Northern California Grantmakers 2023 Conference – Nonprofit Law Blog

Northern California Grantmakers (NCG) held its 2023 Annual Conference: Mapping Our Collective Future on May 2nd in San Francisco. The Conference website posed the following questions:

Are we making progress on building an equitable future for the region? How will we know we have reached this future? What direction are we going and what is the map we are leaving behind for future generations of philanthropy? 

This decade has asked us to tackle the biggest challenges of our times – protecting democracy, confronting racial inequities, addressing our climate crisis, and tackling widening economic inequality while tending to our communities and ourselves. If our sector is committed to a world that is better for all, how much are we willing to give up to make the change that is needed? Can we build on the momentum from past generations in philanthropy, integrate new participants in the field, and center communities we are accountable to shape the way forward? 

Opening Keynote: Leaning into the Possibility of a Joyful, Just Future

Mia Birdsong delivered a discussion on freedom. Among the many memorable points she made were the following:

  • Freedom according to the dominant culture is rooted in individualism and independence (not accountable to anyone).
  • Birdsong’s understanding of freedom is in the collective and based on interdependence; freedom is also a practice, and freedom is here for us now; freedom is also an inheritance that we must gift to our descendants.
  • Audre Lorde: “Without community, there is no liberation.”
  • Liberation does not stop at equity; we do not want equity within an unjust system.
  • We have ceded too much power of visionary world-building; while we need to fight back against fascism, oppression, exploitation, etc., but we don’t want to build a world of fighting back.

Birdsong was then joined by Crystal Hayling in a deeper discussion of why the generational work of world building must happen alongside the more urgent work of resisting and fighting back against attacks on our rights and humanity and the role of philanthropy:

  • The interdependence of freedom means I’m not free if you’re not free; accordingly, we must open our hearts to people who are different from us; we must focus on getting better together.
  • We can focus on our interconnections on a deeper level and practice being together.
  • We don’t do this work alone; we do it together.
  • We can raise the floor through which no one may fall.
  • We should lean into listening to indigenous wisdom and sometimes that means slowing down, not speeding up.

See Mia Birdsong on Freedom, Equity, and Interdependence (Deem Journal); A Vision for the Future of Philanthropy (Crystal Hayling, Stanford Social Innovation Review); The Curb-Cut Effect (Angela Glover Blackwell, Stanford Social Innovation Review)

Envision Session: The Future of Climate

This session moderated by Elena Chavez Quezada (Senior Advisor for Social Innovation to California Governor Gavin Newsom) featured several panelists including Christine Codero (Co-Director, Asian Pacific Environmental Network). The session was described in the program as follows:

Historic and current systems of oppression, including environmental racism, land theft and redlining have resulted in the disproportionate burden of these climate impacts on communities of color and rural regions. The sector has an obligation to radically shift the way it moves resources into communities in order to build transformational resilience to climate change.

Resilient communities would be prepared for extreme weather events if families lived in safe, affordable housing, if they worked jobs that provided life-sustaining wages, if land was returned to indigenous stewardship to prevent wildfire or flooding, and if communities had economic and political power to decide what their present and future lives looked like. We’ll discuss what it would actually take to build transformational resilience for our communities and what philanthropic efforts that meet the urgency of the moment.

The following remarks particularly caught my attention:

  • 2 major points about climate justice: (1) urgency and (2) silos are killing us
  • Being resilient means being where the power is.
  • Resilience is not just in the disaster-sense, it’s about thriving.
  • Our legacy will be how resilient our communities are in the future.
  • To create civic infrastructure for changes, we must compensate participants.
  • With respect to climate justice, we must fund adaptive resilience in addition to mitigation and we must engage in participatory grantmaking funding changes in people’s minds.
  • Learn more about Transformative Climate Communities programs (see Fighting Redlining and Climate Change with Transformative Climate Communities, Greenlining).
  • 10 years ago, climate funders thought it would be best to fund the three Big Green organizations in DC; now, we know indigenous groups are best at protecting our lands, dollars need to fund movements, and there are no hero organizations.
  • We can’t rely on technology to save us.
  • We need robust resources, patient capital, and relationships; we need ecosystems of change; and we need to shift mental models.

Closing Conversation: History, Progress, and a Path for Philanthropy’s Future

The conference closed with Judy Belk (California Wellness Foundation) and Robert Ross (The California Endowment) discussing their experiences as philanthropic leaders over the course of their careers, changes in philanthropy, courage in the field, and advice for new leaders. NCG President and CEO Dwayne Marsh moderated with little interference to best allow the audience to enjoy Belk and Ross share their friendship and humanity as well as their wisdom.

Among the many memorable items Belk and Ross shared were the following:

  • When Belk started with California Wellness Foundation in 2014, the political climate was more optimistic with President Obama and the Affordable Care Act; it’s become much more challenging and important for the Foundation to serve as a social justice public health funder.
  • Ross observed that The California Endowment was more about charity than change when he first started; it is now focused on advocacy, organizing, and activism, representing transformational rather than transactional thinking.
  • Philanthropy has been risk-averse; it must be more courageous and speak the truth of those it serves (including their grantees) in the halls of power where it has access.
  • Philanthropic leaders are rarely courageous when they sit in positions of wealth and privilege; but there are some that are truly courageous, taking positions that could risk their jobs and place them in danger.
  • Both leaders recognized their jobs were a gift with enormous privilege, but the job could be very difficult and Ross noted he won’t miss having to say no.