Community in Philanthropy: What it is, why we need it, and how we can build it

By Dr. Albertina Lopez

This piece was originally published on Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ blog, and has been republished with their permission.

Recently, I was chatting with my colleagues Drs. Divya Bheda and Kathleen Doll about community—what it looks like in higher education and what it means when you value equity—on ExamSoft’s Pedagogo podcast.

Our conversation got me thinking about the role of community in philanthropy, the sector in which we work at the Center for Evaluation Innovation. I realized that, in my experience, we talk a lot about communities that are “served” or that are “affected.” The use of othering language ends up distancing practitioners from thinking more deeply about community and what it means to be in it. Rarely—outside of personal conversations—do we speak about our own communities, why they matter, and what they mean for how we show up both professionally and personally.

What is community?
I am inspired by Mia Birdsong who wrote How We Show Up: Reclaiming Community, Family, and Friendships because she brings our need for belonging and interdependence to the forefront and invites us to think about the kinds of relationships we want to have in order to get to the future we want to see. She dismantles the ways the “American Dream” has taught us to be in relationship—losing our sense of connection to others and promoting extraction and hierarchy, which isolates us and prevents us from feeling the joy, connection, and love we need and deserve.

I see community as belonging, as reciprocity, as a source of power, as feeling and being known, as life-giving and life-affirming. I see community as a beautiful interdependent web of love that binds us, holds and cares for our pain and joy, and inspires and nurtures our growth.

Why does community matter in philanthropy?
If we are to meet justice while working in a field filled with wealth gathered from stolen lands and enslaved people, then we need each other to move resources to where they should go. We need to hold ourselves accountable in an environment that asks very little of us, and to support and encourage each other when our surroundings try to pull us back toward a status quo that normalizes oppressive ways of being and doing.

We cannot realize justice alone. A quote from Change Elemental articulates this well: “… we see the growing complexity of today’s problems as a call to collaborate and connect… [We need to be] committed to … embracing the necessity of collaboration to fuel transformative change. [We need to] connect across divides, overcome habits and practices that hold us back, and re-make strategies and systems together to ensure the well-being of all. [We need] to embody the kind of thoughtful, ethical and equitable collaboration that can fundamentally remake our world into one of love, dignity and justice for all.” If we are to answer calls like this to collaborate and connect so that we can be in and get to justice, then we need community.

We need community, but how can we build it?
First, check in with yourself: What are your core values and dreams? Then, go find your people—those who share those dreams and values. These are the threads that bind and connect us.

For example, two of my core values are justice and love, and it is vital to me that I live them in my day-to-day. I have been on a journey since earning my PhD in evaluation and organizational learning and development to unlearn (and relearn) how to align my work with those values. So, when an email crossed my desk a few years ago welcoming interested evaluators to contribute to an edited volume on intersectionality in a way that threw the conventional behind-closed-doors process out the window, I saw an opportunity to find more of my people. The invitation was to be in community, creativity, and possibility so that we could collectively explore, deepen, and expand upon new and old ways of shaping and using knowledge within traditional and alternative institutions. My inner voice said, “Yes, please. Sign me up!”

I jumped on the first webinar and through the initial nine months of meeting, talking, and engaging, I had grown close to people who share my dreams and values, like Drs. Divya Bheda and Kathleen Doll. I could see my role in how to support our community in the collective action we were pursuing, and I offered my facilitation skills to them to support our movement forward. They graciously accepted, offered their own roles to be documentarians, contributors, and more, and we have been collectively organizing and advocating for just ways to shape and publish knowledge ever since. We like to call ourselves Mavens, and we have been very intentional and explicit about how we want to show up together, which contributes to how we sustain and maintain our relationships.

How can we sustain community?
Love is central. bell hooks teaches us in her book All About Love: New Visions that love is not solely an emotion, but a set of intentional actions that we express over time. Through her broad systematic review, she brings forward M. Scott Peck who explains in his book The Road Less Traveled: “Love is as love does.” It is expressed through action. What do loving acts look like? bell hooks says we need to embrace a collection of behaviors including “…care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.” These acts of love help us to be in right relationship and to bind the threads of our communities together in ways that not only strengthen and sustain them, but enable them to be life-giving and life-affirming.

In philanthropy, those of us working toward and in equity and justice are being called to be loving with one another. For example, the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project (TBPP) calls us to build mutually accountable relationships and to move power so that we can live equity as we work to achieve it. TBPP emphasizes vulnerable, open, honest relationships that can help us to navigate our work in authenticity and integrity. Shiree Teng and Sammy Nunez wrote a brown paper about the necessity of Measuring Love in the Journey for Justice because we cannot get to transformation without it, and as many of us know in our work to learn about impact, what gets measured gets valued and attended to.

In my own community of Mavens, loving means that we show up for the easy and the hard. We have had tough, messy conversations where people had their feelings hurt and we had to stumble our way through how to go about being nurturing, respectful, and caring so that our relationships could heal. We needed to listen and repair. We needed to balance holding on and letting go. We needed to put our relationships and our community first. We needed to mix all of bell hooks’ ingredients of love that connect us.

As we find our people and build and sustain the communities that help us thrive and move toward justice, let us be in our authentic, imperfect, beautiful humanity. Let us give grace—to ourselves and those around us—as we move in and toward justice. We need each other.