The following is a conversation between Meg Massey, Co-Author of Letting Go, How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: The events of the past year have shined a light on the way that philanthropy and impact investing is conducted. It comes as no surprise that decision-makers tend to be disproportionately white, male, and from backgrounds of privilege, and decisions tend to be made in a closed and opaque fashion. But there’s another story that’s unfolding – one where funders have chosen to cede decision-making power to people with lived experience of the problem at hand. And that story is told in an exceptional book titled Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control. And it’s a pleasure to have here with us its co-author, Meg Massey.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Meg!
Meg: Thank you so much, Denver. It’s great to be here.
Denver: Your co-author, Ben Wrobel, worked at Village Capital. And if I could say, in part, this book was inspired by the way they go about their investments. Share with us that process.
Meg: Yes, absolutely. Ben is the director of communications at Village Capital, and they have a really interesting model for making investments that differs from traditional Village Capital which tends to be all about who you know, and as a result, favors a lot of white guys who went to Stanford.
The way that they operate is they have a peer selection model. Village Capital runs accelerator programs for impact-driven tech start-ups, and each program focuses on a sector and a region. So like fintech in East Africa, they convene entrepreneurs who are working on fintech and who are from East Africa. In the accelerator program, they were cohorts together. They moved through the program. And then at the end of the program, they pick which of their peers in the cohort should receive an investment from Village Capital’s investment arm.
So, they are the ones who are making the decision. They’re from that region. They work in that sector. They know it intimately. And the result of that is they have a portfolio that’s close to, not quite, but close to 50% female. So it is really closing the gender gap. It’s also more diverse on other metrics, and they’re still performing extremely well. So you’re not taking below-market-rate returns when you do it through this approach.
Denver: No concessionary returns on this. No, they’ve done a fantastic job.
Meg: Yes. And so the book originated with Ben because he wanted to see who else is doing something like this. And he and I connected when he was in the very early stages of exploring that idea. We were at an impact investing conference in Amsterdam in the before times when international travel was still a thing.
Denver: Yes. We used to go to those.
Meg: I came from a journalism and communications background. And so, part of my job has always been trying to make impact investing more accessible, trying to get more people in that conversation– and not just mega-rich donors and investors– thinking about the impact of how they invested and gave their money but also making sure that everyone felt included in that conversation.
So he and I got into a very long, very intense conversation at this conference because even though there was a focus on “Here’s all the problems in the world that we want to fix, everyone there is very well-intentioned,” it still felt like there’s just a lot of white Americans and Europeans who are mostly men in a room, and there’s no one here who represents the problems that they’re trying to solve.
And that made both of us– and to their credit, a lot of people there recognize the same thing that we did, but we wanted to start exploring that question of: OK. We know that Village Capital at least is trying to do something different in their process. Who else is doing that? And that led us to exploring other models for what we’re calling “participatory investing,” and also on the philanthropy side, participatory grantmaking, which has– there’s a whole interesting history there. There’s a more kind of direct lineage.
Denver: Let’s stick with participatory grantmaking. What is that?
Meg: So participatory grantmaking is when decisions about who gets grant funding are made with and/or by the community that will be most affected by how that money is spent, who’s most affected by the problem that you’re trying to solve.
There are several different models for this, but that can look like working with a community to set the vision and priorities, the theory of change for a fund or a program. It can look like engaging the community to bring forward potential grantees or having them serve on grantmaking committees and vote on who should receive funding. There are three primary points in the grantmaking process where the people who will be impacted can be meaningfully engaged. “Meaningfully” is very important here.
Denver: I thought it was an interesting footnote, Meg, that one of the first participatory grantmaking efforts was started by an heir to the Pillsbury fortune around affordable housing. Tell us about that.
Meg: That was such a fun story to uncover. And George Pillsbury, that heir, he’s been doing great work ever since then. But yes, he was heir to the Pillsbury fortune.
