Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Hannah Thomas, Soapbox member and Strategy Director at BBMG, is not a stranger to the ways in which modern philanthropy has changed over the years. In her article published in Fast Company, “How to fix the ugly problems in modern philanthropy,” Hannah addresses the tensions within norms set by the philanthropy field.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Reflecting on her experience working with entities such as for-profit companies, non-profits, movements, and philanthropies, Hannah dives into the reality of modern philanthropy and ways organizations can participate with a regenerative approach!
How did your background, interests, and experiences influence your current path today?
My background is in film and ethnic studies. I’ve always been very interested in how culture gets created, reflected, and shaped by the stories we consume.
During my first few years out of school, I was in the nonprofit arts and culture spaces. I really wanted to get a different vantage point on social change. I started as a consultant exclusively for nonprofits, but I had the chance to work with organizations that focus on social justice, education, and health, which was a really cool opportunity.
Eventually, I began to wonder about the different stakeholders who have the power to drive change. And it clicked for me that large companies are a source of major power and money to make this impact. I needed to be in the room with them to understand more, which brought me to BBMG—a branding consultancy with social impact and sustainability embedded in its core that helps companies and clients find and articulate deeper purpose at the core of their marketing and brand.
What is modern day philanthropy?
Modern day philanthropy is the moving of resources from one place or person to another where it is needed. I think it’s a beautiful idea and a foundation of us cooperating and living on earth. There will always be a need to move resources from one place to another.
However, the ways in which modern philanthropy functions, particularly in the US context, is deeply rooted in the same problems that many other systems are rooted in. For example, this country was created by stealing land from Indigenous peoples. The resources that were taken back then still deeply influence the way our society is structured now.
The goal of philanthropy is to make the world a better place. But, there’s a shadow side to that when we’re encouraged to work with the existing systems that we know largely reinforce harm and the world as it already is. Realistically, as a philanthropy or an entity, are you really going to put yourself out of business in order to move resources in a way that’s truly transformational? Modern philanthropy is grappling with these radical, existential undercurrents in some interesting ways.
There are several questions that aren’t easy to answer. 1) Who is deciding where resources are being moved to?; 2) How many resources are being moved?; 3) How are we measuring impact?
How does the concept of regenerative philanthropy tie into your work at BBMG?
Regenerative branding is our branding philosophy at BBMG. It comprises three elements—we create brands that are aware, additive, and alive.
Aware means to be in service to the greatest needs that society faces, which can mean listening to understand. You recognize who is invited to the room to share their perspective and who has something at stake. We ensure that all perspectives are part of the decision-making process when money is involved. Additive is giving more than we take and finding ways we can disrupt existing power dynamics. We ask brands: How can you cultivate relationships with one another in order for all of us to be collaborative and equally standing? Alive means participating in shaping the waves of culture. These three elements are also how we also think about philanthropy.
What inspired you to write your article on the ugly problems in modern philanthropy?
The big gist of my article is the idea of leading with relationships first, even though relationships are inherently messy and require a lot of time to build trust. We’ve become overly focused on what we can track and what is an effective measurement. I’m less interested in rigid approaches and more intrigued by approaches that aim to experiment and address each other as humans rather than numbers.
How is modern day philanthropy currently operating? How is your current role challenging it?
We’re all existing in late-stage capitalism and we all feel like our paths forward are kind of narrow. We’re all feeling it whether we formally work in philanthropy or not.
We need to take radical action in order to create radical change. The norms, rules, and practices around philanthropy can be really prescribed. I’m inviting organizations to widen the aperture a bit, even though it can feel risky and scary that there are outcomes we can’t control.
For example, there’s a rule that foundations must give only around 3% of their total assets every year. I wonder—why just 3%? To me, that can feel like a tactic designed to support an entity’s existence into perpetuity, rather than designed to effect maximum change.
Philanthropy is intended to allocate resources to where they’re needed, but the norms of bureaucracy work against what philanthropy is trying to accomplish. They’re designed to keep up the status quo. What we need to do is actually create a better world. And to do that, we have to bust the bureaucracy and ‘ways we do things around here.’
What are some examples of entities and organizations that are challenging this norm?
There’s a youth-led environmental group called Earth Guardians. I talked to one of their leaders about their relationship with philanthropy because their organization is seeking sustained funding. She mentioned to me that the deepest work they do is training youth to bring a more radical mindset and understanding into careers at organizations and institutions.
When she shared with a funder that they’ve placed 10 people into jobs that would allow them to be changemakers, the funders responded , “And how many trees did you plant?” They were focused on quantifiable metrics. Trees are easy to measure, but what’s really meaningful and going to create change is the stuff that’s less tangible.
Grantees or people in nonprofit spaces are really trying to bend to accommodate what philanthropy has determined is a successful outcome. There’s a foundation called Heron Foundation who has a brave and bold vision of the world they want to see happen even if it’s at the expense of their existence. They’ve decided to reform their seeding power and, in doing so, aim to deplete all of their resources in 10 years. Heron Foundation will have community groups be the ones determining where the funding goes and offering general operating support. They’re doing really difficult work of creating committees and cohorts based in community of folks who are grappling together to make decisions about where Heron Foundation’s money goes.
It can be weird to think of ourselves as a consumer of philanthropy, especially with organizations urging consumers to use their dollars to support a cause. What are successful ways to overcome this mindset?
A part of my work is thinking about new narratives we can support and ways we can embrace possibility. Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown is a big source of inspiration for me. She urges us to embrace possibility and abundance, and emphasizes there’s actually more than enough. We are just told everything is scarce and we need to fight and compete with each other for resources. There isn’t a single piece of a pie that we’re fighting for, which is a mindset that continues to stress us out.
I find those stories of abundance more powerful and eye-opening than fear-based rhetoric. The irony is that we can only be creative in problem-solving if we’re not feeling stressed out by scarcity. We can make some waves in a positive way because we have time, space, and each other. I’m trying to spread this message to everyone because we rarely share these comforting thoughts.
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