The following is a conversation between Rodney Foxworth, the Chief Executive Officer of Common Future, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Common Future seeks to create sustainable, equitable communities that work for all without extracting from or marginalizing any communities. Founded in 2001, they believe that the ideas, models, and solutions that can restore community wealth already exists; they just require attention and investment. And here to discuss some of those models and solutions, it’s a pleasure to have with us, Rodney Foxworth, the chief executive officer of Common Future.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Rodney!
Rodney: Great to be here, Denver. I’m a long-time listener and so I’m really happy to have this conversation with you today.
Denver: Thank you for that. Well, share with listeners a little bit about the organization’s mission and how Common Future came to be.
Rodney: It’s a great question, Denver. And so, one of the things you’ve pointed out that we began in 2001. We actually began as an organization known as The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, otherwise known as BALLE. And so, in the late fall of 2019, we actually relaunched as Common Future for a number of reasons.
But one was that, fundamentally, what we had recognized is that at the beginning of the formation of BALLE, we’re really, as an organization, centered on quite frankly a lot of really phenomenal things, farm-to-table… things that had been really unique at the inception of the organization. And things hadn’t really progressed and evolved over time.
And one thing that we realized that was sort of lacking from the organizational focus was a focus on communities of color, specifically. And so, what we wanted to do was actually readjust the mission and really focus in on communities that have been, quite frankly, excluded, marginalized, deeply impacted by economic and racial injustice.
And so, we want to relaunch this organization as Common Future really recognizing, Denver, that quite frankly, when we think about these issues, or economic and racial injustice, we’d like to think of those that are most impacted as having to do all of the work of solving these injustices. And so, one of the ideals around Common Future is that we’re actually all in this together. There’s a mutuality in this. And so, we really want to have an identity and a focus that was really focused around racial and economic injustice.
And so, I want to point that out for your listeners because as you know, Denver, over the last year, especially since the murder of George Floyd, there’s been so much attention paid to racial inequity, racial injustice. And we as an organization understood this a few years ago. I came into the organization as CEO about three and a half years ago, but my predecessor and the board had really taken some time of the years prior to me entering the organization to set us on a path in which racial equity and racial justice was the focus of the organization.
It really paved the way for an African-American male from West Baltimore to come into the organization that quite frankly, Denver, have been predominantly white. The organizations and the network had been predominantly white, and we had actually been making so many strides to actually focus on racial and economic injustice.
Denver: I always wish more organizations would think about mission morphing. Sometimes, when an organization has a mission, they feel like it’s the Ten Commandments that have come down from the mountain. They cannot be touched in any way.
Rodney: That’s right.
Denver: But it does seem to be kind of tone-deaf when the world around you is changing, not to take a look at it and say, “How can we remain relevant?” And that’s something that you did long before. A lot of other people did.
You mentioned West Baltimore. You grew up there. You’re there now. I know you love Baltimore. You’re going to love the Baltimore teams, much to my chagrin. But you were also influenced by the activism of your mother, particularly when you were typecast as a young Black boy. Tell us about that and the impact it had on you.
Rodney: You know, Denver, it’s something that’s so extraordinary because at the time I really didn’t understand how profoundly impactful it was.
So, my mother is phenomenal as so many Black moms are. She began reading to me at such a young age and reading a lot of Langston Hughes. That was her favorite poet. She would read “Mother to Son” to me almost every evening when I was a toddler. And this is really important because effectively, my mother knew that her son needed to be able to not only read but have a command of language to be successful in this world.
And so, I’m a graduate of Baltimore City Public Schools. When I was in the third grade, I had a teacher, a white teacher who falsely accused me of being, one, cheating on our examinations, but also being unable to read. Now, of course, my mother knew this not to be It might be a surprise to people who know me today.
Denver: You grew out a bit alright.
Rodney: I probably did too well in some ways, Denver. But I was a really shy kid. I didn’t raise my hand a lot. I just did my work. I just did my schoolwork and everything. Kept my head down.
And so, my mother obviously knew this was not true. She actually organized with some other parents at the school to really make sure that this teacher was held accountable for her actions. And the really troubling thing about this, Denver, is that they had unearth a pattern – a pattern which this teacher had been isolating Black boys and accusing them of being unable to read and marginalizing them. And you think about the long history of someone who had been teaching for a decade plus and what kind of adverse impact that could have.
And so, was fascinating about it, too, Denver, is I have so many remarkable friends, and many of them Black men, and quite frankly, they have similar stories — men who worked at NASA, men who are valedictorians of the universities — where at various points in our lives, particularly at the younger ages, they’ve been classified as problematic, challenge to a teacher, unable to read, difficult learner, all these sorts of things. And you see what they’re doing in adulthood.
And so, a couple of things, Denver. One, I had that direct experience of what it was like to– and unfortunately, I’ve continued to have like similar experiences throughout my life–but had that direct experience of what it means where systems, in this instance, the education system, can have an adverse impact on African-Americans.
