How often do we make decisions out of our own implicit biases?
On September 26, the ballroom in the Chicago Marriott hotel buzzed with an energy not typical of most Monday mornings. Exponent Philanthropy CEO Henry Berman’s opening remarks at the plenary brunch set the tone for the rest of the National Conference. With raw candor, he focused on an element that, despite being so integral to the act of giving itself, is sometimes overlooked in the processes of philanthropy: the role of empathy in effective giving.
He recounted a time when, as a foundation trustee, he elected not to fund a community reading program because it used literature by Malcolm X and James Baldwin, prominent African-American activists during the Civil Rights Movement. As a white male of higher socioeconomic status, Mr. Berman openly noted that at the root of the decision were racial differences. Mr. Berman’s disclosure was as vulnerable as it was insightful to all in attendance. He acknowledged his failure to recognize the reading program for what it was: an opportunity to change lives using culturally relevant material.
How often do we make decisions out of our own implicit biases? What do we assume about the characteristics and behaviors of the populations we seek to empower, such as accepting that female enrollment in youth STEM summer youth programs is low because girls are less interested in math than boys. These biases can also be expressed in what we think are the needs are of the community—that contemporary students directly experiencing racism and poverty in their urban environments will find Mary Louise Alcott and Mark Twain relevant.
This is why “walking the grounds”—site visits, community strolls, interviews with service recipients—are crucial to fully understanding the impact of a grant. Without input from the community who will receive the benefits of the grant, we’re left with a very small sample size: ourselves.
“At times I was nearsighted, missing the obvious, and, at others, farsighted—unconsciously looking past the real issues at hand,” Mr. Berman said. “It has taken me time to learn that my work as a funder almost always requires corrective lenses.”
Assuming that the grantmaker knows what’s best for the grantee is the height of ego and the nadir of compassion. It might be argued that the first step in effective, targeted grantmaking is to come from a place of empathy. Not sympathy, wherein we recognize the deficits of a situation, but rather the ability to identify what the constituents need to grow and the resources that will be both responsive and inspirational.
As Mr. Berman stated, “That means actively listening to the ultimate populations we are trying to help; listening to all the perspectives that influence their world, not ours.” In tackling perspectives that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable, we pioneer into the territory that defines empathy as a practice rather than a concept.
Philanthropy is inherently a political action. Although many practitioners are urged to shy away from giving to lobbyists and campaigns, we are nonetheless bound to our own very human judgments and biases of what we deem to be the public good. But lack of awareness does not pardon the failure to take initiative and educate ourselves for the benefit of our served community.
Mr. Berman underscored this point directly, noting, “We can’t hide behind our inability to address our own blind spots.”
To give in a way that is meaningful, supportive, and ultimately life-changing, we must be willing to confront differences within ourselves. The inability to see from another’s perspective is largely what has fueled our current political climate. We sit in a privileged vantage point from which we can take in a larger picture, but let’s never forget the perspectives of the real people whom we’re seeking to serve.
Angela Sanchez is Program Analyst, College Success, with ECMC Foundation, a Los Angeles-based, nationally focused foundation, funded by ECMC Group. The mission of ECMC Foundation is to inspire and facilitate improvements that affect educational outcomes—especially among underserved populations—through evidence-based innovation. Angela is also an Exponent Philanthropy Next Gen Fellow.