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Philanthropy must address inequity

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By Steven E. Mayer

Until foundations address the structural inequities that contribute significantly to human suffering, their own effectiveness will be limited.

Structural inequities show up in virtually all the data as gaps or disparities in the performance of our public and private systems, chronically favoring some groups over others.

They represent fault lines in our society and its institutions, including philanthropic organizations themselves.

If not addressed, they will drag down the performance of the very foundations and nonprofits that otherwise intend to do good.

To start, a foundation can create internal study time to explore the ways in which documented racial and other group disparities hold back good outcomes in its own program areas.

Next, it can identify the dynamics that produce and maintain these disparities; typically this requires looking further upstream for the problems causing the casualties.

A foundation can listen to those who know these difficulties first-hand, and to authorities perhaps previously overlooked.

Then, the foundation can prioritize its resources to create a more muscular philanthropy capable of producing more balanced outcomes throughout society.

Nonprofits must send forward proposals that put pressure on the mechanisms that maintain these gaps. Of course, they must be assured by prospective funders that such ideas are favored.

Foundations, for their part, can raise to the top and approve those credible proposals that put pressure on existing gaps. This would result in a different grants list than currently prevails.

Acting through able partners on the ground, a foundation can strengthen the relationships and networks that serve as the creative seedbed and community infrastructure that springs and supports good ideas.

A foundation can strengthen individual and organizational leadership to bridge the many divides needed to move promising solutions along to implementation.

The boards and staffs of foundations are in a position to do a world of good, even staying within their existing mission.

It’s not just about the diversity of faces on the board and staff, though a respectful regard for others’ experiences would certainly help.

It’s about how well boards focus philanthropic resources on closing the gaps and reducing the casualties.

There is a world of opportunity for foundations and nonprofits to promote solutions to unfair system dynamics.

Philanthropy can help create the commitment, resources and skills for fixing what’s wrong.

Philanthropy can and must put its collective shoulders to these wheels.

Until it does, and becomes more relevant to today’s society, we will continue to see mean-spirited systems and markets that contribute to substantial human suffering, and highly mediocre levels of philanthropic organization performance.

Steven E. Mayer is director of Effective Communities LLC and principal contributor to www.JustPhilanthropy.org

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