How do we address the power dynamics of philanthropy? Interview with Lisa Cowan

Lisa Cowan is Vice President of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation; in this capacity she helps with strategy, development and oversight of foundation programs and grantmaking. Lisa has been working with community-based organizations for the last 25 years, first as a community health educator and program director at several youth-serving agencies, then as a Senior Consultant at Community Resource Exchange.

The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation practices “trust-based philanthropy.” What is trust-based philanthropy, and how does it change funder-grantee relations?

There is a power dynamic that happens between a funder and grantee that gets in the way of deploying resources effectively. Generally, the funder holds the power because they control the money and it is important to address this dynamic. Trust-based philanthropy creates a relationship between funder and grantee that is based on trust. It is both a set of values and a set of principals which can be operationalized.

Where does this distrust come from?

I think it is hard for grantees to be honest with their funders about what is going on because they fear losing money. Implicit in our society is a belief that people who have money are smarter than those who don’t; this belief permeates many things, including philanthropy. There is an assumption that the funder knows best. And there are funders with a specific agenda, or who believe they do know best. If either of these beliefs guide your work, then you want to make sure your dollars are spent well, and you don’t know that the person you are giving them to will do that.

Trust- based philanthropy starts from the idea that you really get to know your prospective partners up front – you get to know grantees, learn that they are trustworthy and have shared goals, let them get to know you and what you care about, and then get out of the way and let them spend the money the way they think is best.

What would it look like if everyone used this model? How would that change the non-profit world?

It would clear up a lot of time. A lot of time and energy are spent on what I think of as the kabuki of the funder-grantee relationship: writing LOIs, writing proposals, orchestrated site visits, preparing reports, a lot of bureaucracy. If you could clear this work away it would leave both more time for organizations to do their work and for funders to learn about the kind of work that they are interested in supporting. And when a funder offers multi-year grants, organizations can plan better, because they know what they have to work with. They don’t have the anxiety or administration of trying to get the money in. Many organizations start with zero dollars in the bank each January – that’s just crazy. How would you plan in your personal life if you had no guarantee of what your income would be?

I also think trust-based philanthropy creates a much better job for the funder – you are not approaching the world with suspicion. It changes the relationship such that you can learn much more about the work you care about and how it happens on the ground.

Right now there are a lot of calls for reinvention. What are other ways in which philanthropy should be rethought right now, or should change in the next decade?

My fantasy is that philanthropy focuses a ton of resources on changing the tax code and then we wouldn’t need philanthropy and we could go out of business – that would be real justice.

This is a time for philanthropy to think about exceeding their spending limits – going beyond the 5% annual spending requirement out of foundations.

A shift from charity to solidarity would have a lot different operational implications. We talk about essential workers now as the people who run bodegas and bus drivers. There is an opportunity to change the hierarchy of power, which means that money would flow differently.

Practically, we need to think about payout and processes, and who sits on boards. The people closest to the work are in the best positions to come up with solutions and know how to do it.

We need a deglamorazition of philanthropy: there is less hidden power to it if you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room.

And, just to say: this bullshit about not being able to use endowments to pay staff – I don’t have a deep understanding of the legalities, but we are capable of changing them. Why would we let the lowest-paid staff members go at this moment, in order to hold onto our money for another day? It’s such a small-minded hoarder mentality. We had this conversation with our board, which has been very focused on getting our endowment to $100 million; as one board member said, this is a moment when the foundation cannot be your primary allegiance, your allegiance needs to be the city. For example – what is the point of being a guardian of the Harvard endowment if the city of Cambridge that houses the University is in rubble?

You talk about changing the tax code, but if non-profits were government funded, we have a problem with the sheer number of non-profits, and the growth of this industry.

In next few years I’m really excited to think about structures that could support the work people are doing in the community. There is an organization in Seattle called RVC. They hold a single 501c3, and serve as an umbrella for a number of immigrant-led organizations that are part of that 501c3 – the organizations gave up their own 501c3s, and give a portion of their budget to RVC. RVC then administers a lot of stuff – budget, legal work, human resources. This changes the work of the leader of that organization so that that person can focus more on program and less on administration. It changes who can be a leader, and the relationship between the leader and the board of directors.

They have also been able to instigate change in the city about policies like whether they reimburse expenditures or pay up front, or reimbursement rates per kid for certain programs. They can see across the scale of different programs and types of programs and identify inequities and push back.

This could this happen in New York City. Organizations could collaborate in new ways, maybe not have their own boards of directors. This changes economies of scale and the ability to collaborate.

Right now museums and other cultural non-profits are seeing that we need to rethink our financial model more generally. What should the role of philanthropy be in cultural institutions? Any other thoughts on reinventing the financial model for these non-profits?

Foundations really need to listen to the institutions about what would work for them. In so many instances we say, if you work harder you can make the existing system work, rather than recognizing essential brokenness of the model. Philanthropy is a space in which you should have license to try new things. I wish that philanthropy would be more adventurous in trying new things, listening to ideas from the field, knowing some would work and some would not – but at least then we are making new mistakes.

It looks like the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation does not fund cultural institutions – is that correct?

We fund leadership development programs. Our methodology is about bringing leaders from different institutions together. We would theoretically fund a group of museum directors working toward equity, just not an exhibit. We have gotten a few proposals from museums, but they felt focused on individuals rather than the collective power of museums.

We just started funding The Laundromat Project, which supports artists of color who create artwork in the community. I have a gap in my own understanding of the role of the arts in moving toward equity. Funding The Laundromat Project will push me along that line.

I see how the Brooklyn Museum has become a gathering place for protest. Recently a large rally in support of Black trans lives gathered on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum.  I don’t think museum was involved in the rally, it was just the space in which people gathered. But it shows to how people think of the museum – I don’t think people would gather for a rally like that that on the steps of the Met.

There is a lot I have yet to understand, and at least some of that is about how the big museums present themselves and who they cater to.

The foundation is “committed to helping create a vibrant New York City – one that is strong, healthy, livable and just.” Talk about the role you see cultural institutions, and specifically museums, having (or not having) in this space.

Museums are about understanding who we are as a country, as a people. I think part of what we are seeing, especially now, is that people have such limited contexts through which they see the world. Aren’t museums an exceptional space in which to challenge that?

I think so, especially through storytelling. One challenge evidenced in the Instagram page Change the Museum is that staff is hearing a different set of stories than donors and board members are.

Many board trustees and funders are not looking to be educated because this is a huge challenge to the power they hold. People do not want to let go of power. But we are at a totally unprecedented moment, even in how honest we are about these conversations. Not to seize that moment to talk to board and donors seems like a loss. But I can safely say that because my donors are dead.

Who can take these risks? The Met has a pretty good safety net; maybe your museum doesn’t.


One thought on “How do we address the power dynamics of philanthropy? Interview with Lisa Cowan

  1. Pingback: Should museums deaccession art to pay staff? | Museum Questions

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