His stock actually, when he formed the Haymarket People’s Fund, which later joined up with The Funding Exchange, they had actually launched the Pillsbury Doughboy ads in 1964. And so their stock had gone way up. So when he was a student at Yale in the late 1960s, he already knew he was getting a trust fund, but certainly, the value increased and he felt uncomfortable with that… with having that much wealth when other people had nothing.
He told us a really wonderful story about how, as a Yale student, he would quietly go to the New Haven headquarters of the Black Panthers and just leave money in a bag by the door. And he didn’t want credit for it. He didn’t want to make a big show of it. He would just leave it and walk away.
And after he graduated, he connected with other heirs from, I think one of them was the Sears fortune… there were a few other ones, and they all had been active in some of the ‘60s and ‘70s protests against the Vietnam war, for women’s rights. civil rights. And they felt very strongly that philanthropy– they didn’t want to just be giving to symphonies and museums… not that there’s anything wrong with that, but they really wanted a more socially conscious form of giving.
And so, they launched these small place-based funds where they gave the money from their trust fund. And it was the residents and activists from those places who decided how the money was spent. And they were often funding– at one point, Ben called it like they were seed-stage funding for these little activist groups that sometimes it was, “Hey, we need money to print flyers!” Or, “Hey, we need money to reserve a room in this space to have a meeting for queer people in the city because they’re afraid to come out.” It was like little things like that, that wouldn’t have been necessarily on the radar with big institutional foundations, but were real community needs, and they wanted to meet them.
So, Haymarket People’s Fund in Boston was started by George Pillsbury. And by the early ‘80s, there was a network of about 16 of them and they called themselves The Funding Exchange. And they all took this participatory model and implemented it. They did a great job. Their legacy is really getting philanthropy to be more social justice-minded, but participatory grantmaking didn’t fully catch on. There was a down period. And then in the last 10 to 15 years, it had a bit of a renaissance, which we write about in the book.
When you give people that ownership and they have buy-in, whatever you’re doing is more likely to be effective.
Denver: That’s for sure. Well, who knew? And it’s funny when you talk about what they were funding. They were funding things like flyers and meeting rooms that many funders would consider to be overhead, but that’s what the organization needed at the time to get stuff done. It’s so ironic. So, what would you consider to be the benefits of the participatory grantmaking model?
Meg: There are two big-picture benefits that we write about in the book. One, we call the “efficiency benefit.” And that is: if you are trying to address joblessness in Boston–I’m pulling that out of a hat– if you have the buy-in of people in Boston who are job searching or who have recently been job searching, if you have the buy-in from that whole community, the odds of whatever program or service that you’re offering as being more effective… they increase.
Building that trust with people and meaningfully engaging them, not just asking for feedback or having like a town hall-type meeting, but saying, “We want you to vote on this, and your vote counts. Here’s exactly how it will count. Here’s exactly where your input feeds into the process.” When you give people that ownership, and they have buy-in, whatever you’re doing is more likely to be effective. And same goes, if they say, “I know you guys really want to put in this program, but actually I think what we really need is this program.” If you pay attention to that, you can end up solving problems more effectively.
So that’s one argument, and that there are some organizations, some donors, where that’s a motivating thing, that this is simply a better way to spend money. And the Ford Foundation is currently funding research to basically put some data behind this very intuitive assumption. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence and a lot of very, very small scale studies, but there’s some funding now out there trying to build a more thorough evidence-based for it.
The other side of it is an equity argument. And that’s like the moral argument for this. That when you think about social change, even the most well-intentioned person, it’s very easy to get paternalistic, to kind of center yourself, and to “Look at me. I’m being so benevolent in giving this money.” I’m sure you’re familiar with it. There’s a whole history of this happening all over philanthropy, and your heart is in the right place, but it’s just like… this is a little tone-deaf. And when you are meaningfully engaging people and you are saying, “I am giving you this power. I want to help you. I don’t know what you need. You do. You know yourself,” I think there’s so many, many very deep-seated inequities that that can move forward in addressing.
