8 Lessons We Learned from Philanthropic and Movement Gatherings in 2018

December 13, 2018

Throughout 2018 the Borealis team had the opportunity to participate in and attend many conferences, convenings, and gatherings where we learned from and shared knowledge with funders, organizers, advocates, artists, and allies.

When used effectively, these philanthropic and movement spaces are a real opportunity for funders to share best practices with each other, listen to and learn from organizers, advocates, and grantee partners, and strategize among ourselves to change harmful practices and move more resources to constituency-led work.

We learned a lot from every space we participated in this year—here are 8 key takeaways the Borealis team shared:

1. Changing exclusionary and harmful philanthropic practices is within our control.

For years, grantees have been naming what they need from us as funders, and it’s up to us to hold ourselves accountable to making changes. We can make it easier for organizations on the ground doing critical work to get resources if we remove restrictions and remain flexible to match our grantees’ needs.

During the Grantmakers for Girls of Color (G4GC) convening in Puerto Rico this October, one grantee shared their struggle to submit reports on time while fighting for survival. Their reflection was a stark reminder of what is at stake for grantee organizations, and the need to adjust our own timetables accordingly.

2. Connecting to the land we are standing on is essential.

The Native Americans in Philanthropy’s 2018 National Philanthropy Institute was held at a hotel/resort owned by the Santa Ana Pueblo, and they opened up the gathering with a history of the people upon whose land we were meeting. Naming and honoring the indigenous community whose land we stand on is something that all conferences should do.

3. Healing should be a priority in both our grantmaking, and in philanthropic spaces.

Dedicating resources towards healing justice through our grantmaking is a critical part of supporting organizations in their work. And as more people who have lived experience with issues of injustice step into philanthropic spaces, it’s important to create a space for healing at these gatherings as well.

During the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, there were multiple spaces for healing, reflecting, and re-energizing, including spaces for women of color and Black people. One session entitled “Black Touch” focused on healing and using physical touch to heal Black folks and community.

At the Grantmakers for Girls of Color convening, healing practitioners offered bodywork and massages to attendees. There was also a listening space to hear testimonies of struggles and triumphs alone in a booth as a way of decompressing. The Center for Embodied Pedagogy and Action (CEPA) helped organize the healing space, along with Semillas, a collective of trans, two spirit, and gender non-conforming artists, organizers and healers from Borikén (Puerto Rico) and her diaspora.

4. We can find meaningful and concrete ways to center access and disability justice.

The Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG) 2018 National Convening, Raise Up: Moving Money for Justice uplifted disability justice and accessibility from the start. Sebastian Margaret, who served as an advisor to the conference to help ensure stronger accessibility within the space, provided a 10-minute overview during the opening framing of what disability justice is and why it matters, along with concrete ways that every participant could co-create an accessible space for people of all abilities. For example, Sebastian instructed us to look at the floor – were our backpacks in the middle of the aisle? Had we cleared walkways so people can easily enter a space? That moment reaffirmed that we must all do a better job at truly addressing how and why disability justice is integral to every issue and community we care about.

5. Centering underrepresented voices and learning from groups doing work on the ground can take many forms.

At the Allied Media Conference, there were multiple all-day network gatherings focused on marginalized communities. One space, Fat Lovin’ Media Futures Network Gathering, focused on reimagining the mainstream ideas of what a body should look like and created space for fat bodies to create media and strategies for resistance, healing, and community building.

During a trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC) space organized by Wazi Maret and Jack Dunn from the Transgender Law Center, our Fund for Trans Generations team connected with new organizers curious about available funding for TGNC communities, shared updates and opportunities like FTG’s Rapid Response Fund, and built one-on-one relationships with folks in the movement for trans, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary liberation.

And at the Neighborhood Funders Group convening in St. Louis, there were several learning tours and site visits, almost all of which were filled to capacity. Those visits connected funders directly to the communities and organizations that are moving important work locally. Midwestern organizing groups don’t often get this kind of shine from philanthropy, so site selection was strategic.

6. Honest conversations about power are possible and necessary.

During one of the plenaries at Facing Race in Detroit Rashad Robinson from Color of Change asked the audience to think about power, which he defined as the ability to change the rules.

This raised critical questions we think about as an intermediary in philanthropy: what is necessary to change the rules? How do we not hide the power we have and support communities to build more power?

Grantee partners may be hesitant to let funders know about parts of the work that are hard and messy—what does it take for us to not use our power to demand perfection, but to support organizations and movements to address challenges?

7. Relationship building is part of how we create change.

In adrienne maree brown’s session on Emergent Strategies during Facing Race she talked about the idea of white supremacy keeping us separate as a means of keeping us from being successful: “Offering each other trust is how we break the untrustworthy system.”

More and more folks with organizing and advocacy backgrounds are entering into the philanthropic field. One of the benefits is bringing that skill set to funder spaces, building relationships with each other, and organizing amongst ourselves to win the changes we want in philanthropy. We can find people working on similar issues and strategize together on next steps.

For example, at the Grantmakers for Girls of Color convening, Borealis staff gathered with partners from the Third Wave Fund, Foundation for a Just Society, the Groundswell Fund, and activists in Puerto Rico to talk about how to make the mobilization of resources towards Puerto Rico an essential part of funding strategies aimed at winning racial justice.

8. Celebrate the wins and remember the long game.

During the opening plenary at Facing Race, adrienne maree brown discussed the idea of “imagining a liberation that is forever” where we celebrate the small wins, but don’t settle and cling to these wins as the end all be all. Instead, we can use those small wins to envision an abundance of possibilities.

As a philanthropic intermediary that partners with funders to help them expand their reach and be as impactful as possible, we want to think more about the small victories we need to win—like changing reporting requirements, flexible funding, and making multi-year funding commitments—without losing sight of the big picture: relinquishing our power as funders to communities leading the work.