Decolonizing Wealth Against the Odds

Edgar Villanueva
Photo by Naomi Ishisaka
https://naomiishisaka.smugmug.com/Events/Cultural/Decolonizing-Wealth/

New Orleans       There was something strange about talking to Edgar Villanueva about his experiences as a foundation executive at institutions large and larger.  He has written a book called Decolonizing Wealth reminiscent of a prisoner detailing his experience behind the walls.   The velvet chains that bind both grant makers, like Villanueva, and grant seekers, like most of the rest of the nonprofit world, often come with a strict Mafia-like code of omerta or silence where no one on either side wants to be seen too clearly as identifying with the prison guards protecting the money for the rich and handing out their privilege and resources, but neither do they want to upset the system which feeds both grantees and grantors.  All of which makes the philanthropic world controlled by the wealthy almost impossible to change, much less reform.

As I told Villanueva when interviewing him for Wade’s World on our radio outlets, the metaphor of colonialism and its abuses were commonly used by those of us who had spent any amount of time trying to raise money from foundations and the rich.  To hear a foundation executive embrace the same terms flipped the script in a surprising way. What’s more, my prison and Villanueva’s colonialism metaphors turn out to be a kinder and gentler description than what Villanueva uses in his book where foundations are pictured more readily – and accurately – as plantations and Villanueva and his colleagues on their staff become the “house slaves.”  The chapter titles include “Arriving at the Plantation, ““House Slaves,” “Field Hands,” and “Overseers,” leaving little doubt about Villanueva’s analysis of his experience, and, frankly, that of most of the rest of us who have ever knocked on their doors or been supplicants for foundation favors while trying to maintain self-respect for ourselves and our organizations.

Villanueva brings his heritage in the South and as a member of the Lumbee Tribe to the task, while continually confronting whether his experience and that of some of his colleagues is still just tokenism.  His program emerges as he answers his own question:

What does decolonized leadership look like?  Compassionate, empathetic, vulnerable leaders?  Servant leaders?  Leaders who listen?  Yes, and it’s not about the individual.  We have to shift our obsession with the individual leaders to focus on organizational design, which tends to be taken for granted and invisible in most our institutions.

I asked Villanueva whether there was a snowball’s chance that foundations or philanthropists would really change.  He answered largely that he had been surprised by the favorable reaction to his argument so far, the positive response from colleagues, and his invitation to address foundation boards and bring the argument to them directly.

We can hope Villanueva is right, but reading his book and talking to him, you know that he is putting a smiling face on his own real doubts.  He is clear about the decades of discussions about diversity and how little that has yielded.  Speaking truth to power is rarely an effective program to create real change, much less any transfer of power.  Dealing with the rich adds another degree of difficulty to the task in the absence of incentives for them to change and any real protest from the victims of colonial oppression, the grant seekers and their constituencies, much less any real effort at public or regulatory accountability since the same rich also populate the political donor class.

Villanueva’s voice is a clear one that needs to be heard in the wilderness.  Most of us know that wilderness life is hard and unforgiving.  He’s still trying to survive in the same plantation he describes.  It is worth watching to see if he makes it.

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Bain Capital Marketing for Nonprofits and the Rich in Sheep’s Clothing

New Orleans     The headline in the New York Times caught by eye, saying “The Pitfalls of Giving Big but Thinking Small” with a subtitle that was even more interesting to me: “Donating Large Amounts to Social Change Groups Can Be Complicated, but it Isn’t Impossible.”  Wow, I work for a social change group.  I could really be helpful in answering this question, if someone is really asking.   With a global footprint and mission as big as America and as broad as the world, “giving big” and “large amounts” both sound a bit like music to my ear.

What’s up?  Where does the line start?

The foundation of this presumptive “news” story was a report by something called Bridgespan Group, which is only described as a “philanthropic consulting firm.”  One of its founders is quoted saying, “…if you wanted to put $1.8 billion to work to drive social change, how would do it?  It’s hard.”  Really, who knew?  Well, according to Bridgespan this is a vexing problem for the ultrawealthy, defined as those few who have more than a half-billion bucks of wealth.   Tom Tierney, the Bridgespaner, also claims that, “There is by all indications a sign of intent by the super wealthy to increase their giving to social change…but we haven’t invested in the pathways to let them to this in a productive way.”  Hmmm, so you say.  What’s going on here?

Bridgespan turns out to be the nonprofit offspring of Bain Capital.  Tierney turns out to have formally been the managing director of Bain.  Bain is famous to most of us little people as the platform for Mitt Romney and numerous others who ply the lucrative practice of corporate consulting.  Bridgespan became the stepbrother once removed after Bain did several studies discovering how much money was in the nonprofit sector and realized its brand didn’t lead well to mining this rich vein, so building a bridge span (get it?) to Bain would do the trick.

So, what does Bain in sheep’s clothing recommend in order to allegedly move money   from the hands of the superrich to what they want to refer to as social change?  According to the article they think the trick is “the creation of a ‘community foundation for America’ that would be able to accept large bequests and donations and then find small nonprofit groups that need funding.”

            Funny thing? Been there, done that!  In 1976, Drummond Pike founded the Tides Foundation and its family of organizations in San Francisco to do exactly that, and it has done so for over 40 years quite well thank you, as an organization with revenue over $100 million and assets over that level as well.  The Tides operation is regularly ranked near the top of the largest nonprofits in the country by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Bain and Bridgespan are based in Boston, so maybe they are so old school and business-bound that they don’t think of something way over in California as truly American?  No, that’s not it, is it?  This report seems to be a little more than a marketing piece for Bridgespan and Bain with a cover story as a research document in hopes that someone among these supposedly social change besotted superrich folks will read it and, say, hey, great idea, Bridgespan, why don’t you get on the stick and create this national community foundation for America?.  They have made the case that this is oh so hard that the superrich can’t find the “pathway,” which means I guess that they don’t know how to call or fly to San Francisco and visit with Tides, so Bridgespan can do it all for them and collect their 20%.

Call or email me if you need the address for Tides, it’s still at the Presidio in San Francisco.  Or, better, send me the money directly, and we’re good to go!

One last question that’s a headscratcher to me?  Why did the New York Times run this thinly veiled puff piece for Bridgespan and Bain without it saying “Advertisement” at the top like the other ads?

 

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