Host Ratna Omidvar talks to Lucy Bernholz and Justin Wiebe about a way forward for philanthropy, including a broader understanding of the many ways people give and care for their communities.
Host Ratna Omidvar talks to Lucy Bernholz and Justin Wiebe about a way forward for philanthropy, including a broader understanding of the many ways people give and care for their communities.
In this episode of Reimagining Philanthropy, Ratna Omidvar talks to Justin Wiebe and Lucy Bernholz about ways forward for the philanthropy sector, as it undergoes what Omidvar calls “a bit of an existential challenge.”
The guests confront Western, Eurocentric ideas of philanthropy, especially when they come from a transactional perspective of taking and giving. Bernholz explains that colonization has limited our imaginations on what philanthropy can and should be. The ideal world would have no need for philanthropy because people would be able to do what they need to without it, Bernholz says. Until then, different models such as “transformative philanthropy,” for example, would put funds directly in the hands of communities, without, as Wiebe says, “making people jump through these hoops all the time.” The underlying message? To move forward, the sector needs to learn from worldviews outside of the dominant one and imagine different models of giving.
Links to projects mentioned:
- Read Bernholz’s book, How We Give Now: A Philanthropic Guide for the Rest of Us and Hilary Pearson’s recent review.
- Take a look at the Digital Civil Society Lab’s research, fellowships, courses, and more.
- Visit The Circle on Philanthropy, whose board Wiebe sits on, which works to create change between Indigenous communities and the philanthropic sector.
- See the work being done by Philanthropic Foundations Canada, where Wiebe is also a board member.
- Read more about Mastercard Foundation’s EleV program, which works on Indigenous community partnerships that focus on education and entrepreneurship. Justin Wiebe and colleague Ariane Campbell wrote about the EleV program’s approach to evaluation last year in The Philanthropist Journal: “Transforming philanthropy: Embedding Indigenous principles in learning and evaluation“
Hello, and welcome to Reimagining Philanthropy, a series produced in collaboration with The Philanthropist Journal. It explores the issues and questions the philanthropic sector needs to be reflecting and acting on. I am your host, Senator Ratna Omidvar, and I am privileged to be talking in this podcast series with bright, enlightened, challenging minds. And I hope that this podcast will be just as enlightening and challenging as the others have been.
So just as an observation to kick us off, to warm us up: I think it’s fair to say that philanthropy has been challenged in the last few years at a rate and pace that is hard to comprehend, and it has been challenged in its privilege, in its persona, and, in fact, in its motivations. Perhaps I overstate things a bit, but somehow, and – it does feel like a bit of an existential challenge for the “big P sector” as we like – as we call it. And the question before us today is all about not today, not about yesterday, but about tomorrow. Is there a way forward in the future? How can we find it? How can we map it? And how should we best walk it? To guide us on this uncharted territory, I am so pleased that we are joined by two individuals who are intimately connected to the progressive philanthropy space. They are Justin Wiebe and Lucy Bernholz.
So first, a bit about them both. Justin is a citizen of the Métis Nation Saskatchewan from Saskatoon and Treaty Six and Métis Territory. He is passionate about rethinking philanthropy and reshaping it, as he is doing so at the Mastercard Foundation, and its EleV program, which focuses on Indigenous education and entrepreneurship. He also sits on the board of The Circle on Philanthropy and Philanthropic Foundations Canada. Lucy Bernholz describes herself as a philanthropy wonk, but I think she’s a wonk with a difference. She is working at the Digital Civil Society Lab to understand and inform how digital technologies interact with the ways people take collective action and how we protect ourselves, our communities, and our rights when we do so. She is a New Yorker, and she sometimes fakes it as a Californian. As a Canadian, I want to fake it sometimes every now and then. Not always, but every now and then. Both as a New Yorker and a Californian. So welcome, Lucy and Justin. So as a first, I’m going to ask you both to share a bit about yourself: where you’re from, what brings you to us today, and what has been your introduction to philanthropy. Justin, why don’t we kick off with you?
Sure. Thanks, Senator. tânisi justin nitisiyihkâson michif napew niya sâskwatôn ohci niya
[Translation from nêhiyawêwin (Plains Cree): Greetings, how are you? My name is Justin. I am a Michif man from Saskatoon.]
