6 Ways Funders Can Support Visionary Freedom

The following article is co-authored by Manuela Arciniegas, Director of AFF, Bryan Perlmutter and Jessica Pierce of Piece by Piece Strategies. Manuela is also a Philanthropic Partner of the Visionary Freedom Fund, an AFF initiative that seeks to ensure that frontline communities have the resources, capacities, supports, infrastructure and relationships they need to develop and implement inspiring long-term strategies that will transform the youth justice system. Bryan and Jess serve as Project Coordinators for the Visionary Freedom Fund.

How funders can challenge white supremacy, shift power and follow the lead of youth organizers and BIPOC communities

Society is battling threats on multiple fronts: The pandemic, ongoing police brutality and anti-Black violence, rapid climate change — and the cascading effects are falling squarely on the shoulders of Black, brown and Indigenous youth and their communities.

Despite facing mounting challenges, young people and community organizing groups are articulating solutions and realizing substantial wins — and have been doing so for decades.

Youth-led organizers have championed the call for divesting from prisons, defunding the police and investing more in education, housing and social services. They have helped elevate these demands to the mainstream dialogue, contributing to momentum behind a new federal bill called the BREATHE Act and some public schools ending their contracts with police.

Grantee partner Young Women’s Freedom Center. Photo by Brooke Anderson.

We in philanthropy who work closely with young leaders know that resourcing youth organizing groups is part of the formula for social change. Yet, foundations give roughly $200 million per year to youth organizing — a drop in the bucket compared to $1.8 billion in funding for youth development. And few funders give youth a direct say over where and how these funds should be deployed.

So why aren’t more funders giving youth organizers more grants over the long haul? Why are we afraid to follow the leadership of young people and cede decision-making power?

White supremacy is holding funders back
Philanthropic refusal to listen to grantees and, beyond soliciting advice, formally committing to position directly impacted people at the decision-making table, is our largest deficiency as a sector. For far too long, too many funders have talked about sharing power with grantee partners, only to end up stalled in the land of theory and no action.

Communities would rightfully pull our grant and refuse to fund us ever again were the power dynamic to be reversed. Yet, while we have seen a number of participatory grantmaking models in action, most foundations have delayed creating formal mechanisms that give communities a direct say over grants.

A large reason why is the continued influence and power of white supremacy.

Inherent to white supremacy is that Black, Latinx, Asian American and Indigenous youth and their communities are unequal to white communities and unworthy of equal power, access and economic investment. White supremacy has excluded BIPOC communities and their intellectual powers from the mainstream narratives and closed doors to the rooms where decision-making happens, treating them as incapable of managing their own economic and political power.

Philanthropy, much like our national identity and economy, was originally constructed on a foundation of white supremacy. Like it or not, it has and continues to shape how foundations work. Most philanthropic institutions fund organizations that they believe have the best ideas, strategies and shots at success. Often, their confidence is rooted in the false narrative that wealth equals expertise and that, as a result, some community-based nonprofits, especially in BIPOC communities, can’t possibly have better solutions than their foundation colleagues.

However, what would happen if we widely practiced a philanthropic model that requires funders to resource organizations that movement groups believe are best positioned to lead and deserve resources?

What would happen if we acknowledged the white supremacist elephant in the room, let alone do something about it?

The opportunity to build aligned, lasting power
The question of stewardship of resources and decision-making power is where philanthropy can contest white supremacy. In reflecting on philanthropy’s practices, funders have the opportunity to transform themselves from the inside out.

Grantee partner FCYO’S 2020 Youth Organizing Snapshot: A Field Poised to Lead.

In doing so, they can transfer power to directly impacted youth and build long-term power for BIPOC communities. More importantly, we can ensure that resources are deployed precisely where they are needed most — from the perspective of communities who carry the burden and live the impact.

6 steps toward visionary freedom

Here are 6 steps funders can take to challenge white supremacy, shift power to communities and support youth-designed transformative, visionary freedom:

1. Reckon with racism, white supremacy and power.

Funders must make time to do the personal work of learning about and undoing racism, white supremacy and power.