On the other side of that, Denver, I saw what happens when individuals who understand that there’s injustice facing them in their communities, what can happen when they’re organized and inspire each other and one another to actually make some positive change happen. Now again, I was in the third grade, so it took me a few years, Denver, to really understand how profoundly powerful that was and how that really inspired me to be able to contribute back into society.
I think it’s really difficult for folks to really understand that this is not simply historic. It’s contemporary. Racial inequity is baked into everything that’s happening today.
Denver: That is a great story and I know the impact that it can have on someone in third grade. As you said, it’s happened throughout your life. But you can shrug it off a little bit more easily when you’re in your 20s and 30s. Teaches are gods a little bit back then. When they say it, it can really be a scar that can set. And I’m sure has set some people back who never recovered from something like that.
Well, let’s take a look at the racial wealth gap, Rodney. Now, there’ve been 400 years of deliberately stripping well from Black people and today white families have, I don’t know, maybe about 10 X, the wealth that Black families do. So where do you begin to get your arms around something like that?
Rodney: I’m just chuckling, Denver, because it’s such a large challenge. I mean, we’re talking about centuries. And I think it’s really difficult for folks to really understand that this is not simply historic. It’s contemporary. Racial inequity is baked into everything that’s happening today.
You can look at it. We think about things like redlining as if it was the ‘60s and it’s done. It’s completely over. Nope. Banking redlining continues to this day.
Denver: It’s not analog anymore. They just moved it to digital. And now, we have algorithms which seem almost like more neutral, but they’re not because it’s the way they’ve been programmed.
Rodney: That’s right! And we know, Denver, that a lot of things that have been based on AI– and I know that this has been a conversation that you’ve had with a number of folks and database–is actually influenced by individuals — individual biases and things of that nature. And so we want to think that they can they’re, at base, more neutral and better. But they’re being designed by people with biases.
And so, one of the things I think, to your point or your question around “How do we wrap our arms around it?” It’s such a seemingly impossible question. And I think what’s really important, and the way that I approach it as an individual but also as leader of Common Future, is: What are pieces that we actually can have some impact around?
There’ve been so many individuals, organizations, institutions that are working towards mitigating and solving for these extraordinary racial wealth inequities. And so, our work at Common Future is really around: How do we actually invest into and support institutions that are led by and governed by folks of color – those who are most impacted by these injustices? We believe that those who are closest to the problems actually are closest to the solutions.
And so, the sort of piece of it that we really focus on, that we try to get our arms around, is: How can we actually take an approach that allows us to invest in and support those individuals and institutions that are offering different approaches to building economies that actually can work for all people? Really focusing on those who have been most marginalized in our economy.
And so, that’s the piece that we work on so much, Denver, because, to your point, it’s such a large problem. And so, on the largest scale of it, I think about how organizations like Common Future need to be in deep partnership with so many other institutions. To really wrap ourselves around this large question. How do we think about public policies? What are the type of public policies that need to be centered? How do we think about our capital markets?
There are a range of things that we really need to consider as we think about really resolving the significant — you used the word “scarring” earlier. And I think if we can all think about the fact and realize it at an emotional level, how deep the scarring has been from racial, economic injustice and racial injustice more generally, more broadly in our society.
These challenges are so massive, and they require particular sets of experiences and skills to really approach these problems. So I think you got to enter into these conversations and this work with some humility, and you really have to lack some hubris. There’s a lot of hubris in the world.
Denver: It sounds like one of the keys you said there is almost deciding what you’re not going to do because when problems are that big, you wanted to tackle it all.
I remember speaking, I know we both have had some conversations and you’ve worked with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, but when they looked at rejuvenating and transforming the juvenile justice system, they actually went after one piece because they understood that that one piece could be a leverage to a bunch of other pieces.
Plus the fact, you’re not successful when you try to tackle everything. You can’t get deep on them. And people will say, “Well, they’re all over the place.” So you take something and say, “That’s going to be our niche.” You make something happen there. And then you wait for some dominoes to fall. So that seems to be, if I’m right, a little bit of the way you’re approaching this.
Rodney: That’s correct. And I think, Denver, to your point, these challenges are so massive. And they require particular sets of experiences and skills to really approach them, to approach these problems. So I think you got to enter into these conversations and this work with some humility, and you really have to lack some hubris. There’s a lot of hubris in the world.
But if we could simply solve for this challenge, we would have done it by now. We’ve had a long time to do it. And these issues are very complex. They’re complicated. They’re embedded into the very fabric of our societies.
I think about this– this is a quick example. Being back in my hometown in Baltimore. Baltimore being a city that is about 64% African-American. The city spends, I think the current budget for policing the city is over $600 million. You’re talking about another $300 million-plus that the state of Maryland is spending on incarceration of Baltimoreans. So, you’re talking about nearly a billion dollars, Denver, spent on policing and incarcerating majority Black individuals.
