On a recent summer evening in East Pittsburgh, Pa., 17-year-old Antwon Rose’s life came to a violent and premature end when a police officer shot him three times in the back as he ran from a traffic stop. The teenager, a popular high school student preparing for college and adulthood, was unarmed and posed no threat to the officer or the public. Antwon was black.
What does the unjust killing of a young African-American have to do with courageous and moral leadership in philanthropy? Everything, I believe.
One might ask the same question about an immigration policy that criminalizes asylum-seekers and tears children from their families. Or the sight of the most powerful men in the land maligning a woman for accusing one of their own of a disqualifying act. Or a census designed to undercount vulnerable populations. Or the targeting of DREAMers. Or official rhetoric denigrating black football players when they take a knee to protest racial injustice. Or any of the other abhorrent ways in which values of tolerance, compassion, and fairness are deliberately supplanted by hate, prejudice, and discord.
In a time when we often feel submerged in daily madness, it can be tempting for philanthropy, steeped as it is in patience and privilege, to believe its high-minded role is to stay above the fray. Certainly, part of philanthropy’s presumed value is its capacity to identify and sustain action on issues beyond the realm of the daily news. Before the last US presidential election, a Center for Effective Philanthropy survey showed that foundation executives were already ranking equity and wealth disparity along with climate change as the most important issues of our time.
But we can never use our devotion to solving society’s defining issues as an excuse to stand apart from its defining moments.
We are in one of those moments now. We cannot wish away the toxicity that has so insidiously risen to the surface in US policies and rhetoric as a passing moment. The angry roar of tensions that run deep in our culture represents an ancient struggle over power and privilege, gender and race, and discrimination and oppression that has been with us for generations.
Philanthropy has always claimed to stand on one side of that struggle—on the side of freedom versus oppression, and on the side of a genuinely just society consistent with our stated values versus the vicious defense of a status quo that works only for some. Yet even at a moment like this, when the stakes are so high for everything we profess to believe in, we struggle to find our voice.
Little wonder. We find ourselves in a place where it can feel “political” for nonprofit organizations simply to defend and uphold their long-held values and missions. At a time when decency, civility, and respect are under assault; when a free press is under threat, along with trust in science and our democratic systems of government; and when leaders ridicule the idea of a diverse and inclusive future, and instead espouse a grim, zero-sum, Darwinian fight for control of the future, the civic sector itself can be seen—as it is in totalitarian societies—as inherently subversive.
So it is easy to fall quiet. But the price for that is high, and we pay for it in the sacrifice of our own values. As my friend and colleague Darren Walker, president at the Ford Foundation, has so aptly put it: “Look, we’re afraid of sticking our necks out, and we’re afraid of what people might think, and we play it cautious. This is not a time to play it cautious.”
The essence of defining moments is that they force us to decide where we stand and what we stand for. What does it mean to lead morally in such a time? What is this moment calling for us to do? I have pondered these questions long and hard. I have written and spoken of them many times, and, still, they keep me awake at night.
I always return to the unequivocal belief that we, as foundation leaders, and our nonprofit partners occupy a supremely privileged and opportune position. And with that comes enormous responsibility and obligation.
If I have one wish for our field right now, it is that we would finally weigh our silences as carefully as we do our words. For the sake of all the communities we claim to support, it is our role to speak out as clearly and as forcefully as we can. Not in a truly partisan way, but as an unembarrassed, bold embrace of the principles we believe in.
When someone infringes on those principles, it is neither political nor partisan to call that behavior what it is. When leaders advance policies that will hurt and marginalize the vulnerable, poison our air and water, or harm our children’s future, it is neither political nor partisan—nor really all that courageous—to fight for something better and to express that through all the tools at our disposal.
Sometimes a voice can feel a lonely and inadequate thing. I have adopted as a kind of personal mantra a couplet from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” about the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany: “All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie.”
Foundations, of course, have more than a voice—and frankly, much more to learn in this leadership moment. More than ever before, being a courageous and ethical leader in this field is about doing with not for, and learning to listen. And we must get better at sharing the power we like to pretend we don’t have by encouraging, empowering, and enabling others.
For example, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an editorial on Martin Luther King Day excusing President Trump’s use of the phrase “shithole countries” to describe African countries, Haiti, and El Salvador, Pittsburgh Foundation President Max King joined me in responding with an unequivocal public rebuke. We posted the response on The Heinz Endowments’ website, and our message reached more than one million people across the United States via social media.
Additionally, in the wake of events surrounding the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, The Heinz Endowments hosted almost 400 grantee partners at a seminar called “Nonprofits and the Call to Moral Leadership.” The seminar gave grantees a platform for expressing their concerns and challenges at a time when their long-held values are under threat. We will host a second seminar this fall.
But in an era abound with “folded lies,” the power of our voice is essential. It is through our voice that we can state the values that drive the purpose that defines all the other resources a foundation can bring to bear on its giving, its leadership, its networks and its reputation.
We know that our country and our communities have no future unless they continue the great journey toward a more inclusive, equitable, and compassionate future. Our own efforts must match the sacrifices of those who over generations have carried us along in that journey.
In her book Tomorrow is Now, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “The battle isn’t won unless it’s your business, unless you care with all your heart that it should be won, unless you hold fast and refuse to panic when the going is rough, unless you reject all attempts to frighten you, unless you refuse to be overwhelmed by any possible dangers that may never arise …”
If we truly care about creating a more equitable future, philanthropy must embrace every moment in the struggle as its own, every Antwon Rose as a personal loss, every infringement on the dignity and lives of others as an infringement on the lives of us all. We must make it our business and not be afraid to speak.
Correction: October 25, 2018 | An earlier version of this article misidentified the state where Charlottesville is located. The city is in Virginia.