Five Principles to Advance Equity and Justice in Philanthropic Strategy

  • By Anand Dholakia, November 2, 2021

Philanthropy has a big responsibility and distinct role with uniquely flexible resources not available elsewhere. For decades, communities and nonprofit organizations have called on philanthropy to improve its practices, especially during the 2020-2021 pandemic and mass reckoning around systemic racism. There is much to celebrate as philanthropy doubles down on improving diversity, equity and inclusion, grantmaking practice and community engagement. There is also much work to do, and our foundation partners cite many challenges inherent in their responsibility. What a fantastic time to be working in the philanthropic sector.

In today’s environment, good strategy can provide clarity and focus. It provides guidelines for making hard decisions and trade-offs and prioritizing where to invest attention and resources for the best odds of success. Good strategy can help your foundation connect the dots and tell a coherent story across its streams of work. It can focus your foundation’s evaluation resources on measuring work that makes sense to do in the first place. It can accelerate your foundation’s progress along its diversity, equity and inclusion journey.

The typical philanthropic strategy approach emphasizes the individual foundation over the collective. It embraces narrow solutions “to solve social problems” over addressing the full reality of communities. It seeks attribution for transactional improvement above contribution to transformational change. It sees longer-term investments in communities as risky versus visionary. It highlights the safeguarding of resources over equitable distribution of resources. Even at its best, typical philanthropic strategy may define meaningful goals without specifying how to achieve them.

In the above approach, strategy decisions are owned by a handful of individuals in a conference room (or video call). I bet (based on experience) if community members, resident leaders and community-based and nonprofit organizational leaders were included and trusted with meaningful power in the strategic planning Zoom room, the decisions made in it would look very different.

As a beginning nonprofit strategy consultant two decades ago, I had reinforced the above patterns by essentially repurposing corporate strategy methods for the philanthropic and nonprofit space. Methods initially designed to maximize profit for one company (I’m looking at you, SWOT analysis). While its assets may come from private sector activities, there is no philanthropic sector stock market.

Moving toward Strategy that Advances Equity and Justice

For all the notable philanthropic progress and current areas of focus, the activity of strategy development curiously remains off in its silo and largely untouched. It’s a perfect time and opportunity to reimagine what it looks like and a clear path to do so (illustrated below).

Five Principles for Equity and Justice Strategy

Principle One: Lead with equity and justice (it’s not just a checkbox). Equity and justice lie at the core of most common foundation program areas such as education, health, economic security and many others. Centering equity and justice as the end goal is the most direct route to meaningful impact in those areas. Recognizing members of disadvantaged and excluded communities as the best source of solutions can help ensure they have the necessary voice and power in the strategy development process.

Principle Two: Recognize the big problem to solve. It is too easy to skip naming why disparities exist in the first place. A mountain of evidence points to how our institutions, systems, policies and narratives have perpetuated inequities and injustice for generations (knowingly or unintentionally). This pattern is held firmly in place by various incentives and power dynamics, and drives disparities in nearly every social issue that philanthropy hopes to address.

Principle Three: Prioritize what makes change happen. Address the big problem head-on by investing in change levers demonstrated by history and current experience: community organizing and power, policy advocacy, messaging & narrative change, systems decision points and elevating transformative policy and practice models and data that show new possibilities. These change levers can work hand-in-hand with programs and direct services, and provide context to improve planning for common efforts like capacity building, leadership development, collaboration and innovation.

Principle Four: Understand the universe and philanthropy’s place in it. Capture the complete picture of who is addressing the big problem and pushing the change levers in the collective ecosystem and how to best contribute to it (versus the other way around). Every stakeholder group has a potential role, including resident-led and community-based groups, nonprofit direct service and advocacy organizations, intermediaries and networks, government agencies and businesses. Reaching beyond your foundation’s usual networks - beginning with communities and the historically underfunded leaders and organizations closest to them - and putting collaboration ahead of independence will accelerate impact and save resources compared to an “our-foundation-first” approach.

Principle Five: Remove the false limitations and stretch your comfort zone. In private sector entrepreneurship, investors regard risk as necessary for driving transformative ideas and failure as a badge of honor. Why the opposite in philanthropy? Reconsider perceptions of “risk” and how they may hinder the most critical investments in addressing the big problem and what makes change happen. Compare the perceived risks to the far greater risk of philanthropy continuing to spin its collective wheels for decades to come.

A good philanthropic strategy can help your foundation advance equity and justice by addressing the big problem and prioritizing what makes change happen. No matter where you are starting from, the Five Principles provide a clear path and next steps for your foundation and the philanthropic sector to move forward.

The Five Principles in Action: National, State, and Local Foundation Examples

  • The W.K. Kellogg Foundation makes a combination of systems change and programmatic grants in its target geographies; its place-based teams recently mapped their local ecosystems to understand who is doing what in those places.
  • The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation emphasizes how systems can support a national culture of health.
  • The Colorado Trust invests in several change levers, particularly community engagement, community organizing, power shifting, and policy advocacy, to influence systems affecting health equity across the state of Colorado. These levers provide context for the capacity-building, connection, and other supports it provides to grantees.
  • The Central Valley Community Foundation engaged more than 1,000 community residents and is developing a strategy for increasing community engagement, power shifting, resident leadership, and coordination to improve economic development systems across the Fresno, CA region.
  • The Schenectady Foundation is engaging hundreds of residents and cross-sector stakeholders to develop a community and systems change strategy that will improve education, health, housing, food security, and other priority areas in the city and county of Schenectady, NY.
  • The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation engaged nearly 100 older adult residents and stakeholders across sectors to co-develop a strategic systems change approach for healthy and fulfilling aging in Washtenaw County, MI. The Foundation launched a major aging justice grantmaking program as part of implementing the strategy recommendations.

Anand Dholakia

Principal Associate

Anand has expertise in strategy development for organizations and complex initiatives, group collaboration, and capacity building. He focuses on helping organizations drive community and systems change in the pursuit of equity and justice. Partners include foundations, intermediaries and networks, nonprofit direct service and advocacy organizations, community-based groups, and government agencies at the local and national levels. Anand’s work focuses where equity and justice intersect with the areas of early childhood, health, education, youth development, economic security, and healthy and fulfilling aging. He specializes in developing equity-centered, visionary, and practical strategies by embracing the lived experience of communities, roles of systems and programs, and diversity of stakeholders across the social change ecosystem. Anand’s work has been applied to shift conversations and resources across communities and accelerate national equity movements. Community Science works with foundations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations to develop and evaluate effective strategies and methods that result in healthy, just, and equitable communities.