Now, what are repercussions of that? There’s so much embedded into that that really exacerbates and continues the racial injustice that we’re speaking about. And that’s something that most individuals don’t recognize as something that is a continuation of the racial injustice that many think of as: Well, we’ve read about it in a history book when I was in high school, and that’s all done now. That’s completed. We’re somewhere different now.
Oftentimes, nearly 100% of the time, those of us in philanthropy, this field of impact investing and certainly in the broader investing community, we don’t acknowledge that there’s been such a deep wound created that we have yet to remove the knife, let alone heal it. And yet, we want to be able to make investments that don’t acknowledge these truths.
Denver: Also, you bring up the point of opportunity costs. OK, we got the billions doing whatever it’s doing over there. What else could you do with the billion dollars that would address the community better? And that’s money that will never be spent and maybe on a bunch of third graders, too. On the front end, billions of different things you could do to actually change outcomes, but we’re kind of into this rut of: We do it. And if it’s not working, “Oh, I know what we’ll do. We’ll spend more and we’ll spend more” as opposed to maybe this is not the right spend in which to begin with.
So talk a little bit about what you do. I know you had spoken about reparative investing and restorative investing. But what’s the difference between the two of those and how do you go about in terms of trying to champion those efforts?
Rodney: Yes, Denver, they’re really closely related. And I think so, for your listeners just for some context framing… you know, Denver, you’ve really articulated so well just the history and the legacies of racial injustice that we’re facing upon.
Restorative and reparative investing really focuses on the fact that we’re acknowledging the past and contemporary injustices that communities face. I’m going to butcher this a little bit, but there’s this great Malcolm X quote, to the fact of “You stab me in the back nine inches, you pull it out six inches, and tell me that’s progress.” No, you got to pull out the knife completely. You’ve got to heal the wound.
So, I use that quote as sort of a way to enter into the conversation around reparative and restorative investing. Because oftentimes, and I say oftentimes, nearly 100% of the time, those of us in philanthropy, this field of impact investing and certainly in the broader investing community, we don’t acknowledge that there’s been such a deep wound created that we have yet to remove the knife, let alone heal it. And yet, we want to be able to make investments that don’t acknowledge these truths.
And so, reparative and restorative investing, from the Common Future perspective, really is about ensuring that we equip communities and leaders with the investment and resources that they actually need to, one, heal, and then build economic prosperity in ways that are really collective, that really are about advancing the economic interests and power or communities that have been most impacted by injustice.
And so, as an example, Common Future has been working with three organizations in our remarkable network. We have a network of over 200 institutions, community wealth-building institutions that we support. And we’ve been working with three. They’re predominantly Black and Indigenous-led institutions, two in the Midwest, one in the Southwest. And these institutions have been working with entrepreneurs and small businesses from their communities for many years and really supported them to be successful, to build a really strong economic fabric that is supportive to Black and Indigenous peoples.
Now, these organizations, however, have been challenged to have access and control of capital that they can directly invest into their communities. They have to do a lot of negotiating with outside partners and a lot of stewardship to be able to do it. And we saw this at Common Future as a common problem across our network. Those that really understand the communities don’t have access and control of economic resources to really steward directly.
And so, one of the things that we’ve been working on at Common Future, we call it the character-based lending pilot. And effectively, it’s about providing economic power to the three institutions that we’re working with so that they actually can deploy the right type of capital for their communities.
And so Common Future – we’re an investor into this. But what we’ve done, Denver, is instead of prioritizing the return of investment for Common Future, we’re actually prioritizing the economic wellbeing and power building for these three institutions. So we’ve designed it in a way, and we’ve sort of demanded that our co-investors look at it the same way that we look at it as Common Future. And so, we’ve developed this infrastructure that really enables these three institutions the one to actually have economic power and control directly.
And so for us, that’s reparative and restorative because we’re saying, “We as an institution, are not prioritizing our own economic interests. We’re seeding control and power to you, those who are in community that are part of the community. And we will allow you to make the decisions, and we’re going to provide you the financial, intellectual, social resources that you need to make sure that it’s effective.”
Denver: And your return on investment that you’re looking at is secondary or tertiary. And that is really never the case. I had somebody on the program recently who took a look at impact investing and said, “How well it was doing to your classic investing?” And everybody’s saying, “Isn’t that great? You don’t have to make some concessionary return.” His point was: Is it really impact investing? Are you just putting the label on it? And you’re really looking at the rate of return? I think that is really a great point to make.
Another one organization you’ve partnered with has been Dalberg’s Justice, Equity, and Economic Mobility practice. And I know that the two of you joined together and you looked at sharing decision-making power over who receives capital with the communities that they hope to serve. Tell us a little bit about that. You came up with really some practical ideas, and I’d like you to share those with us.
