July 12, 2021
Last month I wrote critically about mega-philanthropists, including those who values I agree with. “Improving our education system, stabilizing housing, ensuring access to quality healthcare do help people deal with the cost of economic insecurity and poverty. But they leave untouched the core of the problem, one that we refuse to center on: our economic system allows wealth to be unequally shared. It permits the rich to get richer at the expense of everyone else. It allows people to work for wages that still leave them far away from a financially secure life. It allows a few people to amass huge wealth, the very people who…through a skewed tax structure…” become storied philanthropists.
I specifically honed in on the billions of dollars given away by Mackenzie Scott, putting it forward as a prime example of what was wrong with our philanthropic system and the existential threat to our notion of democracy that she and other mega-philanthropists present. “She and I would agree about so much. But that admiration, that agreement cannot keep us from recognizing that her power influence is a sign of the danger we are facing. Her voice is just one of millions. Her voice, as noble as it sounds, drowns out others. Unchecked, Democracy is at risk.”
And then I had a conversation with Favianna Rodriguez, the President and Cultural Strategist of The Center for Cultural Power (Cultural Power) an Oakland, California-based nonprofit, and a Scott beneficiary. Unlike my reaction to Scott’s largesse, she was very clear that Ms. Scott and other donors like her are part of the solution and not just a symptom of the problem.
I was surprised and taken aback.
Rodriguez leads an organization whose purpose is to realize “a world where power is distributed equitably and where we live in harmony with nature. We support artists through fellowships, training, and opportunities for activation. We create intersectional stories and content addressing issues of migration, climate, gender, and racial justice”. This was not what I expected to hear from an artist and a nonprofit leader who views “her art and praxis [as] address[ing] migration, gender justice, climate change, racial equity, and sexual freedom…boldly reshap[ing] the myths, stories, and cultural practices of the present, while healing from the wounds of the past…”
In our conversation, it was also clear that Ms. Rodriguez had no false illusions about how Ms. Scott got to be so rich. She is clear that Amazon unfairly abstracted its value from its workers and those of its suppliers. She sees this, as I do, as a symptom of a system desperately needing to be thrown over. She and her organization see fixing this inequity as her personal and organizational raison d’etre and Scott’s philanthropy would not soften their work.
And that is why accepting these funds was the right thing to do. They are, as Ms. Rodriguez explained, but “a return of a portion of that ill-gotten wealth to those who should rightfully be benefitting from it.” Ms. Scott’s accelerated pace was an important step, a real step, toward undoing what should not have been allowed in the first place.
Ms. Rodriguez became comfortable that Scott’s philanthropy was a part of the solution as she interacted with The Bridgespan Group, the consultants used by Ms. Scott to vet organizations. Ms. Rodriguez said she was impressed by their seriousness. They approached their effort seriously and with rigor. They asked the right questions and were interested in Cultural Powers’ perspective rather than trying to soften or reshape their edge.
When she saw the full list of organizations that were targeted for MS Scott’s most recent $2.7 billion philanthropic tranche, her initial reaction was “Wow!” Ms. Scott has found the right organizations to fulfill a goal of systemic change. They were in Ms. Rodriguez’s opinion, the best and the brightest of organizations who share a common perspective with the Center for Cultural Power. They were organizations committed to and led by those most often marginalized by other established philanthropic funders, left to struggle to keep their doors open and their work moving forward.
So, was I too quick to damn Scott and the many other socially concerned philanthropists?
In the short term, getting funds to organizations like Cultural Power is unarguably good. Empowering organizations to continue to challenge the status quo that leaves too many out moves philanthropy and the work systemic change in the right direction. Giving, as Ms. Scott did, significant grants with few strings is also an important improvement on the common, highly controlling, nobles oblige approach.
I find myself still plagued by doubts and questions. Are these steps by one, or even a small group of enlightened donors enough to move power and control away from the aristocracy? Is this a sign of a wave of change that will sweep through the philanthropic community? Will continuing to allow individuals of wealth to dole out their largesse just cement in the power of wealthy individuals to set social policies that should be the public’s to control? Are we risking that in glorifying Donors I share principles with I am allowing those who I fervently disagree with, like the Uhleins and Kochs free rein to continue to set our nation back?
My fear is that in focusing on these moments when donors do good things will keep the status quo in place. And so, we are allowing the mechanisms of philanthropy to go unchallenged, mechanisms that depend on the small slice of our population that can horde great wealth to remember that so many are forced to rely on their generosity. I fear that the edge of organizations like Cultural Power will be softened by the new source of its funding, making real change harder to realize.
Am I being too cynical? Love to hear your thoughts.