There are some funds that we spoke to… we thought very explicitly as a form of racial reparations in the United States, that this was the way of them to make that right, which was something that we were seeing more and more of as we were writing the book last summer with the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd. And we were seeing funders very explicitly say that they felt that this was a form of reparations.
And when they approached it with that sense, it was, again, they were building goodwill with these communities. They were seeing it more as the path for building wealth in communities. So that rather than being dependent on grant funding, there was much more of a sense of agency and local control.
So defining success, that’s one of the most important steps. Bringing in other voices to defining the problem and what solving it looks like, that’s the essence of participation.
Denver: You bring up so many things to mind. Let me ask you about a couple of them. Meg, one of the more interesting insights in the book had to do with not just who has the power and decides to fund a solution, but perhaps even more importantly: who gets to define the problem in the first place? Talk about that some, if you would.
Meg: Yes. So defining success, that’s one of the most important steps. Bringing in other voices to defining the problem and what solving it looks like, that’s the essence of participation. It’s not saying, “I see this problem. I know how to solve it. Listen to me.” Rather than that approach, it’s being able to look at things from a macro sense– something like climate change.
Climate change is bad. I want to address climate change. Once you get beyond knowing that that is something that you are passionate about, that’s when it’s time to start thinking about: OK. If I care about either this issue or this particular place, who do I need to talk to to learn more about that, rather than: All right, I’m going to go off, read a bunch of books, and decide how this problem can be solved.
One thing that we write about in the book that I think is really important is valuing different kinds of expertise. So there’s the expertise that you get from getting a Ph.D. I have a degree in English History and Government, so I know a lot about those things from an academic perspective, but I didn’t live in World War II even though I wrote my thesis on it. So there’s that academic perspective, and it’s not that that doesn’t have value. That does have value. But that should not be the only type of expertise that is valued.
There’s also the value of someone who has that lived experience. And when you’re coming up with the idea of: OK. This is the problem that we’re trying to solve, and this is what solving it looks like, it’s so important to have those different perspectives there and to value them equally, and to value them for what they are. That there are certain things that you’re coming at something from one perspective; someone is coming at it from another, and there’s still a tendency to value what we call kind of white-collar expertise…. If you’ve worked on Wall Street for 10 years, if you have the Ph.D., whatever, and say that’s the only expertise that matters. And it doesn’t.
And so we look at examples of how this has been put into practice. And a really good example of this, I think this story is one I tell a lot when I’m trying to humanize this for people is the Brooklyn Community Foundation in New York City.
Denver: Oh, yes. Share it with us.
Meg: They’re terrific. So they started off as a bank foundation, like the giving arm of a bank. The bank went under during the recession, and they decided – we’re going to become a community foundation. And so as they shift to that model, what the incoming president and staff did was rather than say, “All right. These are all the problems we see in Brooklyn. Here’s how we’re going to solve them,” they literally went door to door in all the different neighborhoods in Brooklyn. And if you’ve been to Brooklyn, it’s incredibly– it’s one of the most diverse. I didn’t know this until I started writing the book. It’s literally one of the most diverse places on the planet.
Denver: I had the great pleasure of doing the New York City Marathon. You do those 13-, 14 miles through Brooklyn. It’s like you’ve run through the entire world. It is remarkable.
Meg: Yeah. It’s extraordinary– there’s no place on earth like it. I lived there briefly after college, and it’s so wonderful… all the diversity.
So, yes. They went door to door. They talked to Hasidic Jewish families. They talked to recent West Indian immigrants. They talked to young hipsters who were pushed out of Manhattan from rising rents. And they did a full survey, and they said, “OK. We’ve now talked to this incredible cross-section of people in the borough. Here’s the list of issues that people seemed to care about.” Then they invited all those folks to come in and say, “All right. Here’s what we heard from you; now help us set our priorities.”
And they had this really collaborative process. People were listening to each other. People were engaging, and the foundation made it clear that it wasn’t just that they were asking for their input, they were planning to do something with it. And they, ultimately, after running this process, they identified three areas where people really wanted to give to a focus, and they created a participatory process for grants in each of those areas, rather. And they’ve been very successful in terms of maintaining that community buy-in. They funded some terrific projects around the city.