Rodney: I appreciate you bringing that up, Denver, because for your listeners, Common Future – we’re not a grantmaker. We’re not a funder. But we do leverage capital in ways that can advance the interests of our network.
And so, in 2020, we worked to move a little over $5 million to institutions, primarily, though exclusively, but primarily led by and governed by folks of color, living in communities that are predominantly people of color that have been impacted by these injustices.
And so, one of the things that we really prioritize was actually having a process in place in which we as an institution would actually work authentically with our partners. And when I mean “partners,” you referenced Dahlberg but what I’m speaking to about partners are those in our network, those institutions, to really inform and help to make the decisions alongside us rather than as an institution deciding on our own.
Now, that said, what’s really interesting about Common Future, and this is really intentional, Denver, and it goes to some of the challenges I know that you discussed with many of your past guests. Philanthropy– institutional philanthropy. I want to be really clear about that. Institutional philanthropy – the decision-makers are 90% white male. And if you look at the organization at Common Future, it’s very inverted. Our organization is 80% plus women of color and that’s by design. That’s intentional. And not just women of color and people of color, but individuals who have had firsthand experience with so many injustices.
And the reason why I bring that up, Denver, is that people oftentimes ask myself and our organization: What’s one way that they can improve their grantmaking to make it actually more accessible and more equitable? And quite frankly, one of the things that you need to be able to do is actually have different voices and decision-makers in the room. And that’s a hard thing for people to oftentimes swallow. That’s a hard thing.
I look at it from the transformation from BALLE to Common Future, as an institution, we were able to do that. And we actually have been able to recognize some really clear steps that people can take, again, involving partners in decision making. Making sure that there’s transparency in the process, ensuring that you’re being clear about, quite frankly, not wasting people’s time, Denver. How often… I mean, you’ve had a lot of conversation with people. You know that sometimes a $5,000 grant may have taken you $10,000 of effort.
Denver: Oh, $5,000, $5 million, very often, it’s the same amount of labor. They can drive you crazy, those $5,000.
Rodney: Exactly. And so being really clear with institutions and individuals about what the process is like [inaudible 22:09 -22:12] for example, for those that we didn’t award grants to last year but they’re a part of the applicant pool, we actually stipend those institutions to acknowledge the time that it took for them to even apply. Sort of basic things like that.
And then one last thing on this, Denver, is really around trust. And I think this connects back to why I have been pretty vocal about ensuring that you have an inclusive and diverse team if you’re in the grantmaking space or in an investing space. Because to be frank, it’s so much easier for myself, as someone who was raised by a Black woman and has seen throughout my entire life, from my birth into my adult professional career, seen leadership and creativity and innovation from Black women and people of color, it’s really easy for me to trust with what folks are doing and really being able to build those types of authentic relationships.
And so, that’s another piece of it. It’s trust. Really making sure that we’re creating trust. And it’s a two-way street too, by the way, Denver.
Denver: Absolutely, those are great points. And you have some really great ideas here. I think another one is dignity. Because again, you’re talking about deploying peer review strategies and that makes all the sense in the world.
And I think a lot of organizations maybe are beginning to do that, but when they do, they go to the community and they ask the beneficiaries what they think. And they’re in a room and they were having a chance to voice what their opinion is. And everybody in that room but them is getting paid.
And the equity just in that. The consultant isn’t doing it for free. The staff member isn’t there just on a pro bono basis, but they feel that they all were going to let them have “We’ll pay you.” How about you pay them something for their time and their information? And that’s such a small thing, but such a big thing in terms of that’s where you begin to change the relationship in terms of what you’re doing.
Rodney: It’s such a great point. And just to elevate that even a little bit more, Denver. I mean we have this whole concept at Common Future of really making sure that we’re positioning individuals and organizations with the non-network as experts.
Because your point, particularly, I’m really mindful of this. We oftentimes talk about the 5% payout and forget that oftentimes, that includes some of the consultants that you’re talking about, Denver.
Denver: And even stick it in a DAF if you want.
Rodney: That’s right. You can use a DAF. You can use all sorts of– that’s a longer conversation for us to have, Denver.
Denver: Yes, a different show, but a lot of gimmicks.
Rodney: That’s right. And so, what’s so fascinating about it is that–I see this consistently, from institutional philanthropist–they’re very willing to write a million-dollar check to a consultant to help them get more proximate to community. And then no one’s compensating community leaders for their time, even though their perspectives and their time is actually creating the value necessary for anything to move forward.
So I really appreciate you elevating that point. That’s to an earlier thing that I pointed out is that’s why we compensate even those who have not been awarded a grant—
Denver: Which is wonderful. Great idea.
Rodney: –or we bring them into our members of our network as experts and consultants to philanthropies, to impact investors, really repositioning them as again, experts, because they are. They know.
One of the challenges around big philanthropy has been you’re empowering a set of individuals and institutions that are pretty removed from the actual challenges. And so, you’re actually perpetuating some of the injustices that you’re trying to work against.