As my bio said, I’m a citizen of the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan, and I’m born and raised in my shared territory here in Saskatchewan, and I’m calling in from Central Northern Saskatchewan, depending on where you are in your orientation. I spend a lot of time in Toronto, and whenever I talk geography, the North is such a relative term, and so for people in Toronto, things that are north are not north to most in the country. In terms of my sort of orientation into philanthropy, it’s, I think, like a lot of us – particularly sort of younger and non-white or folks from other backgrounds – we sort of stumble into it. I stumbled into philanthropy having no idea really what it was, having no experience in the sector, but I had a deep commitment and experience working for my communities and for other Indigenous nations. And so my orientation to philanthropy was one of “Wow, this space exists where people have money to give to good things?” That’s something as an outsider I was eager to be a part of but learned a lot and – we’ll get into it in our conversation here – but learned a lot as I sort of fell into the system and understood how it actually played out and that the answer to the question of why many don’t actually know how philanthropy functions or how it exists, or that it exists at all, in this country are ones I continue to kind of reckon with.
Thank you, Justin. So you’re a bit of an accidental philanthropist. So let’s go on to Lucy with the same question. She has written books, she has deliberated. So Lucy, tell us, how did you come to philanthropy?
You know, it’s a wonderful question, and thank you for it. Let me first pay my respects to the Elders of the Ramaytush Ohlone people, whose land I’m calling from, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present, and future.
It’s an interesting question for me. I could take it all the way back to childhood because the more I talk about philanthropy, the less I think about big P philanthropy. What interests me, and has actually since I was a kid – I have a number of siblings and I was joking the other day, it might come from having shared bedrooms with siblings – is what’s public, what’s private, and who decides? And that actually is really a question I’ve been asking since I was a kid, and when I was a kid it was probably about how can I get my sister to leave my stuff alone? And I didn’t have such nice words for the question. But I can actually remember – my mother was Catholic, my father was raised Jewish, I was sent to a Quaker school for a while. And so I was always in the midst of this kind of – these are traditions, these are traditions that matter – they seem to be in conflict with each other, they distinguish themselves from each other, but I was also being taught many similar values through all of them. And then quite frankly, I remember being – I was about 10 years old, when Roe v. Wade was handed down as a decision here in the US, and my Catholic mother and my Jewish father, who was an architect, took the three girls, at the time, to the Planned Parenthood clinic that was being built in our area. And thinking about why this needed to be something that wasn’t – even then it was not being provided by the government. This was a set of health services for women, but it was a big deal that it was something kind of private, and I was just like, “Why? I don’t understand.” I don’t understand.
At 10 years old, I don’t understand; 59 years old, I’m not so sure I understand either. But that question as it – you know, I rattle it off now, I obviously was not wandering around talking about that question when I was a kid. But I think that sense of, who are we together? What do we owe each other? And what do we sort of make space for to be done outside of that collective or done collectively, has shaped all of my – the way I am in the world and the work that I do. So I guess that’s the answer to the “how I got to philanthropy” question.
It’s interesting. For you, collectivism, and I’ve read some of your work, collectivism is philanthropy, whereas for many, philanthropy is an individual empowered. So let’s get to it, Justin. What does the word philanthropy mean to you?
Yeah, thanks. It’s a great conversation. When I fell into philanthropy, and I started to learn a little bit more about what it mean – what it meant, at least in words, I sort of had a feeling that you know, there was a similarity maybe in our understanding as, you know, diverse people with diverse sort of lived experiences. Although philanthropy the word was not common, you know, in my family or in the communities that I exist in, the idea of giving, of sharing, was incredibly common. And so I came into it in, and sort of, as I learned more, I was looking for these connections between things that I did understand. And I thought for a while that maybe we were on the same page, but then I realized that we still actually weren’t. Even though we might use an English similar word sometimes, what underpins it was actually very, almost oppositional – radically different. And that when many of the folks I started talking to in the sector were talking about philanthropy, they were talking about charity. They were talking about, you know, giving out of the goodness of their heart, which I think is important and matters to some extent. But underneath that is an assumption that, either why I have resources to give is because I’ve worked harder or done better and I can now give those to someone who doesn’t have those. Which I felt very different than how I sort of understood philanthropy, even when I first fell into it, was that it was actually, it needed to be about responsibility and justice. And that for many Indigenous people, when we – we can use the word philanthropy, but embedded in our laws, embedded in our ways of co-existing with other human and non-human beings, we have laws and ways of being that mandate us, that tell us we have a responsibility to share and take care of each other. And that is not only extended when I’ve accumulated so much that I’m good, that I don’t, I can’t, I don’t need any more. Now I can be charitable. It’s through all aspects of my life that I have a responsibility.