In 2017, they really were able to prove that to the community because the community voted for– they voted to fund an advocacy group that was pushing for more affordable housing in a real estate development. And one of the developers was like a donor to the foundation. He knew all the people on the board. And technically the board could step in and say, “We’re not going to do this.” And they didn’t. They said, “We said you have this power. We’re being respectful of that.” And that was kind of a turning point for them because they were able to prove we really have given you this decision-making power and we respect your decisions.” And that story gets me every time because it just shows that at a very macro level, there’s a dearth of trust in the US and also elsewhere in the world. And they were very intentional about addressing that as part of setting their priorities.
One thing that we do try to emphasize is everyone has a role. It’s just a matter of finding one that fits with your lived experience and your expertise.
Denver: That’s a good story. Boy, there’s a lot of obstacles to getting this adopted on a full scale, but let me just cite one of them for you and see what you’d say. And that would be a staff person.
So Meg, what would you say to a program officer who’s gone to school, has been trained, has a lot of expertise in the field. And you’re saying to her, ‘That’s great. What we’re going to do is we’re going to go to the participatory model, and people in the community are going to get together and make the decision.” What happens to her? What’s her job? What does she do? How would you address that?
Meg: That’s a great question. And it’s something that we heard a lot about in the interviews we did while researching the book. And it’s a very valid question. No one wants to feel like their job is at risk. It’s a completely understandable instinct.
What we found is that program officers who found themselves in that situation, it was a matter of learning a different skill set. It’s not that they lost their jobs, but rather than being sort of playing an analytic decision-making role, they were taking on more of a facilitator role, and they were helping these community members.
In a lot of the models, the fellow applicants are the ones that they vote on projects for their region. They can’t vote for themselves. So they are running nonprofits and have a sense of what works, but they’re playing a role with helping them think through their decisions, playing that facilitation role. And it’s a different skillset than maybe what they were trained for, but it’s a skillset that can be built, and it can complement the other expertise that the program officer has built up.
We spoke at length with Mama Cash, which is a fund. They fund feminist organizations. They’re based in Amsterdam. And they shifted to a fully participatory model over, I believe, a four-year period, and they just finished it earlier this year.
And that was one thing that their staff kept saying is that we were still playing a role. We would get grant applications, and we would screen them for basic criteria. Like we do want you to be making, not have funding or existing funding above X. You need to be from these regions, whatever. They were doing that kind of basic eligibility screening. And then they were supporting the community members as they looked through the applications talking through what was most important, what questions to ask. And they were still tracking the implementation of the grant after it was issued.
So they still had a role to play, but it shifted to, again, this facilitation role. And that’s something that Ben and I found really, really interesting. That rather than– because the pipeline for roles like program officer roles has been a lot of MBAs, a lot of people who are bringing that mindset to philanthropy. And if this is really going to take hold, it’s going to be people who maybe have a background in social work, or other roles or teaching roles where they’ve played a facilitator role. And there’s going to need to be a combination of both changes in training, changes in hiring practice. But one thing that we do try to emphasize is everyone has a role. It’s just a matter of finding one that fits with your lived experience and your expertise.
Denver: You know what this sounds very comparable to, Meg? It sounds a lot like the distinction between a social entrepreneur and a systems entrepreneur. And a systems entrepreneur in many ways, first of all, you have to reduce the size of your ego because you’ve got to be in the center of everything. And then you have to just bring everybody along to be able to build consensus and make everybody feel valued and things of that sort. And this sounds very much along that same track.
Meg: That’s actually a really good point. I agree with that. Yes. With social entrepreneurship, with accelerator programs like Village Capital’s, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re offering resources and training and insights to these entrepreneurs, helping them kind of be the best they can be and then go off in the world and do their thing. And I think that it goes back to what we were saying about some of these really small activist groups that got funding from places like Haymarket People’s Fund being little start-ups.