There is a wide gap between the lived experiences of those with more access to wealth and low-income, BIPOC communities, which is evident in the family philanthropy sector. To bridge this gap, trustees and staff must commit to education and set aside the time to become anti-racist.

Board and staff must take this learning journey together to understand, identify and actively change the policies, behaviors and beliefs that perpetuate racism. This will help heal the harm caused by institutional and generational racism often shouldered by communities and staff of color.

It will also open foundations to a culture of not just listening but acting accountably. It can widen the entry way for traditionally overlooked and excluded youth and communities to participate democratically and begin the accountability and healing process required to truly end the harm caused by racism.

2. Bring youth and communities to the table.

Sometimes funders believe it’s not possible to include youth voices in decision-making. But in reality, there are several funder collaboratives that closely engage BIPOC youth organizing groups so that those closest to the problem inform funding to their communities.

These models build relationships and skills for youth and funders and root decisions in the lived experiences and realities of those who will directly benefit from the change being funded.

The Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, Grantmakers for Girls of Color and the Communities for Just Schools Fund are exemplars of how to consult, involve and value the voices of youth organizers.

The Native Voices Rising Fund has committees of youth and community members who actively direct grantmaking. The abundance of investment opportunities shows that we only need to unlock the willingness to share capital with communities in poverty.

3. Nurture and fund interdependence.

We must prioritize funding in intersectional, interconnected and collaborative ways, and support networks of organizations to steward resources together.

This approach promotes interdependence and collective problem-solving. The California Funders for Boys and Men of Color aligns resources and networks held by the CEOs from the state’s leading philanthropic institutions to support a constellation of groups serving BIPOC men and boys, helping lessen competition and support collaborative approaches.

Justice Funders have developed a Resonance Framework to support foundations in democratizing power and shifting economic control to communities while reducing extraction and promoting a just transition.

4. Be accountable to communities.

In practice, the threshold for movement leaders to be deemed expert enough to sit on philanthropic advisory boards is inequitable, by far surpassing the requirements to sit on family philanthropy boards.

If philanthropy wants to catalyze change beyond grant life cycles, it must be willing to cede decision-making power to those directly impacted by how those dollars will flow to youth-led work. The Decolonizing Wealth Project regularly educates donors on the imperative of shifting power and returning resources to communities as a path towards collective healing.

Electing directly impacted youth community board members, building funding advisory councils and moving resources to participatory grantmaking vehicles are just some of the necessary commitments that would proactively support youth leadership.

Hiring staff from the organizations and communities they fund and creating leadership pipelines for young people for these positions would not only provide additional support, but also help increase foundations’ accountability to communities and the movements that sustain them.

5. Engage in solidarity philanthropy.

Funding visionary work requires a deep level of trust, and the burden is on funders and trustees to extend trust to their partners — especially young people.

Many of the antiquated rules funders follow slow grantees and funders down. Part with these practices! Trust-based philanthropy outlines a set of six principles that we can collectively use. We must create diverse learning and action spaces dedicated to building solidarity relationships with movements, like the Visionary Freedom Fund (VFF) or Funders for Justice.

To follow the lead of directly impacted communities and learn how they are networked and collaborate, funders must build authentic relationships with those communities and examine biases against youth leadership. Foundation staff should do the heavy lifting.

6. Join the Visionary Freedom Fund learning community.

The Andrus Family Fund’s recently-launched Visionary Freedom Fund (VFF) is an example of participatory grantmaking that moves decision-making power to young people directly impacted by the youth justice system. VFF’s Power Table has convened 8 youth organizers with a broad vision of what their communities need to thrive, 4 adult movement leaders and 11 funders to collaboratively determine where the $2.6 million initiative should distribute its resources.

As we embark on this experiment to design new grantmaking structures rooted in collectivism, interdependence, transferring power, right relationship and creative visioning, we invite other funders to join the VFF Learning Community. Together, we can learn and act toward transformative change for youth and their communities.

This article was originally published on Medium by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. 

