Putting Corporate Philanthropy to Work for Systemic Equity

Corporate philanthropy programs are a primary mechanism for investments in social good. Traditional philanthropy is being tested for how it’s approaching fairness in grant-making, and the criteria for successful philanthropy are taking a new form.

This month, Marcella Tillett, VP of Programs and Partnerships at the Brooklyn Community Foundation, led a Kindred Roundtable discussion on embedding equitable perspectives into corporate philanthropy programs.

According to Marcella, the distribution of power is central to how philanthropy should function. On the one hand is the concentration of wealth and decision-making power, often in the hands of a few. On the other hand are the many who stand to benefit from this redistribution of wealth. This relationship reflects power imbalances in society as a whole. To maximize philanthropic impact, we must redesign our relationships within the practice of corporate philanthropy.

Below, you’ll find insights on how you can better tackle systemic inequity through philanthropy.

1. Address root causes over outcomes.

In working toward an equitable society, it is important to recognize the difference between addressing the root cause and addressing the outcomes of inequality. This recognition starts with understanding the existing economic and political disparities and developing solutions that treat issues as systemic rather than individual deficiencies.

“It’s the difference between support projects that guarantee a universal income, which is really looking at changing structures and changing distribution of resources, and instructing people or financial literacy courses that talk to people with limited resources about how to manage the resources they don’t have,” Marcella noted.

Addressing the root cause of inequality also involves advocating for policy changes that help build systems that support all people and don’t replicate structural inequities. “You can take a multi-level approach, looking at organizing and advocacy, changing policy and structures, providing direct support to people, yes, but not separating that from changing the structures that are going to continue to perpetuate the same outcome,” she said.

2. Shift the balance of power.

Traditional philanthropy often ties grantees and receiving communities to specific results or milestones set by donors. But, Marcella noted, this creates a gap that can have a destabilizing effect on community efforts.

Creating long-lasting solutions requires uplifting the expertise of those most affected by the issues you’re trying to solve. In addition, in-depth partnerships with community members will optimize your service to those you wish to support. “We are not effective if we are not working in authentic and deep partnership, so we cannot have any philanthropic impact that is worthwhile without that relationship,” Marcella said. 

Additionally, consider how you compensate these community partners for their valuable insights. This is an extension of your work to support your stakeholders.

3. Rethink your metrics.

Corporate philanthropy focuses on quantitative data to assess success. But these data points don’t paint a complete picture of the true impact on inequality or community wellbeing.

To better assess outcomes, Marcella suggests following the community partners’ definition of success. Align on specific metrics and grant criteria with input from your partners. Doing so empowers grantees to design tools that better fit within their context and lead to stronger outcomes.

4. Assess your practices for fairness.

When reviewing your corporate philanthropy programs or creating new ones, Marcella recommended conducting an assessment to determine if they support equity and social change. Three key questions to ask include:

  1. Are the board, executives, and staff in agreement on equity and systems change goals? Are there stated equity goals in our philanthropic programs?
  2. What data and research on disparities and inequities have informed our community investment/grant-making goals and strategies?
  3. How have we incorporated the knowledge and wisdom of nonprofits and communities that are directly affected by the issues we address?

As Marcella noted, “power is the face that changes systems, and changing systems is the only way to achieve equitable outcomes.” Corporations wield significant influence to drive this change. By examining current practices, co-creating solutions, and incorporating community voices in decision-making, your corporate philanthropy programs can address the power dynamics that contribute to systemic inequities and lead to greater long-term impact. 

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Urey Onuoha

Published on March 25, 2022