Decolonizing Wealth by Decolonizing Power

by Ramla Bile

Reading "Decolonizing Wealth" by Edgar Villanueva was a cathartic experience for me as a person of color in philanthropy. In a single book, Villanueva curated and retold experiences that many BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People/Person(s) of Color) have collectively endured in philanthropy, and did so in a way that enabled him to be heard in an industry that privileges wealth and is resistant to these narratives. The book gives foundations a common language to discuss these issues with others in our own organizations and throughout the sector more broadly. The value of the book is the space which it occupies in decolonizing philanthropy, and the extent to which the voices of BIPOC were uplifted, heard, and affirmed. As writer Arundhati Roy once wrote, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

In addition to amplifying the voices of people of color, Villanueva highlighted some critical concepts:

  • On white supremacy: “In a world of white supremacy, white people are considered credible, the experts and the authorities, while non-white people are often dismissed as untrustworthy and unreliable” (p. 26).
  • On hiring diverse candidates: “The newest data from the Council on Foundations shows that the number of people of color and the number of women in philanthropy has actually decreased” (p. 61).
  • On how resources are spent: “In 2014, only 7.4 % of philanthropic resources were granted to people of color,” down from 10% in the 1990s (p. 76).

When you consider these realities, it’s no surprise that foundations struggle to meet the needs of BIPOC communities. There’s a challenge in philanthropy and other fields where there’s a desire to co-opt the language of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) world without placing these values into practice. In many ways, “Decolonizing Wealth” is a call to action for the philanthropic sector. In fact, the second half of Villanueva’s book offers steps to healing, and a big part of this work centers around “putting all our money where our values are” and using money “to heal where people are hurting and to stop more hurt from happening.”

Put simply, it calls for healing where colonialism has caused harm and reinvestment to address where public investments have been eliminated. It means holding community frustration that comes from years of harm and disinvestment during site visits, events, and in other interactions. Our relationships with community members and organizations must be able to withstand the pressure of hard, uncomfortable feedback.

To really honor the spirit of the book, foundations need to disrupt problematic themes in philanthropy and bring their values around diversity, equity, and inclusion to life through sustainable, fundable actions.

Addressing Common Themes in Local Grantmaking

There’s a desire in philanthropy to put our sympathy into practice, particularly as communities are hit with tough issues like the immigration raids, the encampment in Minneapolis, violence on black bodies, or the Muslim ban. But while it’s incredibly important to be nimble in the face of immense harm, our giving needs to go deeper so it’s centered around creating sustainable change and not just about assuaging our guilt.

“How do you give money to impacted communities in a sustainable way?” questions Nekessa Opoti, a consultant who helps foundations maximize their community impact. 

Opoti says that for more systemic and long-term change, we need to go beyond reactionary funding and work toward building the infrastructure of those who are already doing the work. This can be achieved through capacity-building grants, ongoing commitments beyond the crisis, program-related (impact) investments, and facilitating influential connections, among others.

“Community organizations are constantly paying out of pocket or relying on informal systems. So much community labor is un- or under-funded. We need to ask ourselves how we support the groups who are doing the work, but don’t have the nonprofit infrastructure to participate in the grantmaking process,” she added.

While supportive of rapid response funding, Opoti encourages foundations to see these issues as a sustainable part of their portfolio versus one-off funding. Whether it's inhumane detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border or travel bans at the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport, it’s tempting to see issues as a “flash point,” as Opoti referred to — yet these offenses are not isolated to a particular moment and they don’t happen in a vacuum. They are part of a broader narrative around xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism that must be addressed in an ongoing way. 

“I worry about how philanthropy walks into a community in an attempt to ‘save them’ with temporary financial resources. That funding is not a disruption. Unless it’s sustainable funding, it perpetuates disparities. Philanthropy has to figure out how it’s supporting communities on the issues that render our communities vulnerable in the first place,” Opoti says.   


How Local Foundations Are Promoting Equity

The next frontier of grantmaking involves building community power and finding ways to extend our philanthropic power through strategies like thought-leadership, impact investing, and inclusive portfolios (in terms of representative leadership, size of organizations funded, etc.).

In fact, we cannot talk about decolonizing wealth without working toward liberation, and without truly ensuring that BIPOC communities have the resources, power, and support they need to self-determine. One way foundations move toward decolonizing wealth, as Villanueva discusses, is by adopting a long-term equitable lens to the work. As we think about what sustainable funding looks like in communities of color, below are some promising practices from the local philanthropic community in Minnesota.

At the Bush Foundation where I work, we’re encouraged to actively use an equity lens throughout the grantmaking process  — not just when making a funding decision. Too often, funders want to practice equity in this final stage, but are not in the space of sourcing and coaching those who have historically been marginalized in philanthropy. The Community Innovation team at the Foundation actively sources proposals from, and provides coaching to, organizations that are BIPOC-led and/or those serving rural communities. While this is an equal-opportunity process where anyone can sign up for a conversation via the Bush Foundation website, our targeted outreach is equity-driven. This practice gives community-led or smaller organizations with limited administrative power or staffing a chance to meaningfully participate in the competitive grant process. The Foundation tracks equity-related projects and community-led organizations in its database to have a more accurate understanding of who is applying and who is getting funded, and to identify needs for proactive outreach and coaching.

