Beyond Trust: Why Philanthropy Needs to be Restorative for Radical Change

As we’ve reflected on our experiences on the Power Table, we’ve grappled with the tension between philanthropy and community, and learned to be flexible in order to support the movement and to offer youth organizers what they need to succeed. One concept that keeps bubbling up is how philanthropy should be more restorative — which includes ceding power to community leaders to restore historic harms and inequities — and how shifting to this approach can build trust and enhance accountability.

“In traditional philanthropy, the way that trust is usually established is in a very transactional way … Trust has to be transformational if it’s actually going to be real.”
– Jessica Pierce, VFF Project Coordinator

While well-intentioned, philanthropy has a history of applying an impersonal and transactional  formula to its grantmaking  — apply, fund, repeat. Attempts at authentic relationship-building often don’t go far enough and put the burden on resource-strapped organizations. As movement leaders overextend themselves to prove their funding worthiness (via arduous reporting, extensive grant applications, uncompensated field visits, etc.), the process leaves them exhausted and frustrated. The result is a disconnect between what funders and grantees perceive as a good working relationship. This power imbalance leads to a breakdown in trust. The onus is on philanthropy to check its privilege and to prioritize what is in the best interest of the movement, not its own legacy.  

“I would really encourage funders to be radical, to really talk to the people they’re trying to fund, talk to the communities that they’re trying to aid and give those people the power to make decisions for themselves.”
– Jemima Abalogu, Youth Leader, VFF Power Table 

Philanthropy’s origins are rooted in capitalistic ideals — a small group of high net worth individuals make funding decisions that impact communities of which they are not a part. This notion that outsiders know what’s best is flawed. Funding alone is not the vehicle for building trust and by itself won’t result in transformational change. But, it can be a start. 

“It is going to take a transformation, dismantling and reimagining of philanthropy in order to redistribute the resources that are needed.”
– Bryan Perlmutter, VFF Project Coordinator

Historically disinvested communities know what they need to make their communities whole. Community members already hold the solutions; they just lack the resources. Resources that philanthropy has a responsibility to give back. This restorative approach recognizes philanthropy’s traditional role in exacerbating inequality and relinquishes power in an effort to balance the scales.  

“We learned about the different types of possibilities available to philanthropy when we move money and relinquish the power to determine where it goes.”
– Manuela Arciniegas, Past Philanthropic Partner, VFF Power Table

When philanthropy and community find synergy and practice patience, the two groups can forge a powerful partnership with a shared vision. The Visionary Freedom Fund proves this is possible. The Fund emphasizes the importance of bringing youth organizers and movement leaders to the Power Table. The Table challenges funders to face their own biases around grantmaking, while at the same time, imparting their knowledge. This intergenerational, cross-disciplinary Table is learning to confront their contradictions and, through this tension, is learning to trust each other. 

“It takes a stance of learning and humility from funder communities to build trust with folks who aren’t in the funding world.”
– Maisha Quint, Philanthropic Partner, VFF Power Table

In our experience, trust is not something we build overnight. Building trust requires the need to be flexible and responsive — such as shifting deadlines and priorities in order to meet the emotional and physical capacity of the Table. Building trust means funders are willing to step back to make room for youth to take the lead. Over the course of two years, and many interpersonal experiences, the Table collectively came to a consensus about which groups to fund and how to support them in achieving their long-term visions.

“I think the Power Table can be a really transformative space, and something that we want to see expanded beyond just us.”
– Laura Rosado, Youth Leader, VFF Power Table

This transformational approach to building trust and restoring communities requires a break from tradition and a willingness to bring community to the table in a deeply participatory way. Foundations must be willing to do the hard work of facing their own complicity in replicating harmful systems and allow communities to lead them. Restorative philanthropy may look like spending down endowments, no-strings attached funding, providing capacity-building support beyond funding and/or allowing groups on the ground to envision radical solutions. It’s time for communities to harness their power, and it’s philanthropy’s role to build trust, redistribute resources and let communities take the lead.

Movement Partner Spotlight: Youth First Initiative

Hernan Carvente Martinez of Youth First Initiative explains what abolition means to him, what a world without youth prisons looks like and what it will take to get there.

