Alliance-Building / Grantmaking Practice / Human Rights Community

On Agency, Courage, and Responsibility

This In Focus article was contributed by Rachel Humphrey, Program Director foRachelHeadshotr the Bay Area Justice Funders Network (BAJFN).

Given that philanthropy wants to bring about change in the world, how is it that instigating and sustaining change in our own work is so challenging for our field?

At my very first funders’ conference well over a decade ago, I heard many people speak passionately about the need for more general operating support and multi-year grants. In countless conferences and meetings since then, I’ve heard some version of, “(Insert best practice, like providing general support) is really important, but my (insert person of power, such as board, executive director, trustee, etc.) would never go for it.” More often than not, these statements come with a feeling of resignation and powerlessness – a lack of agency. Equally as often, in the same conferences I’ve heard exasperation from colleagues who ask, “Why are we still talking about this? Why haven’t things changed in a meaningful way?”

Today, more and more people working in philanthropy are speaking up about the many mistakes and challenges of the “how” of philanthropy’s principles and strategies (for example, see this recent In Focus article by Nicolette Naylor of the Ford Foundation).

Our field’s increased reflection seems like a potent moment – one that has me asking a more productive version of the question: What would it take for us to catalyze or influence meaningful change within our institutions and our field?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the combination of agency, courage, and Captureresponsibility. For the field of philanthropy to transform for the better, we in philanthropy all have to find, and use, our agency. Every single person who works in this field has an enviable level of access, influence, and privilege, regardless of where we sit in the organizational hierarchy. And that access, influence, and privilege can be used to spur change from within, if and when we summon the courage and act on our responsibility to do so.

Agency requires, of course, a belief that change is possible, followed by a belief that we can influence that change – yes, even without positional power. It also requires a compelling vision, in practical terms, of what that institutional change would look like and achieve. From there, it takes nuance, persistence, and wisdom. It takes building and maintaining social capital. It takes a deep understanding of the politics and power dynamics within the organization, and the ability to recognize and take advantage of an opportune moment. And it takes courage – courage (as Kavita Ramdas of the Ford Foundation declared at the close of the EDGE Funders Alliance Conference in April 2016) to be “that squeaky wheel” inside our own institutions when we see that we aren’t “walking the talk.” I declare that we have the responsibility to do so.

It is clear that we, professionals in the philanthropy field, understand why institutional change is necessary. Now, how do we achieve this change? I’m not suggesting we barge into our board rooms with a list of demands. Instead, I offer a few ideas and resources.

One of the ways we can give each other courage is to actively support our colleagues within IHRFG, EDGE, and/or the Bay Area Justice Funders Network (BAJFN), where I work, when we see folks taking a risk. This support can take the form of social media shares, public affirmation, and a willingness to be a “follower”–to actualize recommendations and then share positive results. By taking these actions, we collectively perpetuate a culture that fosters courage and responsibility.

The Choir Book: A Framework for Social Justice Philanthropy, published by BAJFN earlier this year, is one resource for funders interested in bringing the art and science of philanthropy more in line with the values of human rights and social justice. The Choir Book offers guiding questions and transformational practices for each step of the grant cycle, such as identifying funder allies to help make the case for new directions to your foundation’s leadership and identifying shared values in order to develop monitoring and evaluations processes that advance grantees’ and foundation learning.

As a complement to The Choir Book, BAJFN organizes the Harmony Initiative, an intensive leadership development program that provides participants with a community of practice, learning, and support. The Harmony Initiative’s action-learning model uses case studies and the real-world challenges of the cohort to both enhance and innovate participants’ current philanthropic practice. BAJFN believes that creating such circles of support makes finding the courage to speak out that much easier.

Even seemingly small changes to how we do our work can make a huge difference for the many people fighting for rights and justice. They need philanthropy to stop talking and start changing. I leave you with another question I ask myself regularly: What change do I want to see, and how will I leverage my skills, access and power to help bring it about? I invite you to join me in the inquiry!

For more information about the Bay Area Justice Funders Network, the Choir Book, or Harmony Initiative, contact Rachel Humphrey at