Denver: Let me ask you about a big foundation because they’ve been down this road and are successfully scaling participatory grantmaking and investing efforts. And that would be the MacArthur Foundation. Tell us about what they have done.
Meg: That’s a great story. It’s one that I think could be a really good model for other larger foundations that are considering this model.
So MacArthur Foundation is based in the city of Chicago, and they’ve traditionally invested locally as well as all their other funding. But they had a program to support arts from the city – so galleries, museums, education programs, theater, what have you. And they did a study. I can’t remember now if it was them or an external group, but basically, a study showed that most of their grants funding was going to organizations that were in majority white parts of the city. And that it was also going to organizations that had a lot of funding, like symphonies or museums. Again, nothing wrong with giving to them, but they already had a lot of money. And almost none of it was going to neighborhoods that were largely Black and Brown people, immigrants, lower income.
And so, MacArthur became aware of this disparity. They said, “Well, that’s not what we want. We want to fix this.” And so they brought in a facilitator. They identified community members who could be part of the process. And they created a participatory process for the Chicago City Arts– I believe it’s called the CityArts Program, but I might be getting that name wrong. They identified these community members. They changed their approach for funding that program.
And that took a lot of conversations with the community. It took a lot of humility on their part to say, ” We’ve been screwing this up. Help us do better.” And then they put the rubber to the road and built this new process. And now they’re funding a lot of really great organizations that do work in those lower-income, more diverse parts of Chicago. Things like theater groups and afterschool programs – stuff that has a really wonderful impact.
And so, what we really liked about that is a) the humility piece. They were able to see a problem and own it. And that this is a case where someone had collected data on this and showed them, and they were able to see something they hadn’t seen before. And then they were able to go to the community and say, “OK. How do we fix this?” And they were able to change the process for that particular program.
I think that’s a really good model for a lot of large institutions to follow because they didn’t try to change everything overnight. Not that they could, because these are huge institutions. That was never going to happen, but they started with one program. There was a clear problem. They worked with a facilitator. They were intentional about engaging the community, and they committed to doing it for this one stream of funding. And obviously, we’d love to see them do that across more programs, but they found a starting point, and they were able to really commit to that work. And I think that’s great.
Denver: And I think the big thing there, too, is that if you structure in humility, it tends to spread across the organization.
Meg, let us turn our attention to impact investing and leading the way in much the same fashion as they did with program-related investments is the Heron Foundation. Tell us what they have committed to do.
Meg: The Heron Foundation, they committed to doing something pretty extraordinary, and they committed to doing it while we were in the middle of writing this book. So we were really excited. And they made an announcement almost exactly a year ago that their endowment, which was already 100% mission-aligned, invested fully for their mission, to turn over decision-making power about the endowment investments to the communities that they were serving. That’s a huge commitment that has never been done before.
And in terms of what that will look like, they’ve been very transparent about– they’re building the plane as they’re flying it. They expect there to be some trial and error, but they’ve committed to a phased process where they slowly do transition over a period of years. They don’t know how many will take it at this point, but they’re committed to that transition. They’re starting by first forming these committees in the communities where they serve. They will be then working with their endowment teams–I don’t know what they’re actually called at Heron–but similar to what we were describing with the program officers kind of taking on a different role. The folks who currently manage their endowment are going to be working with these communities to say, “OK. This is how this works.” And gradually, they will be transitioning that.
And they committed to that because they see they truly–and their president has said this in a number of interviews–that they see themselves as they’re just stewards of the capital. They’re ultimately serving these communities. So to them, this makes perfect sense as a next step after reaching that 100% mission-aligned investing.
So what they’re doing is really exciting, and it is very, very new, and I’m really excited to see where they take it. And also, I think whatever bombs they inevitably hit along the way in implementing that will be really instructive for other foundations that that’s too big a step for them at this point, but they could see themselves doing it down the road. Someone has to go first, and I think it’s great that they’re going first.