And so now, you know, having been around for a little bit longer, I can see that sort of, that difference. Even though we might talk about sharing and giving and, you know, well-intentioned, there is something underpinning that I think for Western philanthropy is actually very different than how a lot of other people understand what philanthropy might mean. And so we use other words, you know, but yeah. So I think for me when I think about what my hopes for it are, what my, how I sort of conceptualize philanthropy for myself, is that it’s a responsibility that I have. And whether that’s me existing in my day-to-day life as a, you know, as a Métis person who’s trying my best to practise our ways and be in right relation with the lands, the animals, other human beings. Or you know, when I worked for a large, you know, philanthropic foundation, my role even as a cog within that, within that bigger system and within that bigger institution, is that I have a deep responsibility to my people and to make sure that these resources, these funds, are not given out charitably because I have some – I’m at this place where I now have a bunch of money to give away, but rather to align to and support the self-determining aspirations of our people, to really recognize that a foundation has a responsibility to ensure those resources are going to the communities who need them best, and that our job also is about shifting that to be about justice, and that it’s the communities who were most impacted by the failures of our systems who need to define what that looks like on their terms. So that’s sort of my kind of journey of how I conceptualize and understand philanthropy and how I’m making sense of it every day.
I think this is really interesting, Justin, your description of how you fell into philanthropy and your reflections on it. And I’ve heard you and others talk about needing to reconstruct how we think about philanthropy, which is what you have just sort of talked about. It’s – I take from it that it’s not so much about charity, but it’s about the law of humanity. You know, human beings learning to live with each other and share and experience together. Lucy, do you think it is time for new language? I mean, do you think the words charity and philanthropy are outdated? Would we be well served if we had new language for it, and forgive me for throwing this question at you.
No, I love it. It is a great question and one I’ve grappled with for a long time. I mean, I just published a book called How We Give Now, and at the root of that book are conversations we held across the US. Small groups, where we asked people, “How do you give to make the world a better place?” And we let them define “give” by answering that question with as many actions as they could. So by focusing on the “how,” what we realized was that the definition of giving is enormously broad and has very little to do – when you’re actually talking to another human being, when you ask them how they give to make the world a better place, it has very little to do with writing a cheque to a certified not-for-profit organization. It has lots to do with kinship care. It has lots to do with being in the environment. It has a lot to do with helping neighbours and taking political – what would be called in the legal system political action, and all the choices you make as a consumer or to not consume, right? People have a very expansive definition of “give.” And then there’s this thing called philanthropy that has been boxed up and packaged in the United States and, in its own way, in Canada. You know, codified and privileged and structured and recognized. And some of what’s in there is what people who are giving also do, but it’s – what I learned in the process of writing that book – and I am answering your question, believe it or not, it’s because it’s about language – was that I have grown more convinced that the formal philanthropic structures are – they are, in the United States, a privileged set of white Eurocentric practices that could be seen as just one of many ways of giving, alongside those that are integral to other communities, to the global majority of people. Yet we’ve absolutely pulled them up, put them on a throne, and said, “This is what matters.” And I just, I don’t – I think that needs to be called out for what it is. And whether or not changing the word philanthropy – I’ve had long arguments with people about whether we need to change the word. And I don’t actually know where I fall on it.
I think what we need to do is recognize that people have many ways of giving that in a – that how some of those are privileged, has direct implications for the politics of the country. And what we’ve been privileging may not be to our best, to – what we have privileged currently is not to our best democratic ends. And so, will that be changed if we change the word? No. It will only be changed if we change the laws. And if we actually have a commitment to allow all people and all cultures to practise their traditions of giving with an equal set of special privileges from legal privileges. So I don’t actually care what you call it. I think we do need to call out that it is, in the current structure in the United States, the traditions and cultures and practices of one culture of a very diverse set of cultures has been legally put above the others, and that is problematic for all of us.
