What Would You Have Done?
By Catherine Crystal Foster, CEO and Co-founder
Imagine you, a Silicon Valley donor, received a crystal ball at this time last year. You were enjoying a summer vacation and looking toward the fall, when you’d be attending a flurry of events in September and October, planning for your end-of-year giving. But a glance at your crystal ball revealed that a devastating “black swan” event was about to occur around the world and at your doorstep.
Millions of people would fall ill and hundreds of thousands would die. Countless people would experience hardship and poverty for the first time. Every aspect of normal worklife, home life, and education would be disrupted. Bedrock nonprofits in your community would suddenly lose access to reliable sources of funding, and some would go under. Donors, community organizations, and those they serve would be unable to come together physically to share, observe, serve, and participate. The local businesses that were the lifeblood of your region and the employers of so many who lived here were shuttered, some never to reopen. And the streets would ring with cries for racial justice, some from people who never dreamed they’d become activists, some from those whose suffering stretches back for generations and who have been calling for change for far too long.
What would you have done? What would be different about the way you thought about your giving, allocated your dollars, set your priorities, spent down your philanthropic capital, and related to those who receive your funding? Would you have devoted more time, attention, and dollars to different communities? Would you have questioned any practices that you previously thought were necessary?
Perhaps you’d have funded worker organizing, so that essential workers received the salaries and benefits that reflect their importance to the community. Or tenant and YIMBY advocacy so that every family could find a safe and affordable place to live. Maybe you’d have funded technology so every student had equal access to WiFi and devices for distance learning, and so social service organizations could pivot their work swiftly and effectively.
You might have increased your gifts to safety-net agencies or community arts organizations. You could have shored-up the fragile child care system or funded policy advocacy to make quality child care and preschool universally accessible.
You might have questioned your assumptions about Black and Latinx-led organizations and invested in them so they could thrive, or educated yourself with the rich literature on racial equity and the cascading impacts of slavery on this nation.
Perhaps you would have realized the world wouldn’t stop spinning if you didn’t require grant reporting forms that did little to inform you or improve the work on the ground. You might have funded nonprofit reserves and support for nonprofit staff. You might have spent an awful lot more of your DAF, or boosted your foundation payout (and still have had more to give away down the line).
But actually, no matter how shocking and unprecedented this moment seems, and how unprepared so many of us have felt, many pieces of this horrible puzzle were visible all along if only we’d chosen to look, or they were predictable if we studied our history. And some of the many positive steps philanthropists have taken since were ones they could have taken all along.
The fact is, before equity issues were thrust into the forefront, we already knew that Latinx-led and Latinx-serving organizations received a tiny fraction of the philanthropic pie. The same was true for Black-led organizations.
The fact that working families hanging on in an impossible housing market were squeezing 12 to a 3-bedroom house, creating a dangerously ideal breeding ground for a virus, was right there in our faces.
Philanthropy already offered examples of trust-based grantmaking, strategies crafted by communities and people with lived experiences of the issues donors seek to address, multi-year support, and rapid response.
The knowledge and the models were there for us to heed — and many did heed them. But without a crystal-ball induced shock to the system, it was too easy to fall back on well-worn ways of doing business.
Now the situation is urgent and the challenge is clear. There’s so much damage that can’t be undone, but we still have the opportunity to do better to address the crises we currently face, and the ones yet to come — those we can and can’t foresee.
This is not the only threat or day of reckoning we will confront. It’s only a matter of time before the Bay Area experiences another destructive earthquake. Devastating climate-induced wildfires aren’t waiting their turn. We won’t be able to transform unjust structures overnight, remake our education or criminal justice systems, or create housing for all in a single funding cycle.
Ask yourself, what would you have done if you had known this confluence of crises was coming — and then do it.
It’s tempting to believe that we could never have envisioned any of what has taken place or how we should respond. But we didn’t actually need a magical view into the future to act before, and nor should we let that hold us back now.
Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you’ve always had the power, my dear. You’ve had it all along. Now use it.