Too often, we assume a partnership between two or more philanthropic institutions represents true “alignment” – even when they are divorced from the people and dynamics on the ground. Furthermore, there is usually a lack of clarity around the intended outcomes and benefits to the community. Philanthropic partners often do not ask this critical question before announcing a new program or initiative: Are we aligned on what root causes we are trying to address?

Issues facing communities of color are interconnected and complex, and when the philanthropic space fails to align our work around root causes, we are asking communities to do the work for us. We run the risk of adding trauma to communities by raising expectations that are often dashed after a year or two of funding, after which the partnership peters out to make way for a new, shiny initiative.

Alignment in philanthropy must go deeper than institutions just knowing about each other’s work and applauding each other. Instead, we must fundamentally change how we work and relate to each other. It is in this belief that Living Cities, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, launched the Regional Inclusive Economic Growth working group to explore the notions of alignment and action within the field. We wanted to create a space to practice the principles of the anti-racist results-based accountability framework: data driven decision-making, continuous improvement, and equity-centered practices.

The pressure on us to maintain institutional reputation can be a critical barrier to alignment…

Given the historical sensitivity of these kinds of efforts and discussions, we prioritized the rapid creation of this space so that it could be both safe and uncomfortable, where philanthropic leaders could confront how race shows up in our work. During an analysis of the root causes of philanthropic misalignment, for example, we were able to collectively acknowledge that the pressure on us to maintain institutional reputation can be a critical barrier to alignment, and that that pressure is rooted in a cultural norm of risk avoidance that often shows up in white-led institutions. What this usually yields is partnerships in which there is high action and low alignment–where there are a lot of activities happening, none of which actually get to the root causes in order to produce measurable outcomes and system change.

The only way people will feel that we are working differently is if it’s actually something different. Modeling the way we center racial equity in our meetings instead of just talking about it, actively naming and practicing antidotes to white supremacist culture, has sparked tangible changes in our capacity to trust one another with difficult truths about our institutions, see each other’s full humanity, and thus work together as true partners. We kicked off our working group’s initial meeting with Danez Smith’s “dear white america” driving group members to contend with their personal relationship to race rather than taking cover in the perceived immutability of our roles within our institutions. Throughout the group’s six-month journey, we deepened our relationships to the extent that we could go beyond sharing data and stories from our individual programs, and we grounded ourselves critically in Living Cities’ racial equity values and in the history of the places where we work.

The only way people will feel that we are working differently is if it’s actually something different.

We acknowledged that for far too many institutions, there is a self-preservation element to “not making too much progress too soon”. Philanthropy’s power is rooted in money and access, and because of this, the power is much too often unchallenged and left without real mechanisms for accountability. Our field too often perceives it to be lower risk and safer to operate in silos because then there is no one to hold us accountable to measurable outcomes, let alone a larger shared result.

To work towards high alignment and high action, we must take an anti-racism approach to our results framework. If we are serious about moving at scale to high action/high alignment, we need to build our collective tolerance for uncertainty and face the truth that success should ideally mean that we are working to put ourselves out of business, working toward a societal state in which we are no longer needed. Alignment calls us to be clear about why things are the way they are and change them by transforming them from the root causes.