That is really interesting, and I would love to have a back and forth, but this is really my back and forth with both of you. Justin, I know Lucy talked about the context in the United States, but I suspect you would agree that the context is also applicable to Canada. Would you agree with her conclusions that we need to think about a new structure for philanthropy, whatever we may call it – giving, philanthropy – so that one set of values is not the dominant set of values, but other streams and ways of giving are also equally privileged.
Yeah, yeah, I would definitely agree, and I think – yeah, I don’t think it’s the restructuring to one ends, in that I think there are – there’s a need for – we can … I think it’s – the language is sometimes challenging because we’re talking about sort of institutionalized philanthropy on one hand, and then we’re talking about the broader sense of philanthropy and giving and, you know, I think both of those conversations are important, but maybe I’ll just focus a bit on the sort of, like, the “systemized” philanthropy in Canada, and I do think that needs to shift significantly.
I think we – Senator, you’re involved in a lot of this work. I think there’s the regulatory environment that needs to radically shift to better enable, you know, philanthropy to function differently and better. But beyond that, we also just need a sector that uplifts and celebrates different models and different approaches. I think we’ve normalized certain ways of giving that are not actually even the only way, it’s just that – and not that people don’t have the flexibility to give differently – we’ve just normalized certain ways of operating foundations, you know, in the system. And so, you know, I think what we – one thing that we need to do among many, is how do we support as a sector, and then how do we communicate and uplift different approaches and different models, right?
The idea of, you know, every foundation that comes into being should exist in perpetuity, you know, to give out, you know, peanuts a year. Like, you know, my most radical self – and I do wake up on this side of the bed some days – is like, we need to – everyone needs to spend down, and this thing shouldn’t exist at all, you know, and I feel that way lots of days. But other days, I do see the value of longer-term and intergenerational sort of giving from philanthropic foundations. But, either side of the bed, what I don’t like, what I don’t think is okay is how the system is currently made up. And the current makeup of the philanthropic system, we need more models. We don’t need, you know, an infinite number of in-perpetuity foundations. Some? Sure. I don’t know what that number is, but there’s probably, it’s sort of an equilibrium that might be a better place. And we need more foundations and efforts that are giving a lot more today, ASAP, to spend down, but the orientation towards one model, even in this sort of systemized philanthropy, is a problem. And we need to look at different ways of that and enabling and encouraging other forms. You know, I’m not necessarily saying everyone should spend down tomorrow, but I do think there should be more foundations spending down than there are today. That’s for sure.
That opens up whole new roads for this conversation. So I’m going to ask Lucy: you talked about, you know, we have to recognize different, and privilege different, ways of giving. I want to ask you whether someone is doing it in a better way than the United States or Canada? Because we seem to be hemmed into this law of charitable giving and tax benefits to those who give. Is there someone who does it better?
I don’t know the answer to that question. Certainly not – can I point to a nation state, because again, we get into the kind of language of this, but it’s not surprising that the two countries, the US and Canada have similar – we have the same roots in Elizabethan charitable law from the 1600s, right? That is what has been privileged, certainly not as the only thing that’s being practised. So it’s not surprising that our imagination is limited. And it’s been exported through colonization and, you know, the general sort of shape of the Eurocentric exportation of corporate structures and legal codes. I do think that there are communities that practise really robust, and create and live within really robust, systems of community care, that I don’t know that I would call philanthropy. I’d call them community care. And here I’m thinking, for example, there’s an extraordinary scholar at the University of Toronto, Carolyn Shenaz Hossein, who studies Caribbean dyasporic mutual aid societies as well as informal lending and banking structures, economic systems within immigrant Arabic communities that are wholly contained within those communities. They provide ways to resource the needs of people in the community, which I think is what we think about philanthropy helping to do. But they’re built, really, in opposition to the system that they exist within, because the system that they work within isn’t working for those communities. So that’s how those communities and many others we can pull into, have thrived and existed within this dominant oppressive structure for centuries. Those communities of care, whether it’s the mutual aid systems in the Caribbean diaspora or these banker ladies in the Arabic women community, women in Arabic communities, you know, they’re created as systems of survival. And they work, and we – we a collective, national “we” – could think about how do we change the dominant systems so that those systems are either thriving and expanding and shifting for others, or they’re less necessary, because we’ve built a dominant system that doesn’t create the oppressions that they’re created in opposition to, right? I’m sure they – I don’t want to – I would guess that you’ve got thousands of examples like this from the Native community to the white community history, right? So I can’t answer “this place does it better.”
