Commentary: A New Year’s reflection on philanthropy

Our sector needs to continue supporting the now-needs of our communities and resourcing efforts to stop the erosion of our rights, protect our democracy and save our planet.

The New Year's Eve 2024 electric sign arrives in Times Square on December 20, 2023.

The New Year's Eve 2024 electric sign arrives in Times Square on December 20, 2023. (Photo by Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu via Getty Images)

As I reflect on what I’ve learned over the past year and my purpose and inspiration going into 2024, I find myself thinking about the hard and urgent work of fighting for social, racial and climate justice and what my role is in those efforts and movements. As a funder, I feel a vital imperative to focus my energies and resources on two things: wellness, as in the health and sustenance of our people and planet, and of the frontline workers we rely on to do this work; and power, as in the influence and ability of those inventing and advocating for large-scale solutions to see those efforts through.

Philanthropy exists to bear the risks and costs of advancing the common good and social change. It is sometimes described as society’s risk capital, since its bottom line is solely charitable and it is not responsible for generating profits or even social returns on investment in the way that implores other sectors to make more safe, conservative bets. Of course, we must manage resources and make investments prudently, but being good stewards of philanthropic dollars allows – or, some argue, demands – us to make possible the kinds of bold innovations and system changes that aren’t assured of success and may invoke skepticism or challenge, but have the potential to bring about accelerated and broad-scale change that incremental approaches never can. 

The new year is a time to double down on that philosophy if ever there was one. With so much need - the upswell of conflicts on a global scale, the prevalence and magnitude of storms and other extreme weather events, the number of civil rights and civil liberties in play legally and politically, the compounding struggles and stresses left behind by the pandemic - nonprofits are called on to take care and find solutions with increasing urgency while their staff are burning out and their budgets are stretched thin. 

Many foundations have made the decision to scale back their budgets as the markets contract, compensate for recent years’ increased spending, or in the face of a changing landscape in which it is legally fraught to pursue equity and advocacy work. But now is not the time for us to scale back our efforts. This moment requires charitable spending and big bets. In other words, our sector needs to continue robustly supporting the now-needs of our communities (housing, hunger, healthcare, youth services etc.) while also amply resourcing efforts to stop the erosion of our rights, protect our democracy and save our planet. The other sectors need our risk capital in this moment to find ways to act bigger, bolder and smarter towards these ends. 

And so, we must focus our resources on deep investments in wellness -- the wellbeing of people most impacted by social/environmental problems and inequities, and the frontline staff doing this work, working overtime and too often at or around the poverty line themselves. This is not hyperbole: as reported by City Limits last year, New York City contracts nonprofits to deliver services related to homelessness, foster care, child care, youth development, elder care, mental health and more. The 80,000 human service workers, predominantly women and people of color, hired to perform these functions make 20% to 35% less than comparable public or private sector positions, about two-thirds of whom have earnings below the near-poverty threshold (an average annual pay of $34,000 in 2019 with only COLA increases since then). As Melanie Hartzog explains in her Dec. 21, 2023 New York Nonprofit Media opinion piece, making real strides in the wellbeing of children and their communities requires us to invest in proven and promising models of care at the service level, make changes to systems and policies that impede quality care like inadequate insurance reimbursements, and address capacity constraints resulting from provider pipeline issues and inadequate commitment of resources from government. 

We must also spend big on building the power of these groups to inform and advocate for policy and system changes that might result in seismic shifts as big as the problems they aim to solve. As Mónica Córdova and Lisa Owens directed us in a recent piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, philanthropy needs more movement funders who stand on the side of racial and economic justice and against authoritarianism. In addition, a massive amount of coordination and resources will be required to prepare for how climate change is already impacting New York City, from rising sea levels and heavier rain events to more frequent and severe heat waves, and mitigate the structural inequalities that cause certain communities to experience these impacts more severely than others. As recently reported by ABC News in Climate Week NYC: Large cities are at the forefront of climate change," right now, even a city like New York, which has considerable resources, does not have enough for the scale of investments that are needed" to combat climate change.

Please join me in a renewed commitment and dogged focus in 2024 to facilitate and marshal resources towards efforts that build power and wellness to fight climate change and injustice.

Laurel Dumont is a senior director of strategy and learning with Intentional Philanthropy, through which she serves as staff and advisor to several independent and family foundations. 

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