Beyond Buzzwords: In Stressful Times, These Funders See Hope in Intersectionality

 A panel at the unity summit. 

A panel at the unity summit. 

One of the largest-ever gatherings of leaders in progressive philanthropy just convened in New Orleans. Seeking new ways forward on equity, CHANGE Philanthropy’s 2017 Unity Summit drew over 700 attendees from across the spectrum of social justice philanthropy. Ten different funder affinity groups and support organizations pitched in to pull off the four-day event.

Funder summits aren’t exactly a new phenomenon in philanthropy, and neither is the term “intersectionality.” Like “breaking down silos,” intersectionality gets a lot of buzz when funders come together, but what does it actually mean when check-writing time rolls around? 

According to the Unity Summit’s organizers, now is the time for progressive funders to take that question more seriously. As Ben Francisco Maulbeck, president of Funders for LGBTQ Issues, told me: "Every few weeks, there’s a new executive order. We really feel like we have to collaborate to bring our networks together because we’re facing the same kinds of threats.”

Maulbeck is one of three affinity group leaders who make up CHANGE Philanthropy’s steering committee. Along with Susan Batten of ABFE and Tamir Novotny of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), Maulbeck helped organize the event along with CHANGE’s four other partners and three new collaborating organizations

CHANGE Philanthropy, founded in 1993 as Joint Affinity Groups, has been a steady advocate for bringing philanthropic “silos” into contact with each other. It’s held several gatherings over the years. “The first time was back in the late 1990s,” ABFE’s president Batten told me. “We also held one in 2014, but this one was pretty powerful.” In the face of this year’s challenges, Trump’s presidency not the least of them, “we wanted to be proactive on aligning our networks,” Batten said. 

The summit—organized around the themes of resist, protect, and empower—captured the sense of urgency many progressive funders feel around responding to right-wing “attacks,” as well as integrating the anti-Trump resistance into a lasting movement. As Maulbeck put it, “We don’t want to just be reactionary. We need rapid response funds and nimbleness, but we also need to be thinking long-term.”

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In addition to Funders for LGBTQ Issues, ABFE, and EPIP, the summit drew on expertise from the Women’s Funding Network, Hispanics in Philanthropy, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, and Native Americans in Philanthropy. This year, CHANGE also enlisted NCRP, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, and the Neighborhood Funders Group to pitch in. One highlight of the summit was NCRP's presentation of its latest Impact Awards, which we wrote about recently. 

Bringing such a diverse, and frankly, numerous set of partners to the table wasn’t a simple task. I can only imagine the endless conference calls. But Batten and Maulbeck assure me it was well worth it. For one thing, Batten said, the summit “gave the foundation staff that are doing progressive, risky work a place to regain their strength and get excited about the work they’re trying to do.” It can be tough on the front lines, and many of these networks’ member organizations are closer to the front than most. 

The summit’s big-tent approach also meant more opportunities for intersectionality and learning across issue areas. Compared to previous gatherings, Batten noticed “a deepening of understanding around concepts of justice, equity and fairness, [including through] the use of frameworks like white supremacy.” Maulbeck points to a Trump-era awareness expressed by many participants that their constituencies are being targeted in ways that parallel one another. By inference, better solutions can be found via collaboration.

What are the lessons here for progressive funders? For one thing, it seems that the importance of intersectionality—a perennial buzzword that often carries an aspirational quality—has become more widely understood during a scary period when just about every vulnerable group finds itself under attack and gains in many issue areas are threatened. Working across boundaries has suddenly gone from being a nice idea to a strategy for survival.

Still, more clarity is needed around the concept of intersectionality. Maulbeck cites several examples from the summit—black immigrants, for instance, or a tribal nation whose bounds span the U.S.-Mexico border—that point to the need for a deeper analysis of “identity” and “issue area” in philanthropy.

There’s also the fact that intersectional work depends on getting different groups into the same room. The Unity Summit took that literally. Among the most important outcomes, according to the organizers, were all the connections and relationships forged. The hope is that events like the Unity Summit will form the basis for better-coordinated grantmaking. 

Balancing the need for events like the summit with the difficulty of organizing them, CHANGE Philanthropy intends to hold a similar gathering every other year. As Maulbeck told me, “[We] need to lift up the stories of our communities. When people know someone who is LGBTQ, their support for LGBTQ rights skyrockets. We’re seeing the same thing with every type of identity.”

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