How AFF’s Inaugural Movement Partner Advisory Council Will Help Build A More Aligned, Liberated Philanthropic Practice

Recently, movement leaders, board members and AFF staff gathered (virtually) for our annual board meeting. This meeting was a historic occasion for our fund because we welcomed our first cohort of Movement Partner Advisory Council members — a group of AFF grantee partners focused on youth justice child welfare policy that will collectively craft AFF’s strategic plan for the next 5 years.

MPAC & AFF Board

That day, we took another step toward making good on the lofty goals we identified last year during our board retreat at the Highlander Center with Reverend Allyn-Steele and Ash-Lee Woodard-Henderson. The three goals:

  1. Support the field’s demand to close youth prisons in 10 years and assist movement partners in ending the over-criminalization of BIPOC youth nationwide.
  2. Move more money to grassroots frontline movements.
  3. Help organize philanthropy to follow the lead of movement communities.

On that day, I asked the group to hold up four words: Community, Alignment, Power and Strategy.

Community in this context means that movement leaders and board members sit together (virtually) to explore how real change happens and how we can do our best work together. Through the expert facilitation of Rusia Mohiuddin, we are creating a culture of collaboration and connection that builds the power of movement organizations. Community also means grappling with the inherently flawed and unjust system of philanthropy and the toxic power dynamic it creates between movement partners and funders. In community, we discuss the places where we’re politically aligned and where we are misaligned in our vision of how change happens. In other words, in community, we learn what transformative change actually looks like.

Why do these encounters of board and movement leaders rarely happen? One major reason is because funders have never been held accountable to communities as stakeholders. It is standard practice for boards to approve strategies that are designed by program officers and directors who often do not collaborate with the communities they intend to serve. The other reason for the rare encounters is because movement partners are incredibly busy! Their time and brilliance are spent on the frontlines pushing for racial justice and building power for young people, and we take that commitment very seriously. But one thing we’ve all come to agree upon is that more authentic proximity — not less — will help us do our most aligned and impactful work. If we are to practice being in a more equitable, transformative relationship with one another — one rooted in interdependence, transformation, learning and grounded in the courage to change — then we have to foster a rigorous, long-term practice that is truly beneficial for communities, not just beneficial to funders who prioritize “learning” above action.

Alignment with today’s work is to follow the leadership of those directly impacted at the center. Not because funders and movements aren’t already aligned in racial justice values — although sometimes there’s a difference between espoused and practiced values — but because we are continuously refining our understanding and practice — PRAXIS — of who should lead and how to support them. The deployment and reclaiming of much-needed resources to support movements to actualize their visions is a necessary part of transformative change work. Bringing together those with the resources and those who need them, and building a practice rooted in anti-racism, healing, and transformation is a rigorous yet necessary endeavor. I believe this proximity between funders and movements will produce political clarity, sharpened focus and, dare I say, impact. Not just impact in communities, families and organizations, but also our own impact as philanthropic allies.

The heart of this work is not an intellectual exercise, but a personal commitment to examine how each one of us is personally implicated in the exploitation of another. Many of us — it is inevitable — are both the oppressed and oppressor in a society whose foundations were built on stolen land, slavery and extractive capitalism. We are here to do the hard work together, as Darnell Moore said in the “Black Freedom Dream” episode of the “Lady Don’t Take No” podcast hosted by Alicia Garza, of getting the “boot off the neck” of the person we are in an oppressive relationship with. Our collective liberation lies in the courageous work of seeing both the privilege and oppression and taking accountability for harm prevention. I invite you to step into self-care, compassion and courage as we witness the dimensions of ourselves (as funders or movement leaders) that we are often afraid to acknowledge — to own and transform our behaviors, and ultimately, our impact.

Finally, our time together is intended to build Power for directly-impacted youth and their communities. Despite the power dynamics between us–funders and movement leaders-–our collaboration is meant to interrogate and transfer power to where it is needed. Who has power in the legislative halls? Who is holding narrative and moral power? How does power show up on the blocks and streets where youth and communities are surviving and seeking to thrive? Who has the power to change the rules and relieve the material and social conditions of marginalized youth? To truly make good on our vision of liberation? Who has the power of resources and capital to ensure these visions come to life and how will they deploy it?

