On October 1, the Boston Foundation was proud to partner with the Obama Foundation for a powerful discussion with members of our donor community of how philanthropic organizations could think differently about how they distribute money and resources, and to whom.
Entitled "Opportunity, Justice and Philanthropy," the discussion featured Boston Foundation Vice President for Programs Orlando Watkins, along with Obama Foundation CEO David Simas (a Massachusetts native) and Charles Daniels, co-founder of Fathers UpLift, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides mental health counseling, coaching and advocacy to assist fathers overcoming barriers that prevent them from remaining engaged in their children's lives.
Guests for the online event were welcomed by a longtime Boston Foundation friend and donor, and Obama Foundation board member Demond Martin, who introduced the retired U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, Mo Cowan, the discussion moderator.
Simas told the story of his first conversations with then-President Obama about the potential impact he and the First Lady saw for their Foundation, and their desire to connect with community-based leaders as agents of change. It's an approach similar to what Simas says he has seen in work being done in Boston by the Boston Foundation and city leaders, seeking to create and empower networks of local leaders through groups such as My Brother's Keeper and the Mass Mentoring Partnership.
Recounting the discussion with President Obama, Simas says the President told him, "I believe that our civic fabric, the way we relate with one another, the way we engage in a pluralistic democracy, that fabric is ripping. And the only way you can begin to restitch that fabric is on a community-by-community basis."
Charles Daniels provided a window into both the opportunities and the obstacles that community-based nonprofit leaders and innovators face, sharing the story of Fathers UpLift and the challenge and isolation of tackling difficult issues. Beyond funding and technical assistance, Daniels said the most powerful benefit of becoming one of 200 fellows with the Obama Foundation was a worldwide network from whom to draw ideas and support. "It gave me a (global) community and family of people that I consider my brothers and sisters who love me dearly, and who I love. We understand that we're all tackling (different) issues. But we are more impactful when we tackle them together."
Members of the panel all highlighted a need for philanthropy to think differently about requirements, paperwork and evaluation –to ensure that funders ask the right questions, and reduce onerous burdens that can make it impossible for smaller organizations to access or retain funding. Citing his discussion just one day earlier with Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green, Watkins said that technical assistance, publicity and validation from funders all have value, but "You know, we have to get money into the hands of those folks (at smaller nonprofits), because we know that if you look at the data, leaders like Charles and others who are doing incredible work are disproportionately invested in compared to their White counterparts."
Watkins said the Boston Foundation sees that need – and is working through the best ways to address it. He highlighted programs like the Foundation's COVID-19 Response Fund, which prioritized giving unrestricted operating support to local nonprofits led by people of color, and Live Arts Boston, which awarded about 70 percent of its funding to organizations and artists of color to produce and perform new work.
But both he and Daniels expressed concern that today's unique moment of awareness of racial justice and equity issues in philanthropy and American society could begin to fade. Simas echoed the concern, and said philanthropists and others must reframe the moment not as a six-month crisis, or a 12-month campaign, but the profound changes at the beginning of a 30-year transformation – at the end of which, among other things, the United States will be a majority-minority country.
Simas noted that community leaders like Charles Daniels play a vital role in advancing society during this transformational shift. They are proximate and understand community needs, committed to the long-term work required for change, and able to tell powerful stories that connect even with those who may disagree with their perspective.
"These leaders are essentially antibodies against hate in communities, who are going to be in this fight for a very, very long time," said Simas. "The notion that this is going to be resolved quickly is something that people just need to reconceptualize, to view this as the work of a lifetime. Because, frankly, if not us, then who?"