The Next Evolution of Andrus Family Fund

Dear Movement Partners:

I have two pieces of exciting news to share with you. The first is about the Andrus Family Fund’s strategic refresh, and the second is about my next role in this movement.

Sharpening our Focus
In 2021, we embarked on a year-long journey to refresh AFF’s grantmaking strategies to meet the rising needs of the youth and communities we serve. From the outset, we were clear that the uprisings against police brutality and Black lives coupled with the compounding effects of pandemic and economic crisis disproportionately impacted the communities we support. We were also clear that our refreshed strategies must rely on our grantees’ and movement partners’ up-to-date analysis of the challenges and opportunities their communities face.

Alongside a Movement Partner Advisory Council composed of current grantees working across a range of issues, we took stock of our eight years of grantmaking—and the lessons we learned—to support systems change work that improves the lives of the youth we serve.

We analyzed the state of our communities, the political and socio-economic climate at local and national levels, and the challenges and opportunities for transformative systems change. And most importantly, we listened to the needs and aspirations of youth-serving organizations and the broader movement. We collectively charted a future vision for AFF’s work that sharpens our focus through these efforts.

I’m thrilled to announce that the AFF Board just approved a strategy refresh that will double down on youth organizing, abolition of prisons, policing and family separation systems, builds movement infrastructure and capacity, and seeds alternative models to local systems meant to serve youth and communities. 

This refreshed strategy builds on the knowledge, experience, and lessons learned through our work together as funders, movement partners, and the broader field. It clarifies our funding strategy in the work we’ve already supported for years.

Leaning into our Values
As part of this strategy, we have refreshed our mission to reflect our sharpened focus and values of racial equity, inclusion and justice.

Mission: We envision a just society in which Black, Brown, Indigenous, LGBTQIA, disabled, and undocumented youth are thriving in empowered and supportive communities, free from state violence and family separation.

Organizing to Build Power
Our primary partners towards advancing our mission will be organizations led by directly impacted youth who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Asian Pacific Islander, LGBTQIA, queer, disabled and undocumented–those youth often pushed to the margins. By investing in their power building and supporting them to advance the alternative systems and policy changes needed to bring about a more just society, we commit to moving money to BIPOC-led organizations that have historically gotten the short end of the stick from philanthropy.

While we see the critical need for direct services in the communities AFF prioritizes, we are focusing our effort to resource those leaders and initiatives who are actively pushing to transform those systems and build community power. Prioritizing the organizing strategy (which sometimes also incorporates the provision of direct care for youth as they organize) is prioritizing the power of young people to construct something new that better serves and works for them.

Nyoka, Zaira and I are in conversation with the handful of grantee partners whose funding is affected by our strategy refresh. We are committed to strengthening their sustainability with a final grant and to being as direct, transparent, respectful and thoughtful as possible.

My New Chapter
February 4th was my last day at Andrus Family Fund, and I will soon join the Ford Foundation as a Program Officer in a national program that focuses on civic engagement, government and movement building. While I’m thrilled about the opportunity to continue serving youth from this national perch, this is a bittersweet moment for me. It has been an absolute honor to partner with you by investing in the leadership and brilliance of our nation’s most marginalized young people.

I know the news of my transition coupled with our strategy refresh may be disconcerting to some of you, but please be assured that the work and partnership approach of the Andrus Family Fund will continue. Our strategic refresh will be at the core of the work going forward, and I’m thrilled with the progress we’ve made in centering our commitment to building power for youth on the margins and to sharing power with communities. This perspective will be at the heart of the search for my replacement.

Nyoka Acevedo, our Program Officer, will serve as Interim Director, as we begin a national search for my successor. Please be on the lookout for the job posting on the AFF website in mid-February.

The future of AFF is bright. We have clarity in our mission and grantmaking focus and a terrific, dedicated team, board, movement advisory council and movement partners to make it happen. Individually and collectively, there is so much to be proud of.

Thank You
Thank you for trusting us. Thank you for being the burning ember that made my purpose unequivocal during this recent foray into family philanthropy. Your dedication to racial justice and movement building has been nothing short of astounding, especially in these difficult times.

I look forward to the next decade of serving our nation’s youth and, as always, wish you ease, joy, victory and enduring racial and social justice.

In solidarity,
Manuela Arciniegas
Outgoing Director