I think, in fact, one question we have to ask, and I think this is a critical question in the US in 2022, where income inequality is just like, bananas. I mean, it’s – you can’t chart it, it doesn’t fit on the same page. The system has created – the system is impoverishing entire communities while creating enormous wealth in the hands of a very few, who then are incentivized to use a tiny percentage of that to maybe address some of the impoverishing. You wouldn’t create that if you were starting from scratch. You just wouldn’t even build something like that. So can we do better? Yes. Do we have to expand our imagination? Absolutely. And are there lots of traditions and actions and behaviours underway all around us that we can learn from? Yes, also. I saw – there’s a wonderful graphic I used in a publication from last year that was produced by a community design effort, actually hosted at the MacArthur Foundation, where their aspiration for improving philanthropy was that by the year 2225, or something, there would be none. Because the communities could care for themselves. That we would have what we needed to thrive. And I actually think that’s a really robust thing to aspire to.
That is robust. What if we didn’t need any more charity or philanthropy because we were able to care for each other in ways that keep our lives sustainable and our community sustainable. That is interesting, and the fact that there was a deadline date on it by 2225. It kind of motivates you. So Justin, you’ve talked quite a bit about moving away from transactional, accountability-focused philanthropy to transformative philanthropy. I think Lucy is talking about the same thing, but can you put your own lens on it and tell us what you mean by transformative, trust-based philanthropy?
Yeah, sure. I mean, I think some of the big things, like, for philanthropy in Canada, that sort of institutional philanthropy is, is to start by recognizing that other people know what – people know what they need, right? Like, you know what I mean, so communities know what’s needed to solve the sort of challenges and the complex situations that they’re navigating, right? Like, you know, Indigenous people, my people, we’ve known and we negotiated agreements from the beginning, that were supposed to capture a lot of the things that we knew we would need. We never got a lot of those things, a lot of those promises weren’t kept, you know, and whatever, whatever. So, you know, for philanthropy to shift to a perspective and understanding and a real belief, not a superficial one, which I think is like, sort of, we’re still a little bit at that place where people might say, like, “Oh yeah, I believe that.” But then when we get into, like, the contracting, or we get into, like, the nuts and bolts of it, there’s, like, insidious ways in which we sort of, as funders – and some of it’s, you know, imposed by regulation or whatever, but there’s insidious ways in which we kind of wrap our tentacles around something and shift it, in a way that, you know, maybe we didn’t intend to, but now, you know, community just said, “We need money to do X thing,” and now we’ve thrown on all these other things on top of it. But it’s really getting to a place of, like, just believe that the answers are there. And to get out of the way. I think, too, when it comes to philanthropy as a practice, I mean, we talked about this a little bit, Lucy spoke to it, but you know, other traditions have extensive and elaborate ways of doing this.
And so in my work there’s something that we’ve been, we’ve started doing and are looking to do more of is, is how do we, you know, within the regulatory environment and within our own sort of, like, “self-manufactured due-diligence stuff,” which, you know, it matters, it’s important, I guess. But how do we give in trust-based ways and recognize that, you know, Indigenous approaches to philanthropy themselves need to be invested in, supported. So how do we put, you know, make sure that it’s – that we can we can shift control and power over the flow of funds, and I think that’s a big thing as well. And so we’re doing some work with a number of Indigenous funders, Indigenous community foundations across the country, to put more funds in their hands, to expand their work, strengthen their capacity, to bring life to Indigenous philanthropic practice and to make decisions about where they want money to go, you know? And I think we’re working to kind of tell the story of that work over time as well, because I think there’s a lot of richness in that. And I think for philanthropy, the whiter and the Western side of it, we often need examples and we need permission, you know?
So I think there’s a lot of work that those funders or communities that are working differently, when we can sort of uplift and tell the story of transformation, the story of doing things differently, it gives permission to, you know – folks like me and others who found themselves in a big foundation, can now point to, you know, and say, “Oh, another foundation’s done this” or “Look at this impact that they’re seeing from working in this different way.” And so I think that’s a piece too, like, how we sort of get the system and get philanthropy further along is we need to be really intentional about the storytelling and the documenting and then the sharing of different models and different approaches to give people permission, those working in a foundation, to do and think differently. But also, for communities, the firepower to say to a funder, “Hey, well, I worked with this other funder and they worked in this way. Why can’t you guys do this too?”