Denver: That’s right. Our traditional experts. I was speaking to Jim McKelvey yesterday, who co-founded Square with Jack Dorsey, and I talked to him about innovation. And he said, “Well, one of the things, when you want to innovate,” and that’s what you’re trying to do, innovate new solutions to solve these problems,” he said, “stay away from experts.”
Because it’s sort of the old thing – with an expert, they are the hammer and everything’s a nail. So if you’re looking for new solutions, there’s a whole new side of experts out there who don’t have that moniker just yet, who just might give you some breakthrough ways of looking at things.
Let me move on to big philanthropy, and there’s a lot of critiques about big philanthropy. I think it’s starting with philanthrocapitalism and the idea that we could replace social movements with it. And it hasn’t worked out quite so well. But there is a big philanthropist out there who is doing some extraordinary things and her name would be MacKenzie Scott. And you would be one of the beneficiaries of that. Tell us about that.
Rodney: Thanks for the question. And yes, I mean one, there’s so many critiques that can be had and yet one we’re really thankful by the gift from MacKenzie Scott. And I think what’s really powerful about it, Denver, is just some of the things that we discussed a few moments ago around particularly trust and those sorts of things, I think really bear out in the sort of awards and the process in which MacKenzie Scott has undertaken to deploy billions upon billions of dollars.
Denver: Really nonstop, isn’t it? Just [unintelligible].
Rodney: So, I think what’s really interesting about it is that, she’s really, I believe demonstrating a pathway forward for others that I believe can be radical in its act of shifting the paradigm specifically around big philanthropy. Which because there’s a lot of critiques that can be had, but just to offer up some of them because, Denver, you touched on it a little bit ago. One of the challenges around big philanthropy has been you’re empowering a set of individuals and institutions that are pretty removed from the actual challenges. And so you’re actually perpetuating some of the injustices that you’re trying to work against.
And so, I think MacKenzie Scott has been able to demonstrate and inspire others to think quite differently. And the fact that we’re talking about unrestricted gifts.
Denver: Talk a little bit about that. That is such a powerful point.
Rodney: I’m happy that you used the term powerful because, for your listeners, when the announcement was made that Common Future received a gift from MacKenzie Scott, I wrote a piece, “Unrestricted Funding Means Power.” Because, Denver, you’ve had so many conversations and you mentioned some of the innovators that you’ve had a conversations with whether it’s at Square or other institutions, businesses, for-profit ventures of things.
And one of the things that I think is so intriguing by MacKenzie Scott’s gift as an unrestricted gift, large dollar amounts, given the size of different institutions, et cetera, is that it’s very much like the equity that allow these for profit tech startups, many of whom then become philanthropists themselves sort of take for granted.
Nonprofit institutions typically have had to get by on restricted funding, very specific to programs that maybe they’re not even the program that the institution wants to run any longer because they determined they’re actually not effective but hey, donors and philanthropists want to continue to do it. And so the unrestricted funding, however, really allows organizations to imagine, experiment, innovate, build capacities that they did not have previously.
And so, the examples that I give to people – unrestricted funding at Common Future. When I came into the organization, we primarily ran a set of fellowship programs that supported individual leaders and institutions that are doing community wealth building and also supporting mostly community foundations, but place-based foundations to actually invest their endowment or out of their donor-advised funds into ways that are much more inclusive in their economy. So we primarily had a few two flagship programs.
But because of unrestricted funding, Denver, we’ve been able to build new capacities over the last two years. We’ve been able to develop our own equitable investing practice. We’ve been able to develop a policy practice. Going back to our conversation earlier, if we’re really trying to get our arms around this massive thing of racial inequity, you’ve got to be in policy. We’ve developed a whole learning and knowledge management practice within the institution that allows us to better know what’s happening internally, communicating that externally, but also being able to like really connect the dots across a range of disciplines that impact at work.
And so unrestricted funding allowed us to develop those types of capacities. And so few organizations, particularly organizations like Common Future, which has led by an African-American male that is predominantly women of color, do not get access to unrestricted funding. And so, again, we talked about racial injustice, it shows up in the funding practices as well in our sector.
And so, MacKenzie Scott awarding these types of gifts. And if you actually look at so many of the organizations that she’s supporting, it’s clear that there’s a racial equity, whether that’s the language that MacKenzie Scott will use, but it’s really apparent. You can see that there’s a focus on sort of riding the ship in some ways.
Denver: Restricted giving to me also has always said “Stop learning now. Nothing is going to change. You have had your crystal ball. We have prescribed something.” And you take a look at the world around us. And you have everybody’s pivoting every other day. So how can you have a two-year grant which says you have to do this? And I speak to so many people who say they knew six months in it wasn’t going to work, but they have a contract and they got to do 18 months.
