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Making Philanthropy More Equitable: An Interview with Aaron Dorfman

By Nell Edgington



Aaron DorfmanIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Aaron Dorfman, President and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), a research and advocacy organization that works to ensure America’s grantmakers are responsive to the needs of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power. Before joining NCRP in 2007, Dorfman served for 15 years as a community organizer with two national organizing networks, spearheading grassroots campaigns on a variety of issues. He also serves on the board of The Center for Popular Democracy.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.

Nell: What is your take on recent concerns about donor advised funds locking too much philanthropic money away from directly reaching nonprofits? Is the recent growth of DAFs a good thing or a bad thing, or is it more complicated?

Aaron: It’s definitely complicated.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to how much easier DAFs have made things for donors. I do some of my own charitable giving through a small DAF, and I love the convenience of it. I have no doubt that other donors also find DAFs to be a very helpful development in philanthropy.

However, many of the concerns raised by critics are also valid.

There is little or no evidence that DAFs have contributed to an increase in overall charitable giving, for example, and there certainly isn’t any evidence that the funds have boosted giving to historically marginalized communities. So, if there has been no increase in overall giving, then what DAFs have done is to delay the giving.

Another concern is that DAFs provide donors with significant tax advantages over private foundations – but at the cost of transparency. Most DAFs don’t accept unsolicited proposals, and reporting by sponsoring institutions doesn’t identify grants with individual funds. Practically speaking, that means that most of these funds are inaccessible to most nonprofits. They’re traditionally housed at community foundations, but they’re not directly open to receiving proposals from community-based nonprofits, though proposals may be steered there by foundation staff acting as gatekeepers.

We found this to be true in a recent in-depth assessment we conducted of the Oregon Community Foundation. This was especially the experience of nonprofits serving and/or led by communities of color, who already have the hardest time accessing mainstream philanthropic support.

The lack of access by community nonprofits is even more troubling when you consider the fastest growing of the DAFs: the funds located at the giant financial industry warehouses like Schwab, Fidelity and Vanguard. There, no one is putting nonprofit proposals in front of donors who might be interested.

The lack of adequate reporting reinforces this problem of access: since the IRS does not require DAF sponsors to report which funds made which grants, grant seekers cannot take advantage of reports to identify potentially like-minded donors. (DAF sponsors have begun making greater amounts of information available about their grants, but what they provide is of limited help to grantseeking nonprofits because they don’t identify which funds made which grants.) This is further compounded by the fact that at present the major foundation database (Foundation Center) doesn’t systematically track giving by the likes of Vanguard, Schwab and Fidelity, most of whose funding simply doesn’t appear in the database.

Nell: Some people have argued that since philanthropy itself is built upon an inequitable market economy it can serve to reinforce that inequality. Is there a disconnect, or can we expect philanthropy to appreciably contribute to greater equity? What do you make of the debates about philanthropy that redistributes wealth and philanthropy that simply reinforces power and economic imbalances?  

Aaron: There is no question that philanthropy can and has done both of these things.

When the Ford Foundation provides support for grassroots community organizing, or for litigation to protect and expand civil rights, that’s an example of philanthropy clearly contributing to greater equity.

When Atlantic Philanthropies, The California Endowment and other funders supported advocacy that contributed to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), that, too, was a case of philanthropy appreciably contributing to a more equitable society.

These are just a couple of examples of funders who understand their goals and their vision for society to be disruptive to the status quo; funders who understand the role unjust economic systems have played in the issues they would like their dollars to help overcome. The “disconnect” between market economics and progressive philanthropy is not impossible to overcome, and many of the more than 200 grantmakers that have signed on to NCRP’s Philanthropy’s Promise initiative are leading the way in showing other funders how to do just that.

However, when certain foundations support elite universities, when they invest only in white-led cultural organizations that emphasize European-American culture, or when they invest in advocacy to privatize public education at the expense of low-income communities – then you have some clear examples of how philanthropy reinforces inequality.

There was a great series of articles published recently in The Nation that explores these ideas, and what the future of philanthropy might be for those of us who hope to see a greater philanthropic contribution to fairness, equity and justice.

Nell: You have written before about philanthropy’s historical role in funding social movements. What do you make of philanthropy in the Black Lives Matter movement? How involved has philanthropy been, and how involved do you think philanthropy should be?

Aaron: There is a paradox here. Philanthropy has always under-funded social movements. However, philanthropic funding has also been essential to the success of social movements. We documented this in a 2014 paper Freedom Funders: Philanthropy and the Civil Rights Movement, 1955-1965.

The Black Lives Matter movement has thus far received very little support from institutional philanthropy. A group of foundation staff members have formed Funders for Justice as a way to learn together and to accelerate the flow of funding to the movement. They’re making headway, but the movement is still receiving very little support. Some individual donors, mostly younger and working through the Solidaire Network, have been able to move money more quickly to the movement.

The Hill-Snowdon Foundation, a small family foundation based in D.C., has been a real leader on this. They dipped into their corpus and have devoted new resources to creating the Making Black Lives Matter initiative and are attempting to organize their peers in philanthropy to invest in black-led organizing and in the Movement for Black Lives. The foundation is a past winner of the NCRP Impact Awards, which recognizes smart philanthropy that empowers underserved communities and achieves real results.

Also, Black professionals in philanthropy have been organizing through the Association of Black Foundation Executives and its Philanthropic Action for Racial Justice initiative.

I should add, too, that movement leaders have rejected some philanthropic support that was offered to them because it came with too many strings attached. In some respects, it’s been a good thing that the movement has not been dependent on philanthropy, since foundation support so often serves to rein in radical social movements.

Nell: The nonprofit sector has historically stayed away from advocacy work, but that seems to be changing. What role do you think nonprofits can and should play in advocacy, and will there be more of a push for that in the future?

Aaron: Advocacy and community organizing are among the best ways for foundations and nonprofits to leverage their limited dollars in pursuit of their missions. By changing public policies and/or the regulatory framework, we can transform society and build the kind of nation we all want to inhabit. Any nonprofit or foundation that is serious about achieving its mission must understand how advocacy fits into their overall strategy.

NCRP has challenged grantmakers to devote at least 25% of grant dollars to funding nonprofit advocacy and organizing, but fewer than 100 of the largest 1,000 foundations in the country meet that benchmark. The number of serious advocacy funders is increasing, but slowly.

Nonprofit advocates bring the voices of people and communities to policy makers. They are a greatly needed counter balance to the growing influence of corporate lobbyists, who often advocate only the narrowest self-interests of their industry. I think many, many people in our sector understand this and that we will see an expansion of nonprofit advocacy in the coming years, and that an increasing number for foundations and high net worth donors will provide ever-increasing resources for that advocacy work.

Photo Credit: NCRP

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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