We have the opportunity to build a Strategy that is a model for the broader philanthropic community. A model that firmly believes community must be at the table to inform, lead and design the strategies meant to build long-term community power. Although we proudly see staff as advocates and champions who are often also directly impacted, we are well aware that staff should not be a proxy for directly-impacted communities and leaders. We affirm that it is sophisticated, intelligent and darn right strategic to build philanthropic structures meant to support and strengthen communities’ expertise and position them at the helm.

We are excited for our time together this coming year and hope that the rich conversations and thought partnership between staff, board members and movement partners will transform us all. Our ultimate hope is that the change we create together will live on in our philanthropic structures, policies and culture.

Let’s stay in deep awareness and enjoy building the spaceship for liberated futures we needed yesterday. It all starts with one step, one conversation, one Zoom icebreaker at a time.

Welcome in accountable love, community!

AFF Statement on Racial Justice

The Andrus Family Fund (AFF) stands in solidarity with our grantee partners and the movement for Black lives—a movement recently pushed forward by the gruesome murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. We recognize the countless other Black and Brown lives taken by systemic racism and discrimination leading up to—and since—this current moment. We also work to shine a spotlight on the especially targeted members of the Black, Brown, Native, Women/Girls and Trans communities who experience extreme violence and erasure—people like Breonna Taylor, whose experiences are readily forgotten, not centered, and to whom justice is not delivered.  We are committed to dismantling white supremacy in order to promote and uphold racial equity. We will not forget. 

As a social justice philanthropy, with a focus on racial justice and the liberation of youth, we recognize elements of power and privilege at play, notably in relationships with trusted grantee partners. It is these partners who have been leading on-the-ground organizing, advocacy and service work. Partners such as Youth First, aiming to close youth prisons which disproportionately impact Black youth, The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), mobilizing individuals and Black organizations to create a shared vision and agenda that defends Black lives, and Dream Defenders, an organization founded after the killing of Trayvon Martin to promote the organizing of Black and Brown youth and restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. We support you and stand in solidarity with our resources and connections to help you continue to build power for directly impacted youth in this current moment and for the long haul.  

Now is the time to collectively re-imagine a just society—a society where the work of AFF and its partners would not be necessary. Our mere existence as a foundation is evidence enough that justice is not a lived experience for many of the communities we aim to support. In order for this vision of justice—a vision that so many of our movement partners hold—to become reality, this moment is requiring more from all of us.  

Given the need for immediate action and response, AFF has shifted various grantmaking practices toward trust-based philanthropy models in order to move increased dollars more quickly to the field. We are also organizing with other funders and internally to educate family members about the systems, policies and biases upholding racial injustice that are pervasive in today’s society.  

In this critical moment, we invite other foundation boards to respond to the moral imperative presented by this moment. This is not a time to center white fragility and turn away from the sorrow, maintain status quo practices and funding levels, or ignore the urgent demands and needs of grantee partners. Instead, this is a time to commit to funding Black-led organizations, engage in deep education to undo racism at the levels of boards and senior leadership across foundations, diversify foundation boards, lean into trust-based philanthropic practices by removing barriers to funding, and organize other foundations to robustly fund groups at a level and scale “like we want them to win” (in the words of Ash-lee Henderson, Co-Executive Director of the Highlander Center). This is a time to explore what accountability to social justice movements can look like. Foundation boards unilaterally have the power to vote and implement these powerful changes immediately. Bold, courageous action, like the actions being taken by frontline Black and Brown communities. 

We recognize the need to do more—that this moment requires more from us—and ask ourselves “if not now, then when?” This is our moment. We must act now. 

The AFF board resoundingly supports following the lead of our grantee partners and our nation’s young people committed to racial and social justice, and urges us all to stand behind them.  

In Solidarity,

The AFF Board & Staff