Social Justice and a Relevant Philanthropic Sector (Part 1)

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Miles Wilson is a philanthropic professional with nearly 30 years of experience supporting the U.S. social sector as well as past efforts in Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, and South Africa. Miles’ work has covered a broad spectrum of core social sector activities, and he currently serves as the Deputy Director of Education Grantmaking at Ascendium Education Group. Miles was most recently a Senior Fellow with the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. This feature, Social Justice and a Relevant Philanthropic Sector, is the first in a six-part series of blog posts about his experiences in philanthropy. A version of this blog series is running on the Center for Effective Philanthropy website.

When I entered the philanthropic sector just over 25 years ago, I expected foundations to be on the forefront of social justice, and practicing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within their organizations as well as being fierce advocates in the broader society.

Unfortunately I was largely wrong and the evidence played out as an insider and in my own career, and for far too many others like me in organized philanthropy. Consequently, it has also impacted nonprofit organizations, but particularly those seeking to advance meaningful change among disenfranchised populations, people of color, and underserved communities across the nation.

The philanthropic sector is stuck in old paradigms. Several critical issues, common throughout the sector, prevent philanthropy from making real and sustainable progress. I encourage the sector to more fully embrace its trusted role as social conscience, using its collective resources and influence to advance social justice both within the sector and across American society.

Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to lift up disenfranchised populations, people of color, and underserved communities and help transform our nation into a stronger, more just and equitable society. Yet it must undergo serious self-examination and advance substantive change for this goal to be achieved.

The number of people of color working at grantmaking foundations in professional and management roles remains very small. This is disturbing because so many foundations have focused their work in communities of color.

The voices of people in those communities, their wisdom, contextual knowledge and relationships are yet to be fully lifted up, and consequently do not contribute to making the work of these foundations more impactful. Furthermore, the constraints placed on most nonprofits such as project support funding, lack of support for overhead costs, mismatched evaluation requirements, and low levels of support for social justice efforts too often undermine meaningful change.

Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to lift up disenfranchised populations, people of color, and underserved communities and help transform our nation into a stronger, more just and equitable society. Yet it must undergo serious self-examination and advance substantive change for this goal to be achieved.

Let’s begin with a story, because it’s important to know how I got here. Nearly 30 years ago I intentionally sought a career in the U.S. nonprofit sector. I felt certain it was my calling since it was consistent with my personal values around social justice, and it provided me the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people of color like me.

I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in a neighborhood called South Linden. My neighborhood was approximately 90% African-American and almost everyone was somewhere on the poverty spectrum. At age 14, I left home to attend one of the country’s top public high schools located in Minnesota and lived with a teacher and his family as part of a scholarship program.

I was a good student at my schools in Ohio, but that wasn’t why I got the scholarship. I got the scholarship through a stroke of luck and a middle school teacher who shared this opportunity with my parents and then mentored us through the process.

During the years following high school graduation, I attended an excellent undergraduate school and a top graduate school program in my area of study. I took my first professional job in banking to pay back student loans, but once that was done, I went back home to become the founding director of a nonprofit program providing tutoring, mentoring, and college readiness programming for youth living in the neighborhood where I grew up.

What followed over the next 25 years was a number of grantmaking leadership roles, first as part of a new federal agency during the Clinton administration, and then at several foundations around the country. I also held leadership roles at two university-based centers on philanthropy and nonprofit capacity.

I’ve enjoyed many blessings in my life both personally and professionally, but I want to be clear that I am not unusually intelligent, and certainly no more worthy than members of my family or any other person who grew up in my neighborhood. The truth is that I had one of those infrequent moments of access that should be regularly available to everyone but particularly to those who have historically been denied access.

Drawing from my experience growing up Black in America, I intentionally sought a career in philanthropy because its values appeared consistent with advancing DEI for those historically denied access in America.

The word philanthropy literally means “love of mankind,” and its synonyms include words like benevolence, generosity, humanitarianism, altruism, social conscience, and social concern. I know this all sounds idealistic and maybe a bit naïve, but that’s what I was determined to do.

In the coming blog posts, I will point out several critical issues where I believe the philanthropic sector has been stuck in old paradigms.

These issues are the sector’s common issues and prevent it from making real and substantial progress on the goals it says it wants to achieve.

I also want to remind and encourage the sector of its important role as social conscience and to collectively use its resources and influence to advance social justice both within the sector and across American society to lift up disenfranchised populations and underserved communities and help transform our nation into a stronger, more just and equitable society.