Pando, an ancient aspen forest in utah that is one single organism. Reuben Jolley Photography/shutterstock
Pando, an ancient aspen forest in utah that is one single organism. Reuben Jolley Photography/shutterstock

To my mind, nothing in the natural world illustrates the essence of collaboration as well as the Pando Forest. In a corner of Utah, thousands of genetically identical quaking aspen trees are united through a massive, shared underground root structure. Roughly 13 million pounds of biomass survive as one by exchanging and widely distributing the resources it collects from the sun, air and soil. Our future similarly depends on this type of distribution. Thousands of trees, one root system; billions of people, one humanity. Using this organic structure as my model, I propose that we must counter our current norm of rigid philanthropic fragility with a more porous, cooperative approach.

What do I mean by philanthropic fragility? It’s what keeps us from embracing participatory grantmaking in our effort to achieve the transformational goal of ending economic inequality. Philanthropic fragility parallels white fragility, wherein a group with privilege and power refuses to reflect on how history and social dynamics perpetuate the inequality from which they comfortably benefit. Beyond slowing our ability to address the crises of our time, it prolongs economic extraction and inequality in all its forms. Too often concerned with maintaining hierarchy, philanthropy can be resistant to the critical interplay of ideas. The word “fragility” comes from the Latin “fragilitatem,” meaning “brittle, easily broken.” Brittle materials absorb relatively little energy—they are isolated from life-giving exchanges of nourishment.

Repaying a debt to society

The first step in overcoming this isolation is acknowledging that the foundation of foundations should be the idea that philanthropy is a debt owed to society. I mean this literally. Money is not generated by an individual; it is created collectively, and justice requires that we repair the harm of extraction—the accumulation of great wealth at many other peoples’ expense. Often, philanthropists will cite the meaning of the word—love of mankind—and we will say we want justice and fairness, that we want a healthy planet, safe communities and happy kids, that we want freedom and joy. It follows that we want to make things right, we want to repair the harm we’ve done.

So my question is: Why aren’t we paying the debt? We have a working model for how to go about addressing the inequality that has created the need for philanthropy in the first place: participatory grantmaking. It’s been ever-evolving, particularly during the pandemic, as more practitioners recognize the opportunity created by shifting power and deepening trust. This practice puts power within community-based groups made up of people with the lived experience essential to making wiser decisions about who gets funds and under what criteria.

Our ability as philanthropists to contribute to building more just communities requires that we dissolve inflexible relational dynamics between institutions and the people who live in our communities—the people who are leading from the roots. We must challenge and dismantle the notion that people with money know best how to spend it. The myth that wealth and whiteness equate to wisdom reinforces stratification, separating us instead of cultivating a collective that is dedicated to learning and generating new knowledge.

Two models of philanthropic collaboration

If fragility is a symptom of our failure to recognize our connectivity, then there’s only one way forward: through collaboration. Two visionary examples highlight this kind of collaboration: the Ohio Climate Justice Fund and Borealis Philanthropy, a recent recipient of MacKenzie Scott’s headline-grabbing giving, which includes big bets on new philanthropic models. These innovations were first made possible because a group of people said “Yes!” to incorporating community feedback and breaking down barriers that were preventing immediate, impactful action.

The Ohio Climate Justice Fund (OCJF) was established early in 2020 when funders and BIPOC environmental leaders from across the state convened strategically. Their mission was to deepen racial justice roots in environmental equity infrastructure and diversify the climate and clean energy coalition. The grantmakers provided OCJF $1.5 million in multi-year funding through 2023 and the BIPOC leaders who developed the fund now form its Steering Committee and hold the power to make all investment decisions.

Borealis Philanthropy’s operations follow a similar model. As a donor collaborative, Borealis is both a learning and a sharing innovation, with those most affected determining which movements to resource. They house 10 collaborative funds, including the Spark Justice Fund, focused on ending the use of money bail nationwide. As a complement to the National Bail fund (which provides bail funds to individuals), Spark Justice regrants funds to community advocates working for the systemic policy reforms needed to abolish the practice altogether.

These models give space for philanthropic and community leaders to collaboratively build scaffolding designed to shift power and create transformational change (while also strategically eliminating bureaucratic “middlemen”). The common lesson we are learning from these groups is that trust-based grantmaking strengthens communities. People-powered models rest on an idea applied to social movements by poet and organizer adrienne maree brown, that “change moves at the speed of trust.”

Healing the country’s fault lines

A vision of justice, one that delivers the security of health, resources and mobility, is not only within reach, but is the right application of the knowledge we’ve all acquired since March 2020. The pandemic exposed severe fault lines and rot in our country’s infrastructure, including a woefully inadequate public health system and grotesque inequities across race, class and gender. While many came around to the reality that government can and should act to address the pressing issues we face, too many still hold a deep suspicion that it should not and cannot. We must insist that philanthropy help heal these fault lines and contribute just and equitable resolutions to the urgent challenges we face.

If we want to commit ourselves to making philanthropy a liberated space, we must understand that wealth only partly comprises money itself, and that input from the full range of people who contributed to its creation is what enriches us all. Consequently, wealth is meaningless and ineffective without collective wisdom. To make philanthropy a bridge to equality, we must create healing together by acknowledging how systemic racism shaped our cities and enshrining anti-racist practices at every level of our work. We must move forward with a trust-based approach.

The colossal—and widening—wealth gap we’re witnessing in the U.S. will persist unless we keep racial, economic, reproductive and climate justice at the top of philanthropy’s agenda. We must pay our debts through our grantmaking. (Yes, that includes thinking of it as a form of reparations.) To challenge the status quo of wealth and whiteness, we have to cultivate an organic structure like the Pando Forest, in which wealth is redefined as the result of collaboration among philanthropists and the visionary people organizing our cities’ most sustainable and transformative work. This can be our devotional act for our communities: reimagining justice starting at our shared roots.

Catherine Gund is on the governing board of Art for Justice, is the chair of the Gund Foundation, is the founder and director of Aubin Pictures, and is a member of Solidaire Network.