The other point I would make also about restricted funding is that I have no food in this house right now and I have to go shopping later this afternoon. You’ve inspired me when I do to, when I check out at the cash register, I’m going to tell the woman, the cashier there that of the $162 bucks I spent, I want none of it to go to her because she is overhead. And the trucks from ShopRite that bring in the food. I want no gasoline and stuff. What we put up with in this sector in terms of trying to get donations is almost laughable when you think about it.
And I had a guy on who was a Wall Street guy. He said, “Nobody at Wall Street would invest in a company like that. We would look at their track record. We’d look at what they do. We study their management team. We wouldn’t start getting into everything and deciding.” No one thinks that way except for us in the sector.
So you talked about unrestricted giving, which is such a big one. Are there other norms, Rodney, that you see in the world of philanthropy that maybe they seem harmless to certain people but they really need to be examined and changed because they do have a toxic impact?
Rodney: Absolutely. And Denver, I want to just like chime in a little bit into your last comment because just connecting it to the big philanthropy piece. Because there’s a little bit of irony to your last comment around Wall Street investors or venture capitalists or what have you in terms of how they evaluate making their own deals.
Well, what’s fascinating is many of them become philanthropists, and guess what happens, Denver? They begin doing things like restricted funding. And so it’s a really fascinating thing because they’ve seen how important it is to have growth capital, innovation capital on the for-profit side as it relates to building a unicorn or growing a middle-market company to such that they can make a significant return on investment.
And I remember having a conversation with a venture capitalist about this many years ago, and I said to them, because they were doing in their own philanthropy, Denver, what they would never do as a VC. They would never do it as a VC. And I said to them, “What you’re asking these nonprofits to do is effectively saying to this tech company that you just invested in that they can only use the money to hire backend engineers, but you can’t hire salespeople.” And they were just sort of floored by that comparison.
Denver: That’s a great example. But you know what it really stems from? It stems from a lack of respect for the nonprofit sector. They don’t think we know what we’re doing. And you talked I think a moment ago about humility. The opposite of humility is them. They’re going to come in and they’re going to fix everything.
And I talked about track record. OK. I can understand where they’re coming from. They don’t got such a great track record, do they? They’ve done it the way they think it’s got to been done and things have certainly not gotten better, and many of the investments they have made have actually gotten worse.
But I think it really stems from the fact that the sector is not held in the regard. They don’t think that we have the expertise. So therefore, they treat us like kids – “We got to tell you how to do it because we are the Titans of the world.”
Rodney: And to that point, Denver, to your question about other practices that need to shift in philanthropy, institutional philanthropy, specifically, and large major gifts and that sort of thing, that’s where I’m speaking to you specifically. I’m not speaking to my neighbor who puts in $50 a month to the food shelter.
Denver: You’re not going in for my mom. That’s important.
Rodney: That’s right. That’s what we want to clear about that. But your point about respect. Respect and trust are two fundamental things that they need to be imbued within institutional philanthropy and major gifts. Because your point is so spot on, Denver. I believe there’s a lack of respect and lack of regard, oftentimes.
And I say exclusively, but there are a lot of [pathologies] that develop from not trusting non-profits, not believing that they are going to do the thing that they said they’re going to do or not trusting that if they decide to pivot, as you earlier pointed out Denver, that it’s the right thing to do. So that’s one piece.
The other thing, and I have brought it up a little earlier is, we really need to change the face of decision-making. And I have been really happy to see a number of peers and friends be elevated into roles within large institutional philanthropies. But we need to see more and more of it because it’s pretty stark when you look at the actual decision-makers within these institutions.
And for those who are individuals that don’t have, maybe you have a DAF or you have some LLC structure, which oftentimes mean you would have DAF connected to it. Who are you going to advise you on your gift? Are you going to individuals, institutions that have deep understanding, experience, and empathy, and relationships to really resolve these challenges around economic and racial injustice?
Really audit yourself on that. Because there’s a whole infrastructure as you and I both know, Denver, around the philanthropic advising industry that really is infrastructure to deploy large sums of resources both financially, social, political, et cetera. And we need to really do an audit… I believe that you need to do an audit of: Who are we really are going to for that?
And the final thing or one other piece that really connects to the work of Common Future is the idea of perpetuity. And this is when I challenge institutions to think about because I like to think about it, Denver, as reframing the conversation away from perpetuity of a philanthropic institution into how do you best leverage the financial, social, and political capital and resources available to those institutions to develop perpetual community wealth building? And really reframe it.
I had a conversation with someone at a large philanthropy making the case for why their institution should be in perpetuity. Making the case like, “We believe that 10-, 20-, 50 years from now and this institution is still at the table, we’ll be able to make some really strong advances.”
And Denver, I said, “I understand that perspective. But many of your grantees don’t have the luxury of even knowing if they’re going to be around a year from now.” Denver, you’ve made a point about a two-year grant – that’s if you could get a two-year grant.
Denver: I had to put some humor into the show.
