Shoulder to Shoulder

January 12, 2021

Where We Go From Here

Crystal Hayling, Executive Director, The Libra Foundation

Crystal Hayling, Executive Director, The Libra Foundation, knew that 2020 was going to be a troubling year and committed to substantially increasing grantmaking to address the impending crisis. How did she see coming what many of us did not? Because she is deeply connected to leaders living in and deeply connected to their communities.

Power and privilege should not define the grantee-funder relationship, says Hayling. For instance, the Democracy Frontlines Fund turned to community organizers to find and fund the Black-led groups at the forefront of social change and defending our democracy. By focusing on relationships, changing the way they reach out, reducing paperwork, and working shoulder to shoulder with people directly affected by the issues they are fighting, The Libra Foundation is modeling a new way for philanthropy to drive social change.

In this video:

  • How the blind spots of privilege prevent philanthropy from identifying community needs and how the Democracy Frontlines Fund works differently to find and fund groups on the vanguard of social change and defending our democracy. (0:20)
  • Why we should recognize lived experience as expertise when funding community groups. (3:00)
  • How Libra is working to remove the bureaucracy and power dynamics of grantee-funder relationships. (5:37)
  • Why movements led by people who have been impacted by an issue are those best-suited to create long-term change. (7:53)
  • How general operating support allows nonprofits to adapt to changes and meet the needs of the communities they serve. (10:12)
  • What philanthropy can do to shift its priorities and ways of working to make greater change. (12:26)


CRYSTAL: Great. The only thing I have to warn you is, I have dogs, so –

ANTONY: Oh, no worries.



ANTONY: You wrote in June that literally everything in this country has changed – “everything” was in all caps – in the last six months and so must your foundation. It was what I called a cri de coeur to other funders. That was June, now it's September. Everything that's happened last three months only amplifies the sense of urgency and crisis you described. What are the most important ways that philanthropy needs to change at this moment?

CRYSTAL: Well, I think that first of all we have to recognize that we have huge blind spots. And those blind spots are really created by the fact that we have so much privilege. You know, I think that's one of the really counter-intuitive things about privileges. It makes you think that you've got this view that nobody else has, and you do kind of have a view that nobody else has, but it's limited. It's actually a smaller view than many other people have. And so I think the fact that so many in philanthropy were kind of shocked by George Floyd's murder, we're kind of, sort of, waking up to the unbelievable differential around race that COVID is having in communities, that that has opened everybody's eyes, in a way, in philanthropy to recognize that somehow or another, the view that we had was myopic. And so how then do we actually open up our eyes in a different way? Part of it is that we've actually got to step back from some of the decision making. So when we created this Democracy Frontlines Fund, part of what we said is, “If we have less information and less knowledge about what's actually happening in the world, then why are we making the decisions about where the grants go?” So we actually put together this brain trust of people who have deep experience in funding community organizing and mobilizing – and funding Black-led groups which are part of the groups that we really see as being on the vanguard of social change and the vanguard of defending our democracy right now. And those folks were the ones who actually made the decision and curated the list of grantees for those funders. Now we're in a relationship, right? We’ve turned over some of the power to people who actually have a much broader vision than we do and we are gaining our satisfaction and setting a table for learning by being in relationship and being shoulder to shoulder, as opposed to across the table or directing. And that's, I think, the really critical part of how we in philanthropy need to shift our position.

ANTONY: That's great. I think it's easy to say and obviously hard to do and really admire and respect and appreciate you as a leader in walking the talk on so many of these issues. What do you say to people who argue that letting a brain trust of non-foundation people decide who gets grants is actually an unhealthy rejection of the expertise and objective view that foundation professionals can bring?

CRYSTAL: So, I think that it is really actually just reconsidering what we mean by data, what we mean by information, and what we mean by expertise. And in fact I actually had one foundation head say to me recently, he said, “Well, you know, I've been told that what we have to decide is, are we on the end that depends on expertise or are we on the end of things – the other side – that says we're going to depend on community experience?” And I think that's a false dichotomy. I think, in fact, people who have experience are experts and that we need to acknowledge and recognize that expertise and find ways to incorporate more of that into our decision making and that's actually what makes it stronger and more relevant to what's happening right now. If you look at what most foundations that fund democracy work do, their list of grantees doesn't look very much like the list of grantees for the Democracy Frontlines Fund. Why is that? Well, partly it is when you actually go to communities that are underrepresented in our democracy – that have been fighting for what we consider to be the principles of our democracy – we have to consider the full breadth of the humanity in order to think about people being able to participate. You know, there are groups in the Democracy Frontlines Fund slate that are working really hard to focus on defunding the prisons and police system. Why is that? Because Black folks are basically saying, “Stop killing us!” Okay, that's a baseline for how we are going to participate in this democracy. So, I think that there's a willingness to open up and think a little bit differently about what we have previously defined as democracy work. And that's part of what we're trying to do with Democracy Frontlines Fund, is open up that definition, fund what the community groups are telling us is essential, and putting those resources of general operating support, multi-year support on the table now to be in relationship to learn together over time, over the future.

ANTONY: I'm really interested this idea of listening at a different frequency and at the frequency of the communities you serve is one of the core guiding principles that you've had. What have you done as a foundation to create a listening device? Because the power dynamic makes it so hard, so often for foundations to be able to hear, because of the distortions that come from that power dynamic. What are the – when you look back at the work you've done at Libra, what are you either most proud of, or believe has been most effective in being able to overcome those power dynamics so that you can be an effective listener at that frequency?

