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Insight from Systems Change Leaders: Why it’s time for philanthropy to reimagine giving

Posted by naheed

At SVP International, we work to disrupt philanthropy as usual. As part of that work, we invited awardees of the inaugural Reimagine Fund and other movement leaders to share how and why individual philanthropists can reimagine giving and shape our philanthropy to be a tool that enables solving problems at their root, and changing systems.

Jansen Azarias-Suzumoto, Higher Ground a Resource CenterQ: What kind of philanthropy do you need to achieve this change?

A: Jansen Azarias-Suzumoto, CEO/President and Co-Founder of Higher Ground a Resource Center in Tucson, Ariz. *These comments have been edited for length. Higher Ground was an inaugural Reimagine Fund awardee.*

While philanthropy is often well-intentioned, it is deeply rooted in a “savior” mentality that defines success in the context of individual achievement, adoption of the western culture, and moving away from the “impoverished communities.” This pervasive mindset has created problematic programs that adopt these values to get funded. It often creates dependence on a “superior” entity who will resolve their problems instead of empowering the youth to harness their internal assets mixed with their deep understanding of their community context to stay in their community and be part of long-term change.

Instead of seeing youth in impoverished neighborhoods as “pobre-cito” (poor thing, a term used for feeling sorry for someone else and rescuing them from their situation) who need to be rescued out of their community, we must make a shift to empower them to take charge of their lives using their culture and deep knowledge of context to be the problem-solvers of their community by giving them the proper resources and support to do so.

In addition to the above layers, it’s also important to recognize that, often, emphasis on sustainability of programs, while well-intentioned, is just a mask to excuse the underfunding and lack of opportunity in poor communities. We need philanthropy to shift to more long-term funding and patient measurement of continuous improvement rather than emphasize one-time outputs and outcomes.

We need philanthropy to understand community context and come in with resources but not solutions. We need philanthropists to collaborate with the people working in the field. We need to get rid of favoritism and have a critical analysis of outcomes and long-term impact. We need people who have the resources to understand that this is a marathon, not a sprint. We should not be expected to have quick turnarounds when solving historical issues.

Finally, we need philanthropy to be patient and not risk-averse. In every other sector, innovation is funded even when it is recognized that such innovation may not go anywhere. In other sectors, the risk is married with innovation, and risky ideas are supported. We need philanthropy to fund innovation rather than old solutions that they think will work without understanding the community context.


  1. Mark Holloway

    I agree on all fronts here and continue to challenge myself to follow these precepts/challenges, Jansen. I’m curious how you think individual philanthropists “get rid of favoritism” in philanthropy? I’m mostly thinking of non-institutional philanthropy that operates more informally (and makes up a huge portion of contributions.) People are conditioned to give to initiative or organizations that are familiar or well regarded in their peer networks or community at large. How do you (and others here) think I can break that habit — the favoritism — without burdening organization leaders by “shopping around” a bit more?

  2. rachelsvpi

    Mark – this is a great question! We’ll add this to our list as we continue to talk internally and connect with leaders about this work. For institutional philanthropy, we would agree that the self-education and due diligence is inherent in the work and there’s still room to grow with regards to “getting rid of favoritism”. For individual donors, my hunch is networks like ours can continue to lift up trust-based platforms – like JustFund (https://justfund.us/) or our own Reimagine Fund which streamlines support to frontline organizations through a strong values lens. These methods give individuals the opportunity to self-educate and engage, and minimizes friction when it comes to giving.

  3. rachelsvpi

    Hi Amanda, Thanks for your feedback! We appreciate hearing how these spotlight stories are resonating.

  4. Pingback: Social Venture Partners » Insight from Systems Change Leaders: Accept outcomes, pacing, and processes from the lived experience of BIPOC folks and communities

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