In Pursuit of Lasting Change

“Everything is related—we cannot talk about climate without talking about inequality without talking about governance and leadership.”
—Halla Tómasdóttir, CEO of The B Team, The Future of Business

The past six months have forced a paradigm shift in the social sector. 

As we’ve seen with frightening clarity how interconnected our world is, and how fragile our systems are, we’ve also overcome deeply entrenched barriers and reframed our understanding of what’s possible. The speed at which changes in philanthropic practice occurred was nothing short of remarkable. And now, we are tasked with what may be an even greater challenge than we first faced: to see these changes through to the other side of the pandemic, an unknown number of months or years away.

How do we get there?

“Recovering from the pandemic by going back to where we were before would be a massively lost opportunity to reform our transportation, energy, and other systems. There is opportunity to make some real changes but we can’t stovepipe the issues—we have to think about cumulative impact from the community level to society level.”
—Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Science on Trial: COVID-19 and Climate Change

We will need:

  • Co-creation centered on justice with communities closest to the solutions
  • Balanced perspectives that break down false dichotomies in strategic philanthropy 
  • Visionary leadership able to drive change through courage, trust, and humility

Mitigating harm is only one piece of the puzzle that, as many have pointed out since the onset of the pandemic, must fit into a framework that includes recovery and rebuilding. Leslie Johnston, CEO of the Laudes Foundation, noted in our webinar The Future of Business that “it’s not good enough to be ‘less bad’…we need to think about what it takes to be ‘more good’ to have a positive impact in society.”

Radical Collaboration is Justice-Oriented

Organizations and institutions, at all levels and across sectors, are partnering in unanticipated ways due to COVID-19. This is crucial if we are to substantially impact our systems and societies for the better.

At the same time, collaboration alone won’t go far enough—it must center justice and equity. What does this mean in practice? To begin with:

  • Transparently acknowledging the role that systemic racism and white supremacy play in perpetuating social inequalities.
  • Ensuring underrepresented voices are heard in the establishment of new partnerships, and in the planning and implementation of new processes.
  • Creating space for communities (and by extension, residents) to lead in the work of a new partnership, collaborative, or coalition, and allowing the work to follow the principles of community development and organizing.

“The racial justice movement doesn’t only care about racial justice. It’s the mustard seed through which other change…will follow.”
—Crystal Hayling, Executive Director of The Libra Foundation

Being open to collaboration is also about being open to risk. Partnerships and collaborations must conscientiously expand to include those that we may not be as familiar with but are doing essential work in their communities. Being prepared for and managing the uncertainty of these kinds of trailblazing partnerships will help ensure they have room to grow and succeed. And, of utmost importance is listening well at every stage of establishing them, and acknowledging the impossibility of being able to closely control all outcomes.

“There’s this tension in recognising that systemic problems require solutions which are way beyond us as individuals, and at the same time, unless we act, they’re not going to be solved…. collaboration and cooperation, and therefore trust, are absolutely essential.”
—Professor Ian Goldin, Professor at the University of Oxford, The Future of Globalisation and Development

When we embrace strategies that prioritize black and brown communities and POC-led movements, elevate marginalized voices, and listen closely to their needs, we can begin to right the foundational inequities built into our societies. It then becomes clear how failing to consider equity and justice in collaboration will hold back progress in the unjust systems those collaborations seek to change.

Operationalizing radical collaboration will be vital in transforming our systems, but will also require vigilance to prevent the very inequities we want to eliminate from becoming systematic.

Diminishing Dichotomies for Holistic Impact

We’ve noted previously how the question of what is “most” philanthropically strategic—for example, in deciding whether to fund locally or globally, or whether to support an immediate response vs. a longer-term vision—poses, to an extent, false dichotomies. Using bifurcations like these to clarify our choices can be instinctual, but sometimes inadvertently obscures holistic solutions. Siloing between the social, public, and private sectors similarly serves to dull the effectiveness of various approaches.

