Global Trends Impacting Minnesota Funders: Are We Prepared?

Friday, March 17, 2017

By Bruce Thao, Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow

I recently returned from Mexico City, Mexico, where I attended the WINGS Forum 2017, a gathering of global grantmakers, grantmaker-support associations, and NGOs. The focus of the conference was Critical Philanthropy, and several themes that cut across the workshops and plenaries were regarding social justice, digitization, and the intersections of philanthropy and social business to address inequality.

For me, the political and geographical context within which the conference was taking place was particularly important. Here I was in Mexico City, a month after the inauguration of an individual who thinks that building a wall across the US-Mexico border is a good idea. I should note that the only knowledge I had of Mexico City before my trip was of negative stereotypes that it was dangerous, overcrowded, and not worth traveling to. My assumptions were deeply wrong about this beautiful city. I was blown away by the art, culture, museums, parks, bike lanes, efficient public transit, cleanliness, and kindness of people. Locals told me that about 12 years ago Mexico City was the city we had heard rumors about—infested with drug lords and gang wars, unsafe, and scary. But the drugs and gangs have since left and the city has been revitalized. That was evident during my trip. I’m sure there are still the dark sides to this city, as with any metropolitan area in the world, but I felt incredibly safe and welcomed.

Shortly after my return from WINGS Forum, the United Nations Foundation and U.S. Council on Foundations hosted a convening in Minneapolis on integrating the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals framework into local-level work. Mayor Hodges joined the conversation and emphasized the importance of bridging local and global. Now more than ever, MN funders must pay attention to the trends happening around the world to inform our strategies and investments.

The key themes from WINGS Forum that MN funders need to pay attention to are:

1) Advancing & Promoting Democracy and Civil Society

In the U.S. and around the world we have seen a swing towards the political right and—even further—towards fascism in many places. Philanthropy has several opportunities here:

A) To re-calibrate our moral compass and let that drive our work moving forward. This includes centering our work on the most vulnerable and most at-risk right now. In the U.S. (and sadly in much of the world) the most vulnerable are immigrants/refugees, the Muslim community, the LGBTQ community, and women and girls (particularly women & girls of color).

B) In the short-term, this might look like resourcing community-based organizations led by the above groups, supporting organizing, advocacy and legal services, and providing rapid response funds to these communities.

C) In the long-term, this could mean investing in convenings and programs which seek to bring diverse people together for cross-cultural & interfaith community building, healing and reconciliation. At WINGS Forum, representatives from the Community Foundations of Canada talked about bold work foundations in Quebec engaged in to bring communities together after the horrific attack on a mosque in Quebec in early 2017. They also discussed how foundations across Canada have adopted a reconciliation and healing approach to all of their grantmaking, particularly in regards to First Nations communities. The European Foundation Centre discussed ways foundations in Brussels, Belgium stepped up to fund protections for the Muslim community and dialogues across communities after the bombings in 2016.


2) Trust

Vu Le (author of the “Nonprofit with Balls” blog) has written eloquently in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about how the current times require a new social contract between foundations and non-profits. This was also a common theme at WINGS Forum as well. With the rise of fascism and governments which are working directly against the key areas foundations are trying to advance (equity, human rights, education, health, etc…), non-profits need to know that they can trust foundations. They need to know that we have their backs. This isn’t just about money. This is about going to bat for communities even when we don’t have to—ESPECIALLY when we don’t “have” to.

Philanthropy has a unique opportunity to hold institutions accountable (this includes corporate, government, etc…) in ways non-profits and communities cannot. This is not about politics. This is about ensuring that the entities which hold power over communities are responsive to the needs of their constituents. Foundations can be a key liaison between groups to facilitate dialogue, ensure the voices of those most impacted are heard, and to follow up for accountability from all parties. This isn’t about foundations leading in these spaces; it’s about leveraging their unique positions and social capital to support community voices.

To adequately assess whether there is trust between foundations and grantees, foundations must be willing to take a step back and ask several hard and critical questions. Foundations must raise their levels of self-awareness. Some of these questions include:

  • Is our funding providing an added value to grantees beyond financial investment?

  • How are we leveraging our social capital to amplify the challenges facing marginalized communities?

  • Are there regular feedback loops for grantees to honestly and anonymously provide feedback to foundations?

  • Are we providing funds in a way that best supports communities to create their own solutions? (This may include providing general operating funds, etc…)

  • If we claim to seek systems change, do our investments reflect the reality that systems change takes a very long time and deep investment?

3) Digital Security

A final theme from WINGS Forum was regarding digital security. Digitization, while positively advancing the world and the field of philanthropy in many ways, also comes with increased risks. The reality is that most of us are not prepared for these risks, but foundations, non-profits and social movements need to be thinking about and preparing for them now.

With models like GiveMN, Go Fund Me, Kiva and many others, crowd-sourced funding is revolutionizing giving. But with the rise of coordinated cyber-attacks and data security breaches across government, corporate and non-profit sectors, everyone must now have a digital security strategy. Are MN funders currently funding and supporting this need?

At WINGS Forum environmental activists and funders from across Latin America discussed the increasingly hostile situation activists are facing. Not only are well-funded, strategic cyber-attacks taking place against activists and funders, but the death toll of activists in Latin America continues to rise. Locally, in MN and across the Upper Midwest, we have seen cyber-attacks and death threats targeting immigration, LGBTQ and environmental rights activists.

Now is the time to have critical conversations across sectors regarding digital security, transparency in how data is being collected, what information is shared and collected through crowd-funding or petition platforms, and who has access to this data. Communities need resources to better understand how to ensure digital security measures are in place and the funds to set those up.


As Minnesota’s population continues to grow more and more diverse, it requires us to look up, look around, and pay attention to what is happening around the world. The local is global. That is no longer an opinion. It is a fact. As Minnesota funders we have an opportunity to lead nationally and globally by demonstrating how adept and responsive we can be to the ever-changing needs of our communities. Staying engaged in what is happening locally and globally ensures that we are prepared for both the present moment as well as for what is yet to come.

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