Conversations within the organization continue to push the envelope on what transformation can be achieved via deepening our understanding of equity, which once again calls to mind the title of the book and all the historic weight it evokes. “We want to make sure that we have a balanced portfolio of grantees that reflects the diversity we see across the region. This also gives us a chance to reflect on gaps and opportunities we see,” says Mandy Ellerton, Community Innovation Director at the Bush Foundation.

While not perfect, the discipline of injecting equity in process and practice has enabled constituent-led and rural communities to get funded. Sadly, foundations are professionalizing grantmaking to the point that criteria fit becomes more about mental gymnastics than values/impact alignment. We may lose sight of the fact that having the best grant writer isn’t the same as having the best approach or producing the best work. To an extent, we sometimes privilege those who can finesse language to match our complex theories of change over those who may find our language inaccessible or confusing. Foundations that don’t have adequate staffing can support this work by either independently contracting coaching services with a lens for equity or by simplifying their criteria.

Regardless of your foundation’s size, here are some conversation starters to see how your organization is faring in terms of equity in grantmaking:

  • Do you have publicly available criteria that tells organizations how your foundation is making decisions?
  • As constituent-led groups ask questions about your criteria, are you able to problem-solve with them in real time or does your criteria hinder your own grantmaking power?
  • Does your organization have internal mechanisms/operations in place to comprehensively support an equitable grantmaking process through targeted outreach, inquiry, and feedback loops?
  • Are you getting a good mix of BIPOC/impacted communities as applicants and funded programs?
  • Has your organization set and/or achieved its desired outcomes in terms of a diverse, inclusive, and equitable portfolio?

Another way local foundations are addressing equity is by shifting how they recruit and hire staff to facilitate a more open process. In 2017 and 2018, the Pohlad Family Foundation identified “housing stability with the goal of preventing and ending homelessness” as a priority. In a recent job posting for a Program Officer, I was struck by the required qualifications for the job. The foundation stated: "Bachelor’s degree OR combination of relevant professional and lived experience." Too often, foundations require bachelor’s or master’s degrees on job postings, which perpetuates existing disparities in employment. Considering that only 27% of Minnesotans of color over the age of 25 have a bachelor's degree or higher, the justification for including this requirement should be substantial. We must ask ourselves: At what point does a degree add value to the job and when does it become another barrier that keeps people out?

Pohlad’s decision to expand its thinking on minimum requirements encouraged some previously marginalized individuals to apply. Through this act, Pohlad opens the question of what it means to be an expert. Program staff and human resources staff worked together to develop a posting that “represented the organization well and helped a potential candidate identify themselves in the opportunity.” Moreover, it places equivalent value on formal study and lived experience — affirming that having a degree does not automatically make someone a content matter expert, nor is the value of impacted/lived experience diminished. This is a small act that has a potentially meaningful impact in terms of the wisdom and perspective that is brought into the grantmaking process and strategy.

“Be specific about the skills that you want in job postings and job descriptions. Avoid using inflexible credentials and minimum qualifications — like educational degrees or certifications — as blunt stand-ins for more specific skills. If you want someone with good writing skills and the proven ability to meet deadlines, say that. You'll be clearer on what you're trying to find and the pool of applicants will be wider,” Stephanie Andrews, Talent Development Director at the Bush Foundation, wrote in a recent learning paper on recruiting with an equity lens.

Here are some additional conversation starters to see how your organization is faring in terms of representation:

  • Do a mix of people across racial, economic, and social lines see themselves reflected in your organization’s job descriptions?
  • Is your organization relying on consultants or a few gatekeepers in place of deep constituent engagement?
  • Who is at the table when decisions are being made at the staff or board level and who is left out?
  • Do existing BIPOC staff feel heard and valued for their expertise or do they feel tokenized?

Equity isn’t a thing a thing to do, it’s a way of being. Decolonizing our work will require that we ask questions, and challenge dominant-culture values at times. We’re often tempted to program the heck out of problems — forgetting that programs have an end date. Instead, we can imagine alternative ways of operating that are not steeped in years of white supremacy and work toward incremental change. We can continue to ask ourselves the tough questions like: What are we doing beyond financial resources? How are we using thought-leadership to support transformative change? Are we only speaking up when it's safe or are we doing it when its bold, and when marginalized communities need allies? Are we using our influential networks to advance communities? And finally, are we building toward liberation?

Eduardo Galeano, a scholar informed by the great and diverse canon of decoloniality, shared this valuable approach to philanthropy: “I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”


Ramla Bile is on the Community Innovation Team at the Bush Foundation. Prior to this role, she helped nonprofits, foundations, and small businesses amplify their impact through consulting services, including grantwriting. Ramla is also a published writer and racial justice advocate. She co-founded and writes for Ubuntu: the Collective, a platform that spotlights emergent issues impacting the global black diaspora.