By Tulaine Montgomery and Shawn Dove
What is the story we will tell ourselves about America in 2023? After a close midterm election, the headlines reflect a national gridlock over social and economic issues, with stark divisions across race, gender, geography and generation. The dominant narrative is that we are a country divided across lines of identity and ideology, with little in the way of common ground that we can meet on.
In philanthropy, we have an obligation to challenge the idea that America is irreparably divided. At its roots, philanthropy is about honoring our shared humanity and our interdependence. As a sector, we have a responsibility to bring people together. To do that, we need to create a new narrative around the importance of connection.
As philanthropists, our leadership in this moment is vital for the future of our multi-racial, intergenerational and cross-sector society. Giving in to the story that America is immovably divided means giving up on the idea that people in America can come together to solve seemingly intractable problems. We have the power to change the algorithm and reprogram the way we think about America. But first, we have to change what we believe and the way we work.
The social sector is in the middle of an awakening that reimagines the relationship between donors, social entrepreneurs, and communities. Donors like MacKenzie Scott, Melinda French Gates, the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker, and Tonya Allen at the McKnight Foundation are elevating alternate approaches to philanthropy based on transformational trust and shared power through unrestricted giving. They are among the most visible examples of philanthropists who recognize that the only way to transform our most inequitable systems is to put power and resources in the hands of the leaders, organizations, and communities that are closest to the work.
One of the tenets of these new trust-based and community-centered approaches to philanthropy is the power of co-design, an approach that enables donors, foundations and intermediaries—as well as social entrepreneurs themselves—to get closer to the communities they serve. Co-design lifts up the deep experience, expertise, and insights that are often found in communities most impacted by systemic inequity, and surfaces breakthrough ideas and solutions for America’s most entrenched social problems.
Co-design is not easy. It requires us to do things that are countercultural, like connecting with people who are different from us, and listening to ideas and experiences that do not fit neatly with our preconceived notions or worldview. We’ve become so focused on taking sides, we’ve forgotten how to get closer to each other and solve problems together. Philanthropy needs to bring America back together to reimagine and re-architect the systems that were built almost 250 years ago—but first, we need to start rebuilding our muscles for empathy, collective design, and action. Here’s how:
Get closer to the people who are closest to the issues
The first step is to revisit our ideas about where expertise lies, and think about the communities whose direct experience and knowledge of an issue might be excluded or underrepresented. For example, the pandemic brought into sharper relief the role of parents and families in education, as we saw caring adults step into the role of educators. At New Profit, we understood that our work in education had to be informed by the perspectives of families—especially Black, Latinx and Indigenous families who are systematically excluded from conversations about their childrens’ education. We cultivated an advisory council composed of parents and groups working to empower underrepresented parent voices, and have integrated their goals, advice, and feedback into program design, funding decisions, and initiatives like the Parent Powered campaign.
Share power and decision-making
Listening is important, but it’s not enough. We need to actively engage with each other in a co-design process focused on collective ideation and decision-making. For New Profit’s Future of Work Grand Challenge, we developed an advisory board of frontline workers from racially, ethnically, experientially, and geographically diverse backgrounds. These workers served as judges for the prize, evaluating the education and training solutions submitted to the Challenge, and sharing their expertise and experience with the social entrepreneurs who were selected to pilot new programs. The worker advisory board has also played a key role in New Profit’s strategy to advance economic mobility in America, and remains at the center of a growing coalition of social entrepreneurs, and private and public sector partners.
Lift up stories of connection
If we’re going to break out of the doom and gloom feedback loop, we need to feed the algorithm something different, and lift up stories of connection, collaboration, and coalition-building. In November, New Profit brought together more than 400 social entrepreneurs, community leaders, and philanthropists for our annual gathering in Washington D.C. This year’s gathering was defined by a shared desire to connect with each other across our differences. Each day, we heard stories about radical change that came about as a result of an unexpected connection with someone with a different perspective.
One powerful story came from Desmond Meade, President and Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who spoke about how voters in Florida came together in a divisive political climate in 2018 to approve a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to people with felony convictions. “Those 5.1 million votes were not based on hate or fear,” he said. “They were based on love, forgiveness and redemption. We were able to demonstrate to the state of Florida, to this country, to the world, that love can in fact win the day. Those 5.1 million votes came from people registered as conservatives, independents, progressives, they were white, Black, Latine, people from all walks of life that came together in the state of Florida. That experience really drove home how much more we can accomplish when we look at love differently… It is so easy to love someone who confers a benefit to us. The real test of love is being able to love someone that hates you.”
Connecting with others is an essential part of being human. We are herd creatures, hard-wired to seek connection. But connecting across differences isn’t a cultural norm in America. That’s why we need philanthropy—a shared love of humanity—to bring us together. We need philanthropy to forge connections and convenings around issues of concern. We need philanthropy to help organize youth and inspire emerging leaders. We need philanthropy to bridge the public, private and faith sectors. And we need to practice co-design to make philanthropy work.