Yesterday, I began a week of intense conversation about philanthropy in Atlanta for the 2009 Annual Conference of the Council on Foundation at the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy’s pre-conference retreat “Innovation and Legacy”. What a way to start the conversation! Anytime you walk into a room full of philanthropists, you walk into a room of optimism. The EPIP conversation was different right from the start with the introductions people were making. People offered the traditional name, title, and organization but instead of following that with a “and my foundation works on X”, I heard more often “and I’m working at foundation X because I am passionate about Y.” That direct link back to personal passion, which all to often gets masked over in professional conversations, was refreshing and exciting to hear.
Not only was the energy high, it was also refreshing to find the conversations were frank and direct. One conversation I was particularly struck by took place in a workshop entitled “Philanthropology: Ideas and Practices for Social Justice Philanthropy” facilitated by Kalpana Krishnamurthy from the Western States Center. In the course of the session, we were challenged to go from the lofty conversation about the values of social justice philanthropy – accountability, transparency, democracy – to the absolutely concrete when challenged with the question “is a RFP (Request for Proposal) process consistent with social justice values?”
On the “pro” side, some people argued that RFP’s clarify who would benefit from the available funding, level the playing field for applicants with different levels of access to foundation leaders, foster transparency with a clear evaluation process, and can spark a conversation between a funder and potential grantees about plans and courses of action. On the “no” side, others argued that RFP’s were inconsistent with social justice values as they can limit community creativity by predefining possible approaches to the work, sustain the stark power differences between givers and applicants, exclude small community groups with limited capacity to respond to complex RFPS, and reinforce class and education privilege by favoring groups with technological savvy and higher writing ability compared to groups from low-income or immigrant communities that may understand the issues in their neighborhoods but face language or technology barriers that make applications challenging.
I’m looking forward to the upcoming conversations over the next several days – both in Atlanta and here online. And I’d love to hear from you – why are you engaged in philanthropy? What values drive your work? And to get concrete – what do you think about the use of RFP processes?
- Jason Franklin serves as Deputy Director the 21st Century School Fund, a DC-based nonprofit working to build the public will and capacity to improve urban public school facilities. He is also a Doctoral Candidate and Lecturer on Public Administration at New York University and a board member of the North Star Fund and Bolder Giving. He is actively involved with his family’s foundation and served on the planning committee for the 2009 COF Annual Conference.