Here she discusses her Fellowship, philanthropy as a mother, how the 2012 CIN conference was “life-changing” and what she’s reading online and the books she wants to read offline. Akira lives in Brooklyn.
1) What fellowship were you in?
I just completed my residency in the Emerging Leaders International Fellows Program & U.S. Diversity Fellowship at The Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. The program is based at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.
2) What topic did you choose? Why?
I chose to explore the value of Black giving circles in the evolution of community philanthropy. The connection between Black donors and community foundations has been a great research interest of mine over the past two years. As institutions, community foundations are at a crossroads where they can either evolve or risk losing their relevance entirely in the wake of competition from commercial banks, financial services firms and universities that offer donor advised funds at lower costs. At the same time, a lot of community foundations are also failing to connect with donors of color and finding individuals with wealth in their communities bypassing their institutions to start private foundations of their own.
We all know that African-Americans are very generous giving 8.6% of their income to charity, more than any other racial group in the U.S. But even in areas where large concentrations of Black people live and work, we don’t often see this giving happening through community foundations. I questioned this disconnect, and as expected the responses I received were complex.
However, two important findings I chose to expand upon during my fellowship in the context of Black giving circles:
- African Americans who have a direct connection or experience with a community foundation are more likely to use its services as part of their philanthropic toolbox.
- Connecting African American donors to community foundations will require a long-term, sincere and meaningful effort by community foundation’s Board leadership and staff.
My goal is to show how community-based philanthropy in this country can be strengthened by forging a strategic bond between community foundations and population-focused giving circles. As grantmakers, we encourage collaboration amongst our grantees to maximize funding and impact. But we are still relatively hesitant to build our own strategic partnerships with other groups and the result is isolated and “siloed” work.
Giving circles and community foundations generally want the same outcomes for our communities as a result of their grantmaking. They just have different approaches to the work. I used the classic image of a fist in my presentation represent power and simplify my message. I personally engage in this type of learning because I believe so strongly in the power of philanthropy to bring about social change. If we think of our institutions and circles as individual fingers on a hand spread apart, we are weak and easily broken. But if we could bring down the artificial walls that separate us, break through the silos and pull together like a fist we would emerge a stronger and more powerful force for good.
3) What’s changed from the beginning of your fellowship to now?
Since beginning my fellowship in late September, I decided to include some discussion about Asian and other population-focused giving circles and the importance of community foundations not abandoning a place-based definition of community. Being in residence with Fellows from Kenya and Brazil as well as experiencing learning sessions with professionals from foundations abroad exposed me to the many cultural similarities, differences and possibilities that exist in community-based philanthropy.
4) How did your experience at the 2012 conference serve or align with your own efforts?
The Philanthropic Renaissance in Birmingham was truly a life-changing experience for me. When I traveled to the conference I was a point where I was questioning my path. I had started to grow weary after studying grantmaking in a Master’s program, serving on a grants advisory committee and being very active in my EPIP chapter. I had just begun this new fellowship commitment and wondered if what I was doing to become a leader in the field was really worth it. Institutional philanthropy can be very cold and technical.
Coming in to the CIN environment, being embraced by so many amazing people from all walks so dedicated to their circles and communities, brought me back to reality and what drew me to philanthropy as a career in the first place. The leadership coaching helped me gain much needed clarity and the richness of my conversations with participants fed my soul as well as provided me with excellent examples to support my assertion that the value of Black giving circles needs to be reassessed. Beyond the dollars circles bring for community foundations to manage, consider what longer-term benefits can be realized from their knowledge, social capital and time.
The circles I engaged with were highly organized groups of community philanthropists who bring an important knowledge of the geographic areas where many of their members have been born, raised and still reside. They often have a deeper historical context for community issues than community foundation staff, they are more hands on with the organizations they support and are becoming more and more well-known in Black communities all over the country because of their responsiveness, influence and impact on pressing issues. These are all areas where community foundations could strengthen their work but find they lack the capacity and resources to do so. The CIN Conference brought the love and human element of compassion back to philanthropy and it was precisely what I had been missing.
5) What is 21st century philanthropy in your opinion? What distinguishes it from 20th century?
I cannot define 21st century philanthropy. I struggle with the idea that what we are doing now is so very different than what we have done in the past. I think what distinguishes 21st century philanthropy most is how we communicate with each other. Technology and the Internet make it much easier for us to share problems, ideas, successes and failures. I can really see how it affects organizing and advocacy work.
6) What else are you reading — online or offline, related to philanthropy or not?
Online I keep getting sucked into the latest news and reports from community foundations. Emmett Carson’s “Redefining Community Foundations” in the Winter 2013 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review has my eyebrow raised. “Rhetoric Versus Reality: A Strategic Disconnect at Community Foundations” from Center for Effective Philanthropy is a different point of view.
I have been so immersed in my studies for the past three years I have a ridiculous queue. At the top of my list are:
- Left Neglected by Lisa Genova
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
7) What does being involved in CIN offer you?
Being involved with CIN offers me the space to “reclaim the root meaning of philanthropy” as Valaida Fullwood wrote so eloquently in her op-ed for National Philanthropy Day. I’m going to have good days and bad days in philanthropy. Keeping the love of humankind in focus is what matters most to me.
8) How has parenthood affected your ideas about philanthropy?
Being a parent has affected my ideas about philanthropy. I have to put myself in their shoes daily and see the world through the eyes of a child. I grew up in a family of givers, but didn’t know what philanthropy was until I was an adult. My children (ages 9 and 7) can identify and articulate what philanthropy is, because I expose them to it in it’s various forms. After my oldest talked about my work during a career lesson in kindergarten, the school invited me to talk to the students about philanthropy. I saw it as an amazing opportunity. Being exposed at age 5 and 6, my children along with their classmates at their predominantly Black elementary school are not “afraid” of the word philanthropy and can identify themselves as philanthropists through their acts of giving. I think these lessons are hyper important because the experiences they have with philanthropy in these early years helps them see the link between their giving and the effect it has on the community they live in. It teaches them compassion for others and will shape the kind of philanthropists they will be as they grow and develop into adulthood.
As I await the arrival of my newest bundle of joy (any day now!) I think more and more about social justice philanthropy. Whether its gun violence, school reform, poverty, or healthcare, government and the private sector cannot do it alone. We in philanthropy have to be more prominent leaders and find ways to facilitate LISTENING across sectors so that we can collaborate and get to the root causes of the systemic issues in our society to make change. That means we have to stop talking to ourselves, stop sacrificing strategy and long-term approaches, stop trying to please short-sighted donors with the illusion of immediate “high-impact returns on investment”. Twenty years from now, my children should not be fighting for the same change we’re fighting for now.