Is your philanthropic foundation extractive?

Extractive versus regenerativeThere’s a lot of discussion in the farming world about the importance of moving away from extractive practices and instead embracing regenerative agriculture – here’s a recent relevant story from the Waikato.   Might some of these same considerations apply to philanthropy?

Let me start with a couple of dictionary definitions:

extractive: the withdrawal of [natural] resources by extraction, with no provision for replenishment


philanthropy: the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money

Given those definitions, you would think that extractive philanthropy should be a logical impossibility, right?

Not so, according to Justice Funders, a US-based organisation working with philanthropy to “re-imagine practices that advance a thriving and just world.”  It seems that it is not only possible for philanthropy to be extractive, it is also probable that we are exactly that, even for those of us who believe we are community-focused and progressive.

Have a go at their highly practical self-assessment tool, called a “Spectrum of Extractive to Restorative to Regenerative Philanthropy.”  This spectrum looks at eight key aspects of a philanthropic organisation’s work – world view, relationships with communities, leadership, operations, endowment, grant-making strategy, grant-making process and grant-making decisions.  The tool then describes the approaches and processes which typical funders use in each of these areas, and categorises these as ‘more extractive’, ‘less extractive’, ‘restorative’ or ‘regenerative’.

Take “operations” for example.  ‘More Extractive’ processes concentrate on carrying out the wishes of the trustees / donors, and applicants must prove they are worthy of support through onerous due diligence processes.  ‘Less extractive’ processes follow a similar path, but mitigate this by trying to avoid undue inconvenience for applicants, grantees and communities.  ‘Restorative’ processes prioritise the needs of the foundation and the needs of grantees equally.  Finally, ‘Regenerative’ processes “are primarily oriented around how to best support grantees and communities in achieving their vision of social change.”

How do we measure up against criteria like this?  How many of us can honestly say that our processes are not primarily designed for the benefit of staff and trustees – albeit for the very good reason of facilitating robust decision making.

What I like about this tool and the provocation from Justice Funders is that it  challenges any complacency we might feel, and it provides clear guidance on how we might do better, including case-studies.

And if philanthropy is about “promoting the welfare of others” but our practices put our own organisation first – then yes, we need to do better.

Gaining a better understanding of social justice funding was one of many insights I gained from a philanthropy retreat which I recently attended in Canada on the topic of social cohesion.  This was hosted by the Social Innovation Exchange – thank you team SIX!   Thanks especially to retreat participant Jon McPhedran Waitzer from Resource Movement  for challenging my thinking and pointing me at Justice Funders and other useful resources.  



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