The Kenneth Rainin Foundation recognizes that building a more equitable and just society requires changing the way we work. The past five years have wrought a political, cultural, and racial reckoning and a global pandemic that has exposed widespread disparities and a widening wealth gap. Amidst these immense challenges, philanthropy faced its own reckoning. Decolonizing Wealth, Winners Take All, and Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, all published in 2018, call on the sector to acknowledge its role in perpetuating systemic inequities born of white supremacist ideology.
“Healthier practices grounded in trust, interdependence, and solidarity can replace extraction and exploitation and help us heal.”
As the impacts of the pandemic became clear, we began to see the parallel pathology of COVID-19 and America’s economic system. A virus cannot survive on its own, it must co-opt and exploit healthy proteins to make millions of copies of itself. Similarly, many of America’s rich and powerful rely on exploitative labor practices to sustain and grow their wealth. Understanding nature’s destructive patterns helps us understand our own, but we can also look to its regenerative processes for remedies. Healthier practices grounded in trust, interdependence, and solidarity can replace extraction and exploitation and help us heal.
When I assumed my role as Chief Program Officer last March, the Rainin Foundation was already confronting these issues and doing the necessary work to advance anti-racist practices and remove structural barriers. Below I share some ways that we are building trust and relationships to center our efforts on the people most affected by long-standing inequities.
Shaping A New Reality Together
In 2018, our Arts program held a series of gatherings to re-think how and to whom resources were being distributed. We collaborated with national funders and sought guidance from those closest to the work, artists and arts workers. One nonprofit leader rightly questioned our exploration of new systems of support for artists. The leader explained that they—and many others—had done what was expected and built a nonprofit organization that relied on significant foundation funding for survival. Philanthropy has required a corporatized 501c3 business model and nonprofits have followed the directive. We were admitting that the model hadn’t always worked, and we wanted to find a better way, together. What we did know is that the nonprofit system and the funders who support it needed to change. Not superficial change, but hard change that identified entrenched biases and developed new policies and systems that counteracted them.
“To build trust, we must share what we’re thinking and learning, and admit that we don’t have all the answers.”
This experience illustrated that to build trust, we must share what we’re thinking and learning, and admit that we don’t have all the answers. As a funder, we must acknowledge our position of power and actively shift the dynamics to empower others. Self-reflection is key. Trust flourishes with honesty, when people admit they are wrong, take responsibility, and change their behavior—regardless of whether that behavior was intentionally harmful. We’ve learned a lot about the difference between intent and impact in the last few years of our equity work. We must understand and focus on our impact, despite the good intentions we had at the outset.
Community-Informed, Equitable Strategies
The Rainin Foundation completed a three-year strategic planning process in 2020 that reshaped how we work and embedded equity into our goals. We also refined our values to reflect what we were learning from our diversity, equity and inclusion journey. Interdependence, creativity and equity are at the heart of our approach and what we hope to achieve—for and with the communities we serve.
“Interdependence, creativity and equity are at the heart of our approach and what we hope to achieve—for and with the communities we serve.”
Strategies in our three giving areas embrace equity and center community knowledge. Our Education program co-created four equity levers in partnership with its Community Strategy Council to strengthen Oakland’s early childhood education ecosystem and help produce equitable results for children. In the Arts, after learning alongside artists and arts workers, we realigned our strategies to focus on systemic change toward a more equitable and resilient arts ecosystem that helps artists thrive. And our Health program in partnership with our Scientific Advisory Board pledged to examine systemic and structural barriers to advance racial and gender equity in the biomedical enterprise.
New Approaches Rooted in Trust
The pandemic implored us to try new approaches, rooted in trust, to be more responsive to grantees. Across our three giving areas, we moved resources more quickly with fewer barriers and grant reporting requirements. We increased our general operating support and awarded multiyear grants. We started accepting applications in the arts that had been submitted to other funders as well as reports written for other foundations. We made accessibility a priority for our processes and communications. Based on what we’ve heard from our grantees and learned from our experiences, these shifts have become permanent.
The Foundation will continue to build trust by revising our due diligence process to be more relational with less paperwork and inviting more community engagement in strategy design and decision-making. We are exploring program-related and impact investing to live deeper into our values by using more of our resources for the public good. And, we also understand that we need to evaluate impact in a way that promotes equity. We are developing an evaluation and learning framework that does just that.
“We know our very survival depends on one another…trust will be a guiding value toward the equitable future we all desire and deserve.”
While this has been a deeply distressing and disorienting time, we are heartened by the movement we see towards a more just and equitable society. The Rainin Foundation is committed to being actively engaged in the regenerative process of building anew. We know our very survival depends on one another, and alongside creativity and interdependence, trust will be a guiding value toward the equitable future we all desire and deserve.