Denver: They did it with PRI, why not this as well? They are an extraordinary organization. Meg, what are some of the emerging models you’ve seen for flipping the power dynamics in impact investing?
Meg: So there are a couple of models that we consistently saw. On the participatory grantmaking side, there is more of an organized– there’s more kind of a set of models. Ben and I are part of this global participatory grantmaking community that formed over the last year. It’s got more than 300 grantmakers from all over the world, and they’re all sharing tips, and there’s not really an equivalent on the impact investing side. And the models that are emerging are a little bit more disparate than what we’re seeing on the philanthropy side, but they’re still really exciting.
So there’s the peer selection model that Village Capital uses. There’s a version of that that’s been adopted by SheEO. And they’re headquartered in Toronto, Canada, and they give zero-interest loans to women and businesses led by women and non-binary people who are social entrepreneurs. And they do a peer selection, like the investors who are giving, I think, it’s up to $1,000/year, so it’s also a little bit more accessible for folks. They vote on a slate of finalists. So, those finalists do a similar peer selection-type model. So that’s one.
The other one is adding community members to the investment committee. And we saw this with the Olamina Fund which was launched by Morgan Simon and Candide Group group in 2019. And they invest in financial institutions that are serving communities of color in the US and that are led by those communities.
And so, they have an advisory board that they formed made up of people of color who have experience running financial institutions, so they’re familiar with the issue. And they work with the investment committee to make decisions. So they have a seat at the table. I don’t know off the top of my head exactly what it’s like– decision split is, but basically, they’re very much part of that decision-making process. And…
Denver: It’s very smart. You’re going to get some good advice, too.
Meg: Well, exactly. And that’s their theory of change. And again, it makes perfect sense. Like these are people who are part of those communities, have experience with this. There’s no reason not to include them, if you ask me. But it’s also what struck me about that is I’ve never run an investment fund, but simply adding more or different voices to your investment committee is a pretty straightforward way to start rethinking how you’re making decisions. They’re not asking you to like start over from scratch, or it’s not some sort of massive risky lift. It’s actually very smart and very doable.
Denver: No question about it. Well, let’s talk about doable because you’re talking about some monumental changes on how philanthropy is done. Where do you begin? How does a foundation get started?
Meg: So we identify three decision-making points in both philanthropy and investing where we suggest that foundations or investors get started. One is around what I spoke about earlier: setting the priorities, the theory of change, the investment thesis —who are the voices in the room when you’re coming up with that. Who is there, who is not there, crucially. So that is one piece. I mean, you can’t always do it the way the Brooklyn Community Foundation did because they, in a lot of ways, had the benefit from starting fresh. But there are still ways if you have an annual priority setting or some sort of other process: think about how you can bring those. Think about how you can bring the communities you serve into that process. And there’s a lot of different ways to do that. The participatory grantmaking community at participatorygrantmaking.org, and they have a lot of resources on that step on the site.
The next piece is building the pipeline. So, for an investor that’s deal sourcing due diligence and on the philanthropy side, identifying potential grantees. We talked a little bit… it’s a related, but still separate issue of invite-only grants and limiting applicants to previous grantees, which there’s been a lot written about that. But basically, the problem with that is that you end up …you’re fishing in the same pond and eventually, you’re going to run out. But rethinking your approach to how you are sourcing those grantees, how you are advertising the fact that you were looking for grantees.
And also with diligence on the investment side again, you’ll get one type of advice from someone who’s been on Wall Street for 10 years than you will someone who’s lived in that community for 10 years. It’s just a different set of expertise who can tell you, “Actually that block, they’ve always wanted to have a grocery store there. So I don’t think that this other thing will be as popular as that.” You never know what the advice will be, what their insights will be, but making them part of that process. And again, there’s a few different ways of doing that. Take out your deal flow, take out whatever your process flow is and see where you’re getting inputs from and where you’re not getting inputs from, and start there.
And then lastly is what we call “vote and vet.” And that is when that’s the final decision. That’s the grantmaking committee, the investment committee. And again, it’s re-thinking, “OK. Who is part of this committee? What sort of power do they have? And how can we bring more voices into that? And how can we kind of keep doing that in an iterative way?”