Rodney: That’s right. And so that’s if you could get one. And so I’m thinking, given what I just pointed out, Denver, about the fact that disproportionately, decision-makers and the types of philanthropies that we’re discussing don’t reflect communities that are most adversely impacted by all these injustices. So that’s one piece.
You have that. You want to have that institution of perpetuity and yet, not unlocking capital in ways that can ensure that communities have community wealth that can enable them to be able to govern and exercise their own social, political, and economic rights. And so, that’s actually a really interesting dynamic.
And so I’ve challenged institutions to think: Instead of thinking about your own perpetuity, how can you actually invest in ways–going back to repair and restorative investing–how can you invest into the economic prosperity of these communities and institution says that it’s perpetual? And that might mean, Denver, that might mean, maybe you have a 20-year time horizon as a philanthropic institution. But you’ve set up the conditions for 50-year time horizon for all these for your grantees.
Denver: Well said. I kind of look at the issue of perpetuity closely linked to restricted giving. And I don’t want to make an indictment of the entire philanthropic sector because there are so many wonderful foundations and organizations out there. But when you think of a perpetuity and you think of restricted giving, you think about their annual report. And their giving for their annual report — what do I put in my annual report and not the people they’re supposed to serve. And you would get self-absorbed as an institution. It’s about us. It’s about that 28-page document. It’s about our board, and what’s it all going to say.
Back to restricted giving again, people complain about nonprofits being too slow, and we are too slow. But you know one of the reasons we’re so slow? It’s restricted giving. You try to go around with restricted giving. You want us to move fast? Take off the straight jacket and let us do what we think needs to be done.
Is there any issue– you know, we talk about everything around here in terms of the philanthropy, et cetera. Is there any issue that’s not being discussed, Rodney, that you say somebody’s got to sit down, this conversation has to occur?
Rodney: Denver, I think there’s a conversation that we need to have that’s related to– it’s not specifically around perpetuity, but it is around how philanthropic institutions and large donors leverage their capital to actually build economic power on behalf of those they serve.
And this is something that we think a lot about at Common Future. Because we’re about community wealth building. We’re about creating alternative economies. And what’s really fascinating, though, is that obviously in the not-for-profit sector, there’s not a lot of practice of how to actually do that as institutions themselves. And it does connect back to things like restricted funding.
And so I think there’s a conversation that needs to be had around: How can philanthropists actually ensure that their grantees, their partners, are actually developing economic models that quite frankly compromises the power of philanthropy?
Rodney: How do we think a little bit differently? And I say a little bit, but a lot differently around how non-profits are financed? How nonprofits develop economic capabilities, which by the way, very few nonprofits– and again, we have to be really clear and specific. I’m not talking about Harvard. I’m not talking about Stanford. I’m talking about nonprofits that are doing the type of things that we see in the Common Future network, supporting Black entrepreneurs in the south, supporting land stewardship, and farmers of color throughout the US that have been really deeply impacted by policies unjustly in histories of this.
How do we make sure that there we’re actually building economic power and independence, Denver? This is the part that I think is really important. Because you made an earlier comment about these big philanthropists displacing movements, which of course you were saying that, tongue-in-cheek; we know that’s not the case.
And yet, so many not-for-profit institutions have to navigate this world in ways of not to upset the philanthropist, the donor. And so much of that has to do with they don’t have their own independent economic capability. And so, that’s a conversation I think that we need to have at a broader level that’s beyond impact investing, Denver, that’s beyond social enterprise. But really is about how do these institutions, how can philanthropists actually invest in ways that support long economic viability of grantees they’ve supported?
A quick example of that, Denver, I mentioned those three institutions that we’re working with, two in the Midwest, one in the Southwest. We as an institution are prioritizing the return of capital back to our institution. And in fact, we want to be able to see happen is that we’re able to redistribute that capital across those organizations so that they can have additional capital, unrestricted capital that they can further leverage.
So those are the kinds of things– again, that’s a small example, but those are the types of things that we think about. We’re working with a phenomenal organization, Concerned Capital, based in Los Angeles, that’s focused around things like employee bias and businesses, particularly to enable for Black and Brown communities to have ownership of these enterprises that otherwise, Denver, would be going over to Wall Street. And get diced up by some private equity firm in Wall Street.
And so, we as a not-for-profit, have been working with them to figure out different ways and how they can do that and supporting them to be able to do that because we see it as another viable pathway for communities to actually build economic self-sufficiency that can gradually get itself outside of the philanthropic dependence.
Those who have been most impacted by injustice need to be the principal actors and decision-makers in change.
You begin to place people individually who have firsthand direct experience in these challenges, you will see change happening. And that’s goes back to movements. It goes back to movements.
Denver: That is so interesting. You talked about different ways. So, let’s talk about change. And change is never easy. It has to change on the individual level, organizational, lateral, the societal level.
Rodney, do you have a theory of change, a philosophy about and creating lasting change that informs the way you approach your work?