“The best emergency systems are not emergency systems per se, but everyday systems that can be surged during a crisis.”
—Dr. Raj Panjabi, Co-Founder and CEO of Last Mile Health, Agriculture and Livelihoods: The Global Economic Cost of COVID-19

We are “entering the age of pandemics” according to Dr. Raj Panjabi, which means we need to prepare for and expect future public health crises. One way to enable better responses is to invest in the response mechanisms within governments. Here, philanthropy fuels government innovation and infrastructure; emergency systems and everyday systems are the same, with the capacity to handle crises an integral feature; and both short-term and long-term needs are fulfilled.

What are the implications for philanthropic strategy? First, solutions at every level of impact, from immediate and local to future, large-scale systemic change, should work in tandem. Alleviating acute, regional problems creates stability, from which it becomes easier to launch long-term endeavors. And making progress on problems at the societal or international level starts with small, specific, and attainable objectives. 

We should also be wary of philanthropy’s bias to study as opposed to action. In order to facilitate the work of key organizations on deep systemic change, we need to significantly alter funding practices. Two crucial shifts that will make this possible are moving money fast and making long-term commitments, ideally—and even beyond—three or five years.

In this manner, decisions made for the short-term shape the path to long-term outcomes.

Rising or Falling on the Strength of Leadership

If we are to collaborate radically and think beyond constrictive dichotomies, we must have leaders who accept responsibility for making that happen. Further, at a time where governments have abdicated responsibility or turned inwards, corporate leadership and leadership from philanthropists is key.

“Leaders need to be big and bold, as [Leslie and Halla] said. These times call for extraordinary courage and extraordinary humility, and investing in line with the world that we want, that we need, and that we want to leave for the next generation.”
—Lisa Wolverton, TPW Board Chair, The Future of Business

At the grassroots and direct service level, nonprofits should focus on understanding first, before diving into solving issues, and speaking with rather than for the people we care about and want to help. Likewise, foundations and donors should do the same with grantees. Allyship is essential to this, and speaks clearly to the need for diverse leadership.

Moreover, the need to invest in diverse leadership itself points to a mandate on the part of existing leaders to make space for that diversity. And this requires an unambiguous acknowledgment of the unjust systems at play that allowed for the homogeneity of the status quo. For leaders to step up in meaningful ways to challenge racial injustice and systemic inequities, they will have to do the quiet work of making space and ceding power.

“We have a primordial discomfort with the loss of power. The way forward is…to go all the way as individuals and as a sector in shifting power, and to recognize that that does mean losing power. It does mean being comfortable with the leadership and directionality of other people and not needing to control that.”
—Sara Lyons, Founding Board Member of The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, Transforming Philanthropy: Exploring Leadership and Power

And while corporate and philanthropic leadership will be indispensable, the ability to shape policies that affect large groups of people remains one of the strongest forms of power. So leaders in government shaping policy need to be courageous—policymakers who are committed to antiracist policies are critical to the long-term building of a more just society. 

Ultimately, leaders need to have the courage to tell a clear story about justice, the humility to listen and learn, the integrity to stay accountable, and the will to work toward visionary change.


“As a global network of influential people committed to multi-sector collaboration…your influence and power as a network is as big as many large organizations or even governments. Use the power not just of your collective resources, but of your collective voice.”
—Nigel Fisher, Advisor to the United Nations, Global Crises, Global Solutions

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was paramount to move quickly in order to respond to the chaos, compounded crises, and fallout that ensued. With immense disruptions and, in some cases, collapses in our previous way of life having now been our reality for over half a year, we must ensure that we are balancing our responses with a keen awareness of what sort of groundwork we are laying for the future.

To echo our opening quote, “everything is related.” We need visionary leadership to map out viable paths of radical collaboration; we need radical collaboration to effectively break down dichotomized practices and siloing across sectors. And we need a racial justice lens to undergird all of the above if the end result is to be a more equitable society.

“Philanthropists [must] come together and act strategically. You are much stronger collectively than you ever can be individually. But through your individual actions, I think you are pointing the way towards a better world.”
—Professor Ian Goldin, Professor at the University of Oxford, The Future of Globalisation and Development

Bearing these principles in mind, we should scale and accelerate the response to the challenges posed by COVID and the anti-racism movement. In moving from reacting and toward rebuilding, we must be responsible for reimagining how to arrive at a future where everyone flourishes.

By: Gabriela Buentello, TPW Staff

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