We said often doing this book, that the process is the point. You’re going to be constantly in conversation with these communities. There’s all sorts of different things to consider. A great example is the Disability Rights Fund. They fund disability rights activists around the world. And not only is the world a very big and diverse place, but disability can mean you are blind. It can mean that you are in a wheelchair. It can mean that you have a mental disability. It can be something you acquire or are born with. That is a hugely diverse community.
So, with their grantmaking process, they are constantly cycling people in and out of the committee. They are very intentional about picking people from different countries and also thinking about: Are we privileging people who speak English, who don’t have physical disabilities? So there’s a lot of considerations there. And so, they’ve had to be in constant dialogue. And even if you’re serving a more homogenous community, you’re still going to need to be thinking about who is and isn’t at the table.
And so, what I’m talking about is definitely very kind of macro and philosophical, but if you simply look at: OK. Here’s how we’re currently making decisions. Those are the three points where you should look more closely and say, “OK. How can we plug other people into this? And how can we make that a habit?”
Change their culture. I think if you are truly serious about making change in the world, it starts with changing how you approach problem solving.
Denver: They’re an extraordinary example. And to your point, it’s never over. It’s never finished. It’s a journey. It’s a process. It just keeps on going forever.
Let me close with this, Meg. This is an aspirational goal, maybe a hope that you and your co-author have, but that’s where 10% of philanthropic dollars are allocated by activists and non-profit leaders, community members, rather than philanthropy professionals. What do donors and grantmakers have to start doing right now for that to happen?
Meg: Change their culture. I think if you are truly serious about making change in the world, it starts with changing how you approach problem solving. It’s not that someone locked in a tower has the solution, and you need to spread it among the masses. True problem solving is about partnership. It’s about trust and humility, and seeing yourselves as partners rather than as people holding all the power. That’s the first step that you need to take. And letting go, which is the title of the book, but really saying, why start with mistrust? Why not start from a place of: How can I help you?
I think it’s truly rethinking the approach to problem solving. That you can see problems in the world, you can want to solve them, but you’re one person. You have your insights from your experience, from your expertise. How do you harness that with other people’s lived experience, other people’s expertise, and how do you step back and listen to them? And say, “Here’s where I’ve experienced this problem. Here’s what I think the solutions are.” And treating that person with the same respect and humility that you would yourself. I think that really, truly– making it an equal exchange.
I think a lot of people still kind of intellectually, they can see that; emotionally, it’s hard to do. It’s hard to do that with just human relationships. We’re asking people to do something that exercises a muscle that for a lot of us has atrophied, especially in a year where we were all shut up in our own homes and kind of in our own heads a lot of the time. But it’s really important.
And the afterword of the book, I do want to end on this, in the afterword of the book, Ben and I wrote about how this all ties into the question of democracy. We live in Washington, D.C. We were a couple miles away during the Insurrection on January 6. And almost the next day, we immediately started writing an afterword that spoke to that just much, much bigger, much, much bigger issue, again, about trust, about rebuilding our institutions, and about helping people get away from this idea that there are powers on high that make decisions and you can say something, but no one really cares. This sort of dearth of trust and how we can start rebuilding that.
There is equivalence to what I’m describing in government with participatory budgeting, policy juries which they’ve experimented with in Ireland and a few other places. Even legislative theater where they’re using art and acting to engage people in different types of problem solving. And those are like civic muscles that have atrophied a lot. And luckily, there’s a lot of ways to exercise them. But obviously that was something that being here during that moment, that really hit some stuff home for us.
Denver: Absolutely. The title of the book is Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good By Giving Up Control. And you’re going to be donating 50% of the book’s profits to the Decolonizing Wealth Project Liberated Capital Fund, which supports indigenous, Black, and other people of color-led initiatives working for social change. I want to thank you, Meg, so much for being here today. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Meg: Likewise. Thank you so much for having me.
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