Rodney: I am not the biggest theory of change person, Denver, but this is what I will tell you. As Frederick Douglas said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And to situate that into this conversation, my general theory of change, Denver, is that those who have been most impacted by injustice need to be the principal actors and decision-makers in change.
So this goes back to earlier comments about when I look at the philanthropic sector. How can we actually revert? How can we actually reframe the whole thing and make sure that we’re centering those who have been most impacted to actually make decisions on where capital is allocated, what policies and ideas are pursued right in the sector?
That is something that for me, is a general theory of change. You begin to place people individually who have firsthand direct experience in these challenges, you will see change happening. And that goes back to movements. It goes back to movements.
Denver: Yes, it really does. What I find to be interesting about that, and maybe this is a bit of a simplification, but it seems that we have understood that a little bit better with the Western savior, white savior complex, going to the developing world. And then of course, when we try to go over there and we fix things and as soon as we leave, the weld closes down and nobody fixes it.
So there seems to have been at least an acknowledgment in terms of international development and aid, which is a couple of years ahead of where we’re in our own country in serving communities in that fashion. I don’t know if that would be your assessment, but it seems to me that this conversation is coming up here in the US now the way it did in the international development community maybe five- or eight years ago.
Rodney: Indeed, Denver, and we still have a lot of work to do.
Denver: All over the place.
Rodney: All over the place. We have a lot of work to do. And I think it’s also, within the US context, I think because there is a level of proximity that I think makes it even more challenging for the powers to be the shift even though they’re actually not very proximate.
Denver: But they think they are.
Rodney: That’s right. Again, I just think about what’s happened over the last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and so many unfortunate murders and deaths. And I think about how, even in my—well, not in my peer group but a lot of my colleagues in the sectors, how just blown away they were by some of these disparities. And these are folks, Denver, that they’re in this work. They’re in the work. They’re just not someone just walking down the street randomly that I bump into.
And so, I just think again, that level of distance is pretty remarkable in terms of how far we have to go when people are still really wrapping their minds around how many challenges and what the opportunities are.
Denver: Let me close with this, Rodney. It is so important, at least it seems to me, that leaders take a little time to dream. Not simply do their job and show up every day, but to dream. When you allow yourself to do that, what are some of your dreams?
Rodney: Well, I really appreciate the question because, Denver, I never get asked this question.
Denver: A different question, I know!
Rodney: A different question. It’s really simple for me, Denver. I want us to live in a world. I want to live in a world–and this is selfish as well, like I’m just no completely selfless. I want to be able to live in a world in which your gender, your Zip code, your identity, your place of birth, none of those things fundamentally matter to your ability to exercise as a human being in this world.
And as we see every single day, there are determinants of life trajectory that have nothing to do with who an individual is. And that’s purely constructed by our societal norms and the infrastructures that we’ve developed. All the different injustices, patriarchy, white supremacy, all of these variety of systems that we put in place.
And so, when I dream big, that is the world that I want to live in. Because as we talked about earlier, Denver, when I was in third grade and I got marked as someone who could not read simply because I was a Black boy, that identification in the systems that were in place that could have set me on a completely different life trajectory, but for the fact that I had a mother who understood what was going on. We should not have to live in that type of world where hopefully you have a mother or a mentor or someone that could almost hold the doors of injustice apart for you for a brief moment. That is not the world that we should be able to live in. So I dream of something different.
Denver: Charity, as they say, shouldn’t be random. And that’s what it comes down to a particular donor, a particular mother, a particular mentor, a particular situation and that ain’t right.
Tell us about the Common Future website, some of the information visitors will find there, and maybe how they can help you do and your organization do what you’re doing.
Rodney: Absolutely Denver. So the Common Future website is commonfuture.co. And what you’ll find there: one, you’ll see a remarkable, committed team of people that really reflect the communities that we’re working with and in partnership with. You’re going to see a lot of the work that we’ve been able to support and initiate ourselves.
So again, I mentioned some of these things around supporting Black entrepreneurs, supporting indigenous women in entrepreneurship and building economies. And so you’re going to see a lot of different stories in affirmation of the brilliance, Denver, of people throughout our country, doing remarkable things and communities that have been long excluded and extracted from and have suffered too much to justice.
And there are a number of ways that individuals and institutions support our work. Obviously, as you pointed out, Denver, unrestricted funding is always a great thing if you’re someone who has any capital that you’re looking to offer. But we’re also engaging in a range of different things around policy, where you can also just share a lot of the content that we’re producing.
And really, I think fundamentally, I think looking at this, consuming the stories and seeing what individuals and communities, important things that they’re doing, and supporting that work, their work directly. That is another thing that people can do.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for being here today, Rodney. It was a real delight to have you on the show.
Rodney: Wonderful to be here, Denver, and again, I’ve been a long-time listener, and I’m really glad that I’ve been able to join the ranks.
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