CRYSTAL: One thing that we've done is to try to get rid of a lot of the bureaucracy and antagonistic relationship that usually is the beginning of most grantee-funder relationships, right? So, that whole grant seeking process which is like, you're on one side of the table, they're on another side of the table. You're kind of telling them, “Prove it” and they're sort of like, you know, trying to work really hard to demonstrate their effectiveness and it really is kind of a bit of an adversarial thing. And then, after you decide, okay, we're gonna make the investment, we're gonna make the grant, then suddenly we're supposed to become best friends and partners. I have found that usually it takes about another two or three years to overcome that adversarial beginning before you actually then develop a relationship. And so we just tried to eliminate that whole kind of adversarial part of it in the beginning. So we don't really have much of an application process. We invite our current grantees, we ask them, sort of, who are the other organizations that you could not do your work without? Who are the partners that are in your ecosystem that matter the most to you? Who are new people coming up who perhaps aren't getting a look that need other foundations to, you know, kind of take a look at them and support them? So, we're really trying to find those organizations through a rather organic process. We make a one-year, “getting to know you” grant. So, we kind of call them up and say, you just need to sort of send us your kind of basic information and then we're going to make a one-year grant. And then we use that year to get to know each other.

ANTONY: It sounds like, for you all, it's not just that having their trust is inherently good, it's essentially tied into your philosophy that you guys have described on your website, that the guiding principle – one guiding principle is that those who are closest to the issues understand those issues the best. Why do you all believe that about who is best placed to solve social problems?

CRYSTAL: Well, I think one of the – one of the guiding principles for us is just when we look at where we have seen really great strides around social change, almost inevitably those things have involved people who have been experiencing the issue themselves being really close partners with and kind of the deciders for what the policy is moving forward. I mean you can think about all kinds of issues. Even such things as like, you know, Moms Demand Action, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. You know, these are organizations that are founded by people who were dramatically impacted by those issues and who came forward and said these are – one, we're going to come together and heal together and two, we're then going to develop policy solutions. And I think if you look at social movements throughout this country that have been really impactful, that is a constant characteristic of them, is that the people who are most impacted are leading and driving those forces. We've certainly seen that we can get really great, and you know, powerful public policy changes from top-down think tanks. Those things have certainly happened. But we also find that when we don't, when that has not been done by building long-term political will amongst a broad swath of the population, it's really easy for those public policy wins to be rolled back with very little resistance, right? I think we've seen that over the last four years. You know, we look at environmental gains that we've made, we look at other things that have just kind of vaporized. And so that's really where we see the social movements that have at their core people who have experienced the issue leading are the ones that create the greatest long-term change.

ANTONY: And why is general support grants particularly important? I can imagine with that sort of vision and clarity of strategy, you might say, you know, we working on the issue of reducing voter suppression in the South, we have a target of X number of people of color registered, and you could have a very traditional, strategic philanthropic approach that says we want you to do this piece and you do that piece. You've taken a very different approach and said, ultimately, we are primarily going to provide general support grants and trust that our grantees know best what to do to meet what are for you very real goals. Why is that an obvious, you know, tool for you all?

CRYSTAL: My husband works in technology and he always jokes that like the most important word in startup land is pivot. And you know, nonprofits need to pivot all the time. No better example I can think of than what happened with COVID. We fund a lot of power building organizations that are doing community-based organizing: multi-issue, voter engagement, you know like talking to people for a long period of time. Helping them find a home where they can say, “Oh, this is where I can come to find solutions to problems in my community,” right? So, that's the kind of organizations that we've been funding. And after, you know – when COVID hit, those are the organizations that we doubled down on because they were the ones that already had the community’s trust. So, when people were like, “Where do I go to get my kid’s school lunch?” they were either part of the community process that worked with the schools to provide them or they had the information for people to know where to go and get it. When people were losing their jobs and they needed to understand whether or not they qualified for any kind of assistance, they were the organizations. Many of these groups were also groups that actually built up relief funds. They just said, “Okay, now we actually need to become relief organizations,” and they were ready to do that. So I think that's the kind of thing that general operating support allows those organizations to do, is to really be ready to respond to the needs as they change in communities, which is something we just can't do as foundations.

ANTONY: We all learned in July that MacKenzie Scott had donated $1.6 billion in the last year and a half almost exclusively in general support grants to organizations led by people from the communities they serve. Do you think this marks a watershed moment for other funders to follow this path? And why is it so hard for others to do, what to you, and my team at NFF, to our clients, just seems obvious?

CRYSTAL: Philanthropy is going through a change right now. I think it used to be that we got our satisfaction out of exercising power and out of directing work. And I think that that's a certain kind of, you know, positive feedback that people can get. And I think it's a pretty hollow kind of feedback. And I think more and more in philanthropy are recognizing that. Because we haven't seen long-term solutions as a result of it and the communities are saying to us, that's not what we need and that's not really what's helping us. And so if you really want to listen and form those partnerships, what they're saying is, “We need you to behave differently, we actually need you to feel satisfied and feel a sense of accomplishment out of a different set of activities.” And so that's really where we are, where we're seeing more people support, providing general operating support. More people providing more organizations that are on the ground, closer to the problems, more support. That's really where I think we need to be able to both direct more resources and get our satisfaction from being in partnership with those organizations. Not from exercising power and control over people.

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