A course at the Harvard Kennedy School traditionally ends with each student handing in a term paper that only the professor ever reads. Megan Ming Francis wasn’t having it.
A visiting professor at the school, she wanted an assignment that could be shared, for a couple of reasons. She wanted to give her students a different way to learn, one that took advantage of the many communication tools we use every day. And she wanted something that would live up to the topic of her course: “Philanthropy and Social Movements: Will the Revolution Be Funded?”
“Social movements try to involve other people,” said Francis, who is an associate professor in the University of Washington’s political science department. “I was thinking about what it would mean to take that understanding and that critique and actually apply it to the way students learn.”
The result? A 10-episode, student-created podcast, “Philanthropy and Social Movements,” that provides a window into how some of the country’s top young minds—potentially philanthropy’s future leaders—view the history between foundations and social movements, and how those relationships are playing out today.
Working in groups of two to four, students started with a landscape scan of whatever topic they were passionate about and then interviewed one or more experts about that topic. The resulting episodes take hard looks at philanthropic engagement on topics ranging from Black maternal mortality and Indigenous resistance movements to tech philanthropy and wealth redistribution.
“The last three weeks more than anything demonstrate the urgent need of philanthropy to really engage in a different way with social movements,” Francis told me last week. “To interrogate and really shift the way they fund social change, to provide more general support to Black and Latinx organizations. They missed the boat.”
The assignment was conceived before the pandemic, and was largely underway before the recent mobilizations against police brutality and white supremacy. Yet many episodes are prescient of the discussions of power, privilege and race that have recently accelerated in the nation and across philanthropy.
Episodes include some philanthropic heavyweights, like former Atlantic Philanthropies and Open Society Foundations leader Gara LaMarche, and prominent critical voices such as Edgar Villanueva, whose 2018 book Decolonizing Wealth challenged philanthropy to address its history and remake itself.
But nearly all episodes put the focus on activists, movement leaders and nonprofit staff, and their experiences—and frustrations—with the dynamics of the funder-grantee relationships.
“It’s a type of intervention,” said Francis, whose research has examined how funders influenced the NAACP to shift its focus from lynching and mob violence to education litigation. “Philanthropy needs to think more critically about social movements… This is a small attempt at, how do we create dialogue and increase transparency between philanthropy and the world of social movements?”
Harvard Kennedy is “not known for being the most diverse school,” Francis said. Indeed, a 2019 report showed the faculty is 79% white and 78% male. The student body is 58% white, with not a single student of Native American, Alaskan Native, Native Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian background.
But roughly three-quarters of the class were students of color, and only a third was male, Francis said. Student backgrounds were pretty evenly split between organizing and activism, philanthropy, and those from other fields who were simply curious about the business of giving away money.
Moreover, all but one of the course speakers was a person of color. Many were movement activists, but the lineup also included foundation leaders like Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, associate director for campaigns at the Open Society Foundations, and Carmen Rojas, who took the helm late last year as president of the Marguerite Casey Foundation.
“A number of them had searing critiques for how their foundations worked,” Francis said. “I’m really interested in thinking about big philanthropy on the one hand, but also how people within philanthropy are trying to challenge philanthropy and change philanthropy.”
Far from leaving them dismissive of or cynical about the role of foundations, several students came away from the course with a sense of possibility.
“I actually, by the end of the course, was interested in working in philanthropy more,” said Nneka Onwuzurike, a joint master in public policy and master of business administration candidate at Harvard Kennedy and Harvard Business schools.
Onwuzurike had previously participated in a six-month program in Minnesota called the Giving Project, which brought together 25 people for a series of lessons on race, class and power, and then tasked them with fundraising for a group of social justice organizations of their choosing—they raised $200,000 in just three months. She had previously thought about philanthropy as a “charitable” activity, but the experience ultimately left her questioning why some have so much to give away—a sentiment the course furthered.
“That’s a tension that you have to grapple with, any time you are dealing with these organizations that are reaping the rewards of a capitalist society. We can’t just stop at being critical. We have to reimagine, we have to dream of a new world,” she told me.
For Eva Heinstein, who started as a senior research fellow at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation in March, making her one of the students in the class already in philanthropy, it instilled an interest in making change from her new perch after a background in the nonprofit world.
“I believe to make change in any sector, you need folks in the inside and you need folks on the outside to collaborate in meaningful and effective ways,” said Heinstein, who has now graduated with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard Kennedy. “My hope is I can be an effective partner from the inside—and it’s going to be a two-way street. There’s a real moment of opportunity right now, to really push for new ways of working and different models.”
Nikhil Raghuveera is doubtful if philanthropy is in his immediate future. But the dual degree graduate of Harvard Kennedy and The Wharton School came away with a similar focus on transformation.
“It’s easy to say there’s something wrong with the system,” he said. “But the next step is, how can it be better? How can we reframe it and reform it into something that is better?”
There’s no plans for a continuation of the series as a whole, but Raghuveera and his co-host are planning to turn their episode, “Untying Knots,” into a spin-off series under the same name, which will be published through one of the centers at Harvard Kennedy. It won’t focus on philanthropy, but its theme is a question its practitioners are asking: “What are the knots we’ve tied due to systemic oppression, colonialism and racism?”
“We should be thinking, really, about a deeper change. It’s not just solidarity, it’s not just saying we support this,” Raghuveera said. “It’s thinking about the systems that are the cause of racial inequality.”