The cornerstone of community organizing is relationships. I thank God and the universe every day for guiding my path to become a community organizer. My conversations with members, listening to the power analyses of mentors, and the step-by-step work of base building taught me the practices of care, compassion and courage.
I had to hear, witness and respond to hard things. I had to expand my understanding of how change happens and with whom our community needed to join forces to win big and real victories. I had to feel the weight of defeat, the grief and rage of human loss, and the pride and power of collective success in achieving systemic change.
All of that experience showed me how to move in relationships with honor, integrity and accountability, so I could learn and do better—and we could possibly do more—next time.
After 15 years of community organizing, power building and movement building in South Central Los Angeles, I am now in philanthropy, and find these characteristics are woefully missing. Even with the rise of equity commitments and the talk about trust-based philanthropy, very few people in our sector are practicing the behaviors that build trust.
I’m not alone in recognizing this gap. While grassroots strategies and funding intermediaries have taken the spotlight in the past year, movement leaders have become increasingly concerned that the values that form the foundation of our work will be subverted. That’s why I and the leaders of more than 20 people of color-led, movement-accountable public foundations recently signed an open letter to philanthropy, asking funders to support groups like ours on a large scale and resist grantmaking practices that undermine or unnecessarily replicate our work.
My own experience in community organizing and philanthropy has made it clear just how crucial it is that we protect our values as the sector evolves, and I want to share my own story with the purpose of honoring the legacy I come from.
The importance of relationships and accountability
The truth is that you cannot put equity into action without examining how you approach relationships. You also can’t achieve lasting impact without understanding the social infrastructure built through relationships over time. This is true in movement work, this is true in politics, and this is definitely true in philanthropy.
As more and more grassroots ideas are adopted by philanthropy during this time of profound change, the values and culture of community organizing can guide the practices of effective grantmaking. Philanthropy must do better to demonstrate our commitments to the most impacted communities and the movements they lead.
This is solidarity philanthropy. If we are committed to equity, it is imperative to practice care, compassion, courage, integrity and accountability in our relationships.
I came up through the ranks to lead the community power building organization SCOPE. SCOPE is known for creating the Power Analysis, a tool that helps us navigate, strategize and understand any given landscape.
So I did a power analysis of philanthropy before I became the CEO of The Solutions Project, a national intermediary grantmaker supporting climate justice solutions created by front-line communities like SCOPE’s community of South Central L.A.
It quickly became obvious that a lot of power is entrenched within big, institutional philanthropy. But I also noticed the growing number of intermediaries—mission-driven organizations designed to connect donors with community organizations that need support. These include public foundations like The Solutions Project, community foundations, donor-advised funds, giving circles and fiscally sponsored pooled funds.
I also began to understand that intermediaries are not all the same. For example, some intermediaries are accountable to wealthy donors and institutional philanthropy, which are frequent founders of these entities. Other intermediaries are accountable to movements for social justice.
I’m a newbie in philanthropy, and I’m definitely still learning. But I’m clear that I’m accountable to movements led by Black, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Latinx, LGBTQ and non-binary people, women and other communities of color.
Under my leadership, SCOPE was an inaugural grantee of The Solutions Project. I was recruited to The Solutions Project’s board of directors, where I helped lead, fortify and anchor an equitable, community-centered agenda. Because of that work and my vision, I was recruited to be CEO. And I am 100% clear that we remain accountable to the social justice movements we support, and we honor our donors who understand and value our movement-building approach.
Protecting our core values
My story echoes those of others who are leading intermediaries that are accountable to social justice movements. They are often led by people of color— and particularly women of color—who came from community organizing and power building and remain accountable to front-line communities.
So it’s no surprise that a lot of the growing, transformative grantmaking trends in philanthropy started in the streets. It was grassroots organizations that first talked about the need for six-figure, multi-year, general operating support. I first heard about the idea from my mentor and SCOPE predecessor, Anthony Thigpenn, back in 2004, when I was an intern. The Solutions Project now calls these “self-determination grants.”
Grassroots organizations were also the first to talk about the need to fund community organizing and power building—a case I often made as I was fundraising for SCOPE. That impact-based perspective and analysis is carried forth by movement-accountable leaders in philanthropy, many of whom are at the helm of intermediaries.
Today, a growing debate about intermediaries continues. On the one hand, endowed foundations dismiss us as marginal because our budgets are smaller and we need to fundraise. On the other hand, front-line organizations—disinvested in for decades by traditional philanthropy—raise justified concerns about intermediaries as gatekeepers, blocking resources from reaching communities on the ground.
These tensions call us to examine our approach to relationships and transform the power dynamics at the source. Those of us who are running movement-accountable intermediaries need to tell our own stories, shape the analysis and influence the discussion. Most importantly, we need to be clear in our innovations relative to traditional philanthropy and our value-add to the movements we fund. Our institutions have a clear purpose as part of the movement and philanthropic ecosystems, which are constantly evolving because of our learning and accountability to front-line communities.
Movement-accountable intermediaries led by people of color are starting to come together to share our stories and organize into a unified, collective voice. As equity commitments grow across philanthropy, it is our responsibility to carry forward these core values rooted in community organizing.
We all know that the endgame is to get the maximum amount of dollars and resources to the communities that have been most harmed and that are leading and winning transformative change. Intermediaries like ours are a critical part of making that happen—models of self-determination and democratization, redistributing wealth and resources back into the communities we came from.
Gloria Walton is president and CEO of The Solutions Project, a national nonprofit promoting climate justice through grantmaking and amplifying the stories of frontline community leaders in the media. The organization seeks to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy and equitable access to healthy air, water, and soils by supporting climate justice organizations, especially those led by women of color.