Funders Must Contend With Their Own Power and Privilege

Our former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation colleague, Jean-Claude Brizard, launched the We Refuse to Lose series in October 2020 with a blog in which he recollects how he prevailed against the obstacles he faced in American schools as a young Black immigrant. He refused to lose to the forces of systemic racism and inequity. But, he notes that Americans “must resolve to undo systems of oppression and address the toll they continue to exact” on people of color.

We know philanthropy has an important role to play in undoing these systems. That’s what engages us every day in our roles at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the series concludes with a report to philanthropy that our own blog introduces nearly a year later. The report, like the other publications of the series, was written by our partners at Education First. It challenges foundations committed to advancing racial justice to take stock of how they wield power and privilege in ways that may make it difficult to achieve their objectives and offers several suggestions for how funders might rethink the manner in which they engage communities.

The heart and soul of the We Refuse to Lose series are five community profiles, each featuring a community receiving support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to operate equity-focused cradle-to-career education initiatives. Each profile highlights a community’s efforts to ensure that students from historically oppressed and marginalized populations succeed in school and life. Yet, work in these communities and on cradle-to-career education efforts elsewhere began long before our team showed up in early 2019. Each community has also received long-standing support from private philanthropy and, in many instances, public charities and local, state, and federal funding sources.

We designed our own investment not only to help communities accelerate more equitable outcomes for students of color but also as a short-term learning experience to (1) help the foundation develop better ways to invest in specific places through the full lens of our work along the P-16 continuum as opposed to engaging communities in distinct Pre-K, K-12 education, and postsecondary education silos and (2) refine our own thinking on the role a national funder can play when investing in/with local communities. As we set out on this learning journey, we knew that context matters to outcomes and that we needed to hone our thinking to better adapt program strategies that we set nationally to different community circumstances.

Key to our approach was an intentional effort to empower stakeholders from each funded community to define the problem they sought to solve, identify viable solutions for their context, and use our support to implement them. This approach was facilitated by our development of an “investment catalog” that pulled together major areas of grantmaking interest across multiple U.S. Programs strategies. The catalog outlined investment options in seven areas from which communities could choose, such as the high school-to-college transition space, social and emotional learning, data infrastructure, and measurement and evaluation. Through listening (which included two site visits) to communities to understand their history, current state, and priorities, we identified areas of common interest and investment options that aligned with existing foundation strategies to inform the catalog.

To put our approach in the language the We Refuse to Lose Report to Philanthropy uses, this was our effort to “better trust communities and cede some of the power foundations traditionally wield.” Over the course of a two-year grant period, the five community organizations expanded their capacity, implemented new programs, and learned from each other. We learned a great deal too.

We acknowledge that in appearance, the short-term nature of this project cuts against one of the suggestions Education First asks funders to consider: making longer-term investments to help communities achieve more equitable outcomes for students of color. While brief, our effort helped us shift practice and take learnings and suggestions for grantmaking found in the report forward in a myriad of ways across our division. We also feel more confident in our approach to the education pathways and data work we’ll undertake in states like Texas and Washington. We better understand and value the need to defer to local partners about what should be prioritized and how work can be sequenced in response to where they are in their evolution as partnerships and their current capacity in ways that continue to inform a wider set of initiatives across our U.S. Program.

We will continue to wrestle with how to address the power and privilege we bring to all our efforts—both as white people and members of an influential foundation—and how to better support communities of color as they refuse to lose. This set of recommendations from Education First offers our sector concrete steps to better empower local actors to grow impact in their context. We recognize that foundations typically don’t offer new program officers training on how to position themselves in the community in ways the report recommends. People hired into grantmaking roles often enter with impressive technical expertise in education but lack a deep understanding of philanthropy, in particular how to effectively address power dynamics between foundations and communities and create partnerships that work for both funder and grantee. We invite you, as a fellow funder, to reflect with us on the content in this report, and we look forward to cross-foundation conversations about how we can build critical capabilities among our staff that strengthen community relationships in service of the students we collectively seek to support in achieving their full potential.

About the Author

Sara Allan, Director of Early Learning and Education Pathways at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, oversees efforts to increase the quality of Pre-K systems and programs and to ensure that students effectively transition between Pre-K and K-12 systems, the K-12 system and the Postsecondary levels, and between education after high school and the workforce. Sara also led the Community Investment Team as it concluded its learning efforts in 2021. Previously, Sara spent six years as a district level leader at Portland Public Schools, where she led reform initiatives including restructuring the portfolio of schools, redesign of core human capital processes and systems, the development of school results frameworks, and directed resource allocation strategy, research, evaluation, data policy & analysis. Prior to working in education, Sara was a strategy consultant with the Boston Consulting Group, where she worked with private and public sector clients on issues of strategy, organizational development, and growth in North and South America.