How to Be Accountable to the Vision — Not the Dollar: Our Journey with VFF

The Visionary Freedom Fund is continuing to transform power in philanthropy through building a shared decision-making model between youth organizers, movement leaders and funders. One of the core values of the Fund is accountability — accountability to movements and communities that are the drivers of creating the change we are fighting for. At VFF, our collectively-designed grantmaking strategy is developed in such a way that the structure, funding praxis, outcomes and impact all directly reflect the perspective, strategies, and visions of those organizations and communities doing the work.

In the previous post of our series, VFF grantees, youth organizers and funders on the Power Table reflected on the past two years of the Fund and shared their key learnings. Now, we hear from the co-coordinators of the Power Table — who are former youth organizers themselves. Jessica Pierce and Bryan Perlmutter tell us about their experience at the table and what is possible if we change philanthropy’s relationship to youth justice.

What brought you to VFF? 

Jess: I don’t know a day when I haven’t dealt with the impacts of the carceral state. With multiple family members in and out of prison and jail, this issue is centralized in my heart and gut and mind at all times. I started organizing when I was 17 and I felt accountable to the issue of incarceration then, and I feel accountable to the issue today. When I was a youth organizer, I was told to be professional, in a trial by fire environment. I tried to fit into what I thought I needed to be successful, and found that my lived experience and identities weren’t at the forefront and oftentimes had to force its way to the table. Through VFF and working with the youth organizers at the table in particular, I’ve learned that my expertise is founded in my identities and lived experiences, and that nothing has to “fit into” a box. I really can help prioritize young people in this work and resource them to take action toward their visions for a better future, not work with them to be successful based on antiquated models and metrics in traditional philanthropy.

Beyond that, I have spent decades organizing in youth engagement and civil rights as the Student Union Assembly Chair at UC Santa Cruz, to the Organizing Director at USSA, to becoming the first National Training Director of the NAACP and the Founding Chair of Black Youth Project 100. I have seen first hand the power that can be built when we take collective action together and both the harmful and helpful ways that philanthropy can be in service of those. When I had the opportunity to step into the coordinating role at VFF, I felt like it could be a place that could bridge my personal and professional experience into building something that would have real impact for our people today, and for the leaders of tomorrow.

Bryan: I came to VFF out of a deep belief that young people and youth organizers are essential to creating the world we want to live in. My time as a youth organizer was the most transformative of my life. As a youth organizer, I was often disregarded by traditional institutions and peers in the ecosystem. Our youth organizing work was always underfunded; we were asked to do work for no pay and told to go through compliance trainings before we could be given grants. We jumped through hoop after hoop. Even with limited resources we were able to accomplish and win important victories in North Carolina.  We were able to work in coalitions to change voting legislation, repeal laws criminalizing queer and trans folks, and change discipline policies at the school board level. 

For the vast majority of my professional career I have spent time building Southern and youth organizations. I was the founder and director of Ignite NC, part of the founding team of the Southern Vision Alliance and the Cypress Fund. Identifying gaps in our social movement ecosystem and building infrastructure are two things I am deeply committed to. After taking a break to receive a masters in Public Administration from NYU Wagner School of Public Service, I knew I had to get back to organizing and supporting work on the ground. I saw VFF as an opportunity to build new infrastructure that can continue to support work that can build real power for communities.

Which harms do you hope philanthropy and you as facilitators can address? 

Jess: We must be willing to be honest about the contradictions in philanthropy. Philanthropy and endowments were created in a capitalist society in a patriarchal, white supremacist image. At the same time that we’ve seen the highest salary increases in philanthropy, we see communities impacted the hardest. That is a contradiction. Part of being honest about that contradiction is changing the institution of philanthropy. If we’re not willing to wrestle with that and put power back in the hands of communities, then we are not social justice funders. We are not actually living the values we put out there. 

Bryan: There is an erroneous assumption that people in philanthropy have a better vantage point. The truth is that people in philanthropy have the space, time and resources to do big picture work. When we build strategy based on who has the luxury of time, the campaigns are not reflective of what communities need. What we’re trying to do with VFF is to pull together folks who are in deep community and resource them to craft those visions. 

Which solutions do you see to address these harms? 

Jess: Anything that centers communities and their needs can be helpful. The charity mindset in philanthropy is harmful. It puts philanthropy in the position of “do-gooders,” but the resources were earned on the backs of communities. It is time to give money back to communities. One example of this solution is foundations that spend down the money they have over a certain period of time. 

Bryan: It’s important to ask: What are the real values? What are we willing to give up or not give up as we do this work in philanthropy? We must experiment and build real relationships, honoring the expertise and experience and access different people have. Some people have access to monetary resources, others to data, others to people. When we build an expansive view of how we can use all of our assets as leaders in community and philanthropy, we can make meaningful movement towards redistributing resources. 

Which other models have inspired or influenced your approach to VFF? 

Jess: Funders for Justice has had and continues to hold real conversations about abolition and the role of philanthropy in abolition. The Kataly Foundation in the Bay Area has led an intentional spend down strategy with concerted effort focusing on what accountable leadership in philanthropy looks like, and the Reparations Fund through the Decolonizing Wealth Project has begun charting a vision, and concrete support for organizations and individuals creating a tangible reparations strategy.

Bryan: There are also other philanthropic funds that are seeking to change decision making models and funding towards shifting power. Some of those institutions we are proud to know and be in deep partnership with are Emergent Fund, Southern Partners Fund, Collective Courage Fund, Native Voices Rising, Amplify Fund, Cypress Fund and the Hive Fund. 

What comes next? 

Jess: Part of what we’re learning at the Power Table is the work that it takes to be truly accountable to communities. It is imperative that there is a shift between organizations on the ground and their relationship to philanthropy. Ultimately, if we are accountable to philanthropy and its institutions, we will be out of alignment with the long-term goals and visions of our movements. The wealth that philanthropy is founded on came from these communities and our focus is on redistributing relationships and recalibrating philanthropy towards this understanding. Through the Power Table, we are doing this work and the work of restoration.

Bryan: The Visionary Freedom Fund is a part of what is needed to continue to transform the philanthropic sector. We must work to be in relationship with the larger sector, which to us means organizations and leaders in communities and philanthropic institutions. The work of this must be rooted in values, trust and accountability. The Visionary Freedom Fund will continue to make a commitment to hold to our values, share our learnings, and redistribute money in accountable ways to youth justice movements, and we will continue to call on people to join us in this effort. 


In our next post, we’ll go deeper into the shift needed to move from “trust-based” philanthropy to “restorative philanthropy” — a model that returns resources and power to communities.