Rodney Foxworth: Lovingly Critiquing Philanthropy
Where We Go From Here | Episode 9
Rodney Foxworth, CEO, Common Future
“What are we in this work for?” asks Rodney Foxworth, CEO, Common Future and NFF board member. Philanthropy has the ability to make huge lasting changes in communities, but too often the focus is on accumulating wealth and power through their endowments rather than investing in communities’ potential to change themselves. “I think most people are attracted to the work because they actually want to make a difference,” Foxworth says. This is the heart of his “loving critique” of philanthropy in articles like The Need for Black Rage in Philanthropy and How Liberatory Philanthropy and Restorative Investing Can Remake the Economy. “Many communities do in fact have the capacity to own their own development power,” Foxworth says. “Philanthropy has an opportunity to invest in that capacity or maintain its own power.” He hopes for a future where philanthropy shifts wealth and power to communities and the institutions within them, and where American society places more trust in people of color to lead and develop their communities.
ANTONY: Hey Rodney, how are you doing?
RODNEY: Is this a real question or you just want to know how I'm doing?
ANTONY: Would love to talk a little bit about your relationship with philanthropy, because I feel like you have been a consistent voice of very morally righteous critique for years. You're also a Ford Foundation Fellow. You're part of an incredible class of leaders who've been selected to be part of Ford Foundation. So you took that Fellowship. You also supported publicly a critique of Ford Foundation's recent decision to raise a billion dollars through the bond market to support additional grantmaking. And last year you wrote something in early 2019 that really reads like something many other people are writing now. You said, “The goal for foundations should no longer be to accumulate wealth, further enabling wealth inequ[al]ity to persist. Foundations must fundamentally change their way of operating by redistributing wealth, democratizing power, and shifting economic control to communities. This requires a shift in our underlying assumptions about the role of capital and our underlying approach to philanthropy.” I'm really interested about how you hold onto those truths while also going to those same foundations who you're saying have a moral obligation to stop accumulating wealth and asking them for their money. So, how do you navigate the need to draw on these resources from our existing system to fund the work that ultimately seeks to upend that system?
RODNEY: Antony, I think that we live in nuance and we live in complexity, right? And so it’s important that I myself willingly engage in this nuance – and I don’t think everyone should nor has to. And oftentimes, you know, I have a little bit of a jealousy of those who can really focus less on this nuance, this sort of approach, but can actually dive in more completely into disrupting the system. And so, Antony, around the same time that we first met, a few months later, I had published a piece, “The Need for Black Rage In Philanthropy,” that actually received a lot of attention, you know? I did not realize that it would. I was getting hundreds of emails – hundreds – particularly from African American leaders in philanthropy. And the reason why I bring this up is because when I wrote that, there were people – friends of mine, colleagues– that were really concerned, you know, said, “Wow. Is Rodney okay?”
RODNEY: Is he okay? He’s writing this piece. And I remember a funder saying to me at a gathering that we convened after saying, “Well, you know, when I read this piece that Rodney wrote, I thought to myself, ‘Wow. He’s really biting the hand that feeds him.’” And I bring this up because one of the challenges that I think philanthropy needs to grapple with is that philanthropy does not in fact feed Black and Brown folks. Right? I think this is part of the thing that it’s philanthropy as a sector as a strong catalytic effect, but I think that mentality alone, you know, that this Black man from West Baltimore is being fed by philanthropy, that does not sit well with me. And I think that approach, though, unfortunately, is across the sector, that kind of mentality. So for me, when I think about my critique, it’s really a loving critique. It’s really about: What are we in this work for? Is it that we want to accumulate wealth and power, such that certain individuals and institutions can maintain that power and grow it? Or are we actually in the work of social and racial justice? And when we think about it whether – when you bring up the critique that I supported a Ford Foundation’s decision to issue bonds – it was a very smart finance, of course. I could understand that. At the same time if the central activity is to maintain an endowment, rather than, say, gifting pieces of the endowment to communities most impacted, allowing for investments into economic structures that can actually build up the capacity of communities that have been most impacted by injustice; those are types of questions that I believe that philanthropy needs to ask. Because again, when I look at the preservation of, say, an endowment, one of the conclusions I make is that only those with endowments should have the decision-making ability as it relates to impacting social and economic and racial injustice, right? And I don’t agree with that. I mean we know that one of the reasons why we’re in this scenario is because of extraction and exploitation. And so, one of the considerations around that, is for organizations like myself – I mean, I’m pretty unique in the sense that I am an African American male from a place like Baltimore, not Ivy League educated, you know all of these sort of things, leading an institution of a certain size and moving forward with it. And I would say that from that perspective, I’ve lived it, I’ve experienced it, and I’ve seen it up close: that many, many communities do in fact have the capacity to own their own development power. Philanthropy has an opportunity to invest in that capacity or maintain its own power. We’ve seen a number of institutions make decisions to say we’re going to prioritize – whether it’s like Chorus Foundation saying, “Hey, we’re not only going to spend down, but it’s not about spending down. It’s actually leveraging our capital to enhance the ability of communities most impacted to actually develop their own economic power for the long term. So, our foundation will disappear, but this community will have ownership and decision-making power over itself.” And so I think that is something that – you know to me – I think you can have a conversation about both, because I don’t suspect that most folks who enter in philanthropy are saying, “I really want the system to maintain forever.” They don’t consciously believe in that. I have to believe that is not what consciously people think about. I think most people are attracted to the work because they actually want to make a difference. They want to make change. And so, if you can really start to think about other ways of making that change, that actually get you closer to your objective, I think there’s a process and a way that you can communicate that with people. That’s how I think about the way that I could lovingly critique philanthropy and try to leverage those resources.
