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

SVPI 11/04/2021

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.

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