Reflections on a Conference for Well-Intentioned Funders: We can do better

November 21, 2019

By Jennifer Aronson, Associate Vice President for Programs

Having spent the preceding 48 hours pushing the limits of my mind and body in a Chicago hotel’s windowless meeting rooms, I was scanning the next day’s schedule for opportunities to leave the premises without doing the “downtown bus tour.”  I have participated in similar things in the past, but I now understand that the bus tour, often involving a police escort, is a common but deeply offensive practice. (It turns out that a majority white group of people with wealth, access and structural power touring invariably under-resourced neighborhoods with majority residents of color who often face largely insurmountable structural and other barriers to opportunity is damaging for all involved.)

Plus, I had just spent two full days participating in conversations that explored the notion that the antidote to racism and inequity is the full realization of our shared humanity.  A major theme of these sessions was understanding that we are all suffering from what Dr. Gail Christopher calls “the fallacy of a hierarchy of human value,” the belief that some people are either superior or inferior because of external physical characteristics.  This idea implicitly and explicitly perverts and poisons our systems, institutions, predominant narratives, and fundamentally, our relationships with one another. 

As I heard over the preceding couple of days, our opportunity, our imperative, is to subvert the force of this fallacy via directly connecting with one another within and across what many of us have been taught are insurmountable differences.  Only by honoring connection and relationships over all else, including the expediency and comfort of a bus tour, can we can start to disrupt and dismantle these divisive forces at the root of so many of our shared challenges.

Energized by these powerful ideas, I searched the schedule for sessions offering connection and shared learning.  One caught my eye.  It was billed as an opportunity to “walk in another’s shoes” and “experience firsthand… some of our world’s biggest challenges… including homelessness and criminal justice.”  I was both intrigued by the potential to learn from others with critical lived expertise, and concerned that such a promise would be yet another well-intentioned effort that instead dealt another blow to the promise of our shared humanity.   

Man wearing VR headset
Is this really the way we want to "connect" to issues?

I looked more closely, and had to laugh when I realized that this was in fact an “immersive arcade” session that employed extended reality (XR) technology straight from the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. Think about this. Rather than connecting us with the human struggles and stories of real people, this was the ultimate dehumanization of both the subject and viewer/gamer – to “experience” homelessness and a broken criminal justice system without leaving the comfort of the hotel ballroom!

We can do better. So what is stopping us? How is it possible that such a thing would exist in the world, let alone at a conference for social sector staff that aims to “bridge divides and build relationships that just might change the world”?  We claim to understand that slavery and all forms of oppression depend on dehumanizing people of color, women and those cast as “other.”  We tout our knowledge that the only way to realize equity and justice is to constantly strive to “see ourselves reflected in the other.”  And still as individuals and as a field we choose to go to absurd lengths to avoid the deep and authentic connection that is a prerequisite of any real solution.

If we in nonprofit and philanthropic positions of leadership are to get serious, we must recognize that the work of those with privilege is not just to see the “other” as whole in the face of a system set up to convince us they are not, but also to examine what we’ve been told about our own superiority. 

At the root of the bus tours and the XR immersive arcades are longstanding systems of power and privilege (including but not exclusively whiteness) that not only perpetuate, but actually require, the need to keep one another at a distance.  If we in nonprofit and philanthropic positions of leadership are to get serious, we must recognize that the work of those with privilege is not just to see the “other” as whole in the face of a system set up to convince us they are not, but also to examine what we’ve been told about our own superiority.  Confronting privilege is not about guilt, shame and blame; rather our opportunity is to be curious, empathetic and humble.  To paraphrase Dr. Heather Hackman: we have all been set up to fail, lied to at every turn by society’s structure, meta-narratives, norms, rules and expectations, but if we realize this and get curious about the situation then we can start to undo some of the damage.

So, in addition to committing to ongoing self-reflection and learning as an individual, I am committing to take action in my professional practice as a foundation executive:

  • To build relationships with the people directly impacted by the inequities we are working to address, and create space for the wisdom borne out of these relationships to meaningfully impact the way we do our work. I will do this because:
    • It is not enough to prepare a diverse pipeline of professionals to lead nonprofits, we must also prepare nonprofits to hire, promote and retain these diverse professionals.
    • It is not enough to host a fellowship for community leaders, we must also curate space to co-create the future, and support some of the movements borne out of the spaces into which we have not yet been invited.
    • It is not enough to be responsive to grant proposals, we must also work to share decision making power over some of our resources.
  • I am being more intentional about how I spend my time.Time is our most precious resource and slowing down to listen, learn and rethink how we do the work means that I am making some tough choices around what does not get done.
    • To start, I am working to better understand how my own mind has been shaped by the fallacy of the hierarchy of human value, and to recognize the impact that has on others, on my work, on myself and on my family.
    • And because achieving equity for all is critical to our mutual survival, I am working to better leverage my personal and positional power and privilege in the service of equity.
  • Finally, I am committed to being an optimist.The biggest threat to making progress against these entrenched forces is a dominant narrative which looms large, exhausting, separating and demotivating us to the point of inaction.
    • I recognize that the road to change is long and that we will inevitably fall short on any given day.
    • I commit to remembering and to reminding others that tomorrow is another day with a new opportunity for action.

Closely related to the fallacy of the hierarchy of human value is the fallacy that philanthropy is about driving capital to “solve problems.”  As recent history has shown, financial resources alone will not effect lasting change, particularly when they are divorced from deep understanding of and partnership with the people and communities to which they are directed.  In addition, the costs of approaches that prioritize fundraising above all else are not to be underestimated. They insult the dignity of the communities in need of resources, and the humanity of those cast as “saviors” by directing the resources.


Ultimately, we need to work to recognize and be curious about the structures that have been designed to keep us apart.  For only then can we start to understand and mitigate the difference between our best intentions and harmful impact.  Only with curiosity and humility can the social sector rebalance our commitment to equity and justice, without the practices of donning a headset or taking a bus tour.