So I think there’s those kinds of things that we can collectively do to sort of push philanthropy to be more transformative, to be a little bit more open to working differently. Because even within the regulatory environment that we’re currently in, we think we’re in this sort of tight box, and it is a box, but like, there’s so much creativity and examples of ways to make it work a lot better than how we’ve just done it to date. So we can tell the story and share those things better. I think that will be helpful in getting us to a more progressive and more – and honestly, a more useful and a more impactful – like we love to talk about impact, but, like, if communities are struggling to get the money, if we’re making people jump through all these hoops all the time, how impactful is it really going to be, you know? So yeah, I’ll leave it there.
Can I jump in there? Just to say that this is one of those things, I couldn’t agree with you more, and we’ve been through in 2020 and 2021, here in the US, with the onset of the pandemic and then the response to the murder of George Floyd. Your most, you know, archetypal, traditional foundations got rid of a whole bunch of internally created processes and procedures. And when they did that, what I’d hoped they would learn was there was never going to be a reason to put those things back in place. Right? There was no reason for that rubber band to go back to where it was. If they could move that quickly and change internal processes, you know, just get rid of them, in what was thought at the time – here I’m referring to the pandemic – to be you know, “This is going to be a short-term, immediate crisis of global proportions. We’ve got to behave differently.” And what’s really despairing is to watch them putting those processes and procedures and hoops back in, right? To use your language, Justin, they got rid of a lot of hoops. What did you need them for? What would have been – you know, if we could have learned that you just don’t, you don’t need them. And the same was true in response to mainstream foundation funding of Black-led activity and action here in the US. And I just wish there was a way to, you know, say, “Whoa, hold on, hold up. What do you need all that stuff for? You showed yourself you could get rid of it. You decided yourself you could get rid of it.” And some places are, but you know, we can do different, I agree with you. There’s a lot – there’s a lot of room to do different, yet there’s an extraordinary kind of normative pressure to this set of practices that’s not helpful in the broader community.
RO:That is so interesting that, you know, the philanthropic sector is, in the way you’re describing it in the United States, seems to have gone back to business as usual. Whereas, this conversation today and part of the motivation of The Philanthropist is that can we go back to business as usual? And the answer so far has been no, we have to disrupt, we have to be creative. We have to, as Justin said, seek forgiveness instead of permission. I know the law will get you there, but still, I think there is a fire in the belly for doing things differently.
So talking about doing things differently, and this goes back to you, Lucy: you work in the space of digital communications. And of course we all know that technology has changed the way we communicate and how we connect. Tell us how this has changed how we give, what we give, and if we give and why.
Well, okay, so this was part of the inspiration for the book, because we’ve all been subjected to 20 years of marketing rhetoric about bigger, faster, better. And part of what I wanted to understand in the research for the book was, well what about – and actually in running the Digital Civil Society Lab – what about digital actually matters? Like is it, some of it is just superficial, sort of top-of-the-ocean-level churn, but what’s changing at the bottom? And what I think is that, for the most part, digital technologies, whether it’s being able to give with a text message, or being able to organize people with a text message, being able to move money, you know, from your phone in an instant, being able to be aware of, you know, climate disaster around the globe in real time, visually. It matters, but not in a – I don’t, I don’t think we’ve mostly been looking at that in the wrong way. That most is the same behaviour of someone with resources being asked by someone without resources to move the resources from one to the other.
So it can happen a little bit quicker. It does engage a lot more people at small levels who can move very quickly. You know, so there’s things there that matter, but for the most part, that’s – I don’t think that’s the real change. One of the things that is the real change, and this also is a place, I think, of opportunity, is that we can actually – we’re used to talking about giving money and giving time. And if you think of the structure of foundations and non-profits, their man-made corporate structures to facilitate the giving of money and time. Money and time are economic resources that work the same way. And what I mean by that is if I give you a dollar, I don’t have it anymore. Right? Pretty simple. If I give you an hour, I don’t have it anymore. What if I were to share with you a photograph? And you’ve probably done this – I’m assuming both of you have cellphones and you’ve taken photographs with them and you’ve sent them to people you care about, right? What can you tell me about where that photograph is? Say I send, Senator, say I send you a photograph on my phone. You will have a copy of the photo now, right? I will also have it; that’s not the way money works. Right? If I give you a dollar, I don’t have it anymore. If I give you a photograph, a digital photograph, I still have it. It’s a fundamentally different thing. It’s like wisdom, in, perhaps, a community tradition where it is shared and we all have it. It’s not by you learning something I don’t know it anymore. Now, I can do a long, economic lecture for you on what all this means, but I won’t.