ANTONY: Yeah, that totally makes sense. What do you hope could be different at a timeframe of 10-20 years from now because of what this country has gone through so far in 2020?
RODNEY: Yeah, I would hope that 10 years from now there would be less need or dependency upon philanthropic resource. I think that philanthropy is always going to have to play a role. And what I’m talking about, Antony, I’m not talking about more institutions doing earned income, right? I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about actually, Black POC (people of color) institutions and communities, and institutions not necessarily defined as 501 – nonprofit, by the way, 501(c)(3)s. I think that’s critically important when we look at it from a racial perspective, that some of the most impactful organizations are not in fact in that form. And so, what I would say is that in 10 years a less reliance and in fact philanthropy being catalytic investment such that these institutions and communities again have more economic power and ownership for themselves. Right? And so, again, that goes back to your question about my support of that critique of Ford, is that actually: Would we be able to make more impactful change if say, communities in the Delta had $3 billion of their own resources that they directly controlled versus having to work within institutions and outside institutions to drive that type of investment? What if they had it themselves? What are opportunities for us to build over the next 10 years a real economic infrastructure that’s supported or invested in by philanthropy that enables that sort of shift? That is the future that I would like to see in the next 10 years. I think we can do that. To your point, am I optimistic about it? No, but I’m less cynical.
ANTONY: What would it take for the people listening to this – what do they all need to do differently to help that vision you described become real over the next 10 years?
RODNEY: Well, first of all, Antony, there has to be a belief in Black and Brown people. That’s the first thing. The culture that we live in, backed by white supremacy, anti-Black racism, it actually diminishes our own – the way that we view and see Black and Brown folks, not just in this country but everywhere, right? We actually render folks invisible. We certainly don’t see women of color and in the ways that we need to. And so, I think that’s the first step. But, the truth of the matter is, if you simply have belief in these communities, the rest of it is actually pretty easy. You know, I look at like venture capital. Seventy-five percent of entire capital-backed businesses are founded exclusively by white men. We also know about 75 percent of venture capital-backed businesses do not return capital to their investors. Now, if that were the case and 75 percent were Black women, venture capital, I believe, would not exist, right? As an industry it would just cease to exist. And I bring that up to say that we’ve demonstrated the capacity to trust and believe in certain segments of our society and completely diminish and write off others. So the first step I do think that foundations, investors, etc. have to believe in, is they have to believe in the capacity and brilliance of Black, Brown, people of color communities, those that have been most impacted by economic injustice. And the fact that folks are able to lead despite all the remarkable challenges that have been placed upon us, is actually, you know, very encouraging. So, what I am optimistic about, Antony, is I’m optimistic about the ability of those who have been most impacted to continuously uprise, right? I have balanced optimism around that. And so, I think if others and philanthropy and those in investment had that same sort of belief, things would unlock and change pretty remarkably fast.
ANTONY: I know we only have a few more minutes left. Anything else you wanted to cover that we didn’t get to?
RODNEY: Well, Antony, you know, while we have a few more minutes, I think it’s really interesting to get a perspective from you on how are you seeing things? What’s your level of optimism? How are you balancing right now, because NFF has this really unique role. And you as a leader, independent of NFF, have a unique role. So, I’m just curious, how are you feeling right now?
ANTONY: Yeah, I mean so we’re fascinated by the potential in this moment to really take this idea – that we can exist to be allies rather than leaders – to its furthest conclusion. And to be totally frank, the journey with the partnership with Common Future has really helped crystallize that for us. Because I think we – at least as we see it – you came to us and said let’s be partners in doing some work, because NFF has a platform around economic … moving money, and you guys have a network, and let’s put those two together. And then you came back to us and said, actually, in this moment, we don’t need you as a prop. We’re going to build that ourselves. So, it challenged the NFF team to say, well, if we’re serious – to your point about our moral obligation to live our values – then we are going to take this idea that we exist to help organizations like, Common Future, to its logical conclusion, which forces us into a role that we don’t have a precedent for. It might be out there. But the idea of what does it mean to truly build an organization entirely premised around financial allyship to others is something intermediaries say they are about but, I think it’s very challenging. So my team is super excited. I as a leader, have to both confront the business model implications of that, but again I’m just going to walk in faith and make it work. But the other point is, you and I, we’ve all been raised in a certain dominant cultural set of norms about what is leadership and how is leadership measured and how is success measured? And we are being challenged to upend those and generate a set of norms that is around: What is an equitable culture as opposed to a dominant culture? So it’s disorienting and it’s exciting, but I also say that my stress comes not from worrying about whether NFF will be okay. It comes from worrying about whether I will be a worthy leader of the moment. That’s the stress I have, because I think while crisis has always been in our communities, the fact that there has been a national awareness around crisis gives me a sense that we have a window that will not be open forever, in which we have to move forward.
RODNEY: Well, I appreciate that, Antony. I think that the more and more people see how you can lead in these moments, I think it’s so impressive and transparent.