-funding opportunities – this does not necessarily need to be pooled funds, but rather an opportunity to discuss coordination of grantmaking
  • Consider collective impact initiatives
  • Identify platforms to tell stories of impact
  • Convene grantees

Philanthropy MA is currently exploring what steps make the most sense to take and identifying the right partners and champions to help us carry this forward in a meaningful way.  If you have additional suggestions or want to get involved, please let us know

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