It’s not all that interesting, because I can see from your face that you’re like, “Wait, what is she talking about? She’s right. If you give something and still have it, we probably need some new ways of thinking about giving if what we’re giving is something that we give and still have.” We need a whole different – that’s not how capitalism works, by the way. Now we’re getting big, right? Like capitalism depends on me having it or you having it.
So, that and a couple other things, which we don’t have time to go into, is one of the things about giving digital data that gives us the opportunity to use our imagination and think really differently. Because if a not-for-profit organization or a foundation is designed to give time and money, then it is designed to give a resource that if I give it away, I don’t have it anymore. But in this age where I might give my photograph to a database that is being used by climate scientists to track ground-level climate change – and this is a real example, it’s talked about in the book – build an enormous database of individual people’s photographs of where they have – the animals and birds and flora around them. And scientists are using this to say, “Aha! In Saskatchewan…” And I’m making this example up because I don’t live in Saskatchewan, you know, “There’s no more grouse, the grouse seem to be disappearing, and something’s happening in the climate there that we need to understand.” And where did they get that expertise? From people’s aggregated photographs. This is really happening. This is a lot of how climate science is happening. Right? But we don’t have the rules or the norms to understand how to exchange something that works this way.
So we have an opportunity to create a whole new way of doing that. Except, we do have experience and how to exchange things that work this way. And Indigenous communities have worked this way for millennia about certain types of wisdom. Some people have access to some wisdom, some people have access to other wisdom, and you know that we do actually have practices. Commons management works this way. We have expertise and experience; we just don’t think of it as philanthropic. But we live in a digital world, more and more of this use of data is happening this way, and I believe deeply, and I argue this in the book, that since we all generate digital data,the people and communities who have been most negatively affected by the dominant digital economy should be the ones whose expertise we let lead the development of these new rules for exchanging resources, where I can give it and still have it. To say nothing of the fact that there are Indigenous wisdom traditions and knowledge traditions that Justin knows much more about than I do that have managed knowledge that way for millennia. I had the privilege of working with some communities in northwest Australia. This is – their entire 50,000-year tradition is built around managing knowledge in a way where some have it and, you know, exchanged in certain ways. So long answer there, but yes, we have this new resource that offers us the opportunity to use our imagination to design new systems. Let’s do it.
So I’m getting from this, there are, you know, you can share with people in a way that doesn’t leave you with less time or less money but everyone, so that would be empowered wisdom, knowledge, resilience, hope. Justin, how does this resonate with you?
Yeah, I mean, I think it definitely does. I mean, obviously, some parts of it I haven’t thought too much about, so I appreciate Lucy bringing it forward because I think there’s, yeah, there’s something rich there. One point I’ll pick up on because I think it’s something that I find is really – has been really valuable. And this is me talking from my position as someone who still works within a big foundation, so take it with a grain of salt, because if you ask some of my partners that I work with, they might have a very different perspective.
So, but you know, I think, you know, the money and the time, you know, that we give to folks doing the work on the ground, I think it’s important. Obviously, it matters. But what I do find, and I think this only works in the case where the foundation is staffed by people who have experience and understand the context of which the work their partners is doing is happening in, and that’s not the case generally across the sector, right? We know that. We know there’s often folks who work in philanthropy, who’ve never been on the frontlines of organizations, predominantly white, older, all these things that we know, so it’s not the case generally. But for me, you know, as a Métis person, as an Indigenous person, who is working now with pretty much exclusively Indigenous organizations and communities, or Indigenous people who are working within Western institutions, the sorts of conversations we’re able to have and the role that I can, and other members of our team, play as a – and this is like a buzzwordy thing – as, like, a thought partner, you know, or to sort of talk through strategy, to help sort of wrestle with sometimes – people know, they know on the frontlines, the issue. They know the challenge that they’re facing, they know what needs to happen. But it’s not always as simple as, like, you do this and you do this. Right?
And so I do find another piece of my work, that is not something I don’t think we talk a lot about in philanthropy, probably because it doesn’t exist in a lot of foundations because of who is there, but it’s that role of like, “Let’s pause and let’s think together about how we can wrestle with some of these complex, intergenerational, overlying-of-multiple-systems challenges that people are dealing with.” Because oftentimes, right, the folks that we’re funding are folks who are dealing with the, like, immediate crises of the challenge of that, you know? And we know that we need to make sure people are well, and they have what they need today. But we also, we need to think about how we’re disrupting the way that the systems function, and those are not always the same skillset or mindset. If I will say, I don’t know if I’m answering the question, but it’s just something that we don’t talk enough about, where at times, and not always, because I can tell you many stories where philanthropy has also been the opposite of this, where it’s been like, “Oh, let’s have these big conversations” but actually pulls people away from the thing that needs to happen.
So, it can go really south and often does, particularly in terms of movements. There’s a lot of other people, in the US predominantly, have written about how philanthropy has undermined movement work by usurping it, and sort of moulding in its own image. So, try not to make sure that that happens, but just to say this idea of being useful and helpful as a partner, not merely as someone who just gives money to something. But there’s other ways to be helpful and useful.
And so, I guess the last one on this, because I think it kind of connects parts of it together for me at least, how I understand sort of my role in philanthropy is, is the concept of reciprocity for me is something really important personally, but is a sort of underlying piece of many cultures, but particularly mine and other Indigenous nations here, is this: one it’s about responsibility to each other, but things will also come around, you know? Like, there’s that and so, you know, when I’m building relationship with the person or organization that we’re supporting, we’re funding, you know, it’s not enough for me just to, you know, here’s, here’s the money. It’s also like, there’s a two-sided stream of this, and it’s not necessarily about extracting for me, but what are we bringing to the table together to get to something that is different.
So you just gave me the inkling of a word, Justin, to replace philanthropy. Let’s think about reciprocity. Let’s talk about the reciprocity sector instead of the philanthropic sector, but that will have to likely be a podcast for another time. I have a last final question to both of you and would appreciate short answers, because it’s a short question. Are you hopeful? Where are you hopeful? And where are you not hopeful? It’s actually a three-part question. Are you hopeful? Why and why not? Lucy?
You make it sound like it’s such an easy question. I’m hopeful about some things. I’m hopeful about, in this particular context, that this conversation is happening. That I do believe there are people in mainstream, white philanthropy who recognize there are other ways of doing and that they’re, they’re really wrestling with these questions. I’ve been in this space long enough to know that this conversation wasn’t happening 20 years ago, so that’s hopeful. I’m a native New Yorker, so I’m no Pollyanna. I won’t tell you all the things I’m not so hopeful about, but this makes me hopeful.
That’s good – great! Justin, you?
It depends on what side of the bed I wake up on, I think, but I mean, I am hopeful. You know, I’m hopeful, and I think you kind of need to be, but I am hopeful. One, because I do see my, you know, in my day to day, things happening that are different and openness from colleagues in the sector to think differently. And I mean, I’m hopeful because, like, regardless, you know, people on the ground, you know, my community and others are just doing this stuff, you know? Like they’re taking care of each other as we always have, you know. Like, we’re building institutions that work for us because the mainstream ones don’t, you know, so whether philanthropy, Western philanthropy fully wakes up and kind of smartens up? I mean, I’m hopeful that it does. And I think we’re, we’re slowly incrementally getting there. But regardless, you know, the stuff happening on the other side, that work that people are doing, that’s hopeful for me, you know. Seeing people just continue to care for each other and take care of each other as we always have is always hopeful. If we lose that, then I’ll probably feel differently overall.
So yeah, yeah, I feel hopeful, and I’m hopeful too – you know, Senator, when you opened us, your opening remarks, you spoke about the sector being challenged and, you know, change and being disrupted. And I think I find hope in that too, you know? Because I think for a long time the sector has been able to kind of hide. And so I do find hope in us being forced to be more transparent and forced to be more open and that more public conversations about philanthropy are happening. So for me, that is hopeful.
You have left me hopeful, both of you. You have left me hopeful as well because I think about these matters a great deal and I tend to be in the legislative regulatory box, but there is a whole world outside of that. So thank you so much, Lucy and Justin, for showing us the way forward and for sharing with us your ideas and the hope that is embedded in those ideas. So thank you again very much and to our listeners, stay tuned for the next fascinating conversation.
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