Philanthropy and Impact

Danny Stock

GDS had the honor to welcome Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, Annie E. Casey Foundation president and CEO Lisa Hamilton, and Skoll Foundation CEO Don Gips for the penultimate 75th Anniversary Speaker Series panel discussion in the 2020–21 school year: Philanthropy in a Time of Social, Economic, and Political Unrest. The discussion was introduced by GDS's chief advancement officer Lynn McNair and moderated by Head of School Russell Shaw.

Community members are invited to review the recording from the event.

The evening featured a compelling conversation with these three top foundation leaders during which they shared how they—and the foundations they are charged with stewarding—are tackling the role of philanthropy in sustaining the racial justice movement, eliminating health disparities, compressing economic gaps, and improving educational outcomes for children. They discussed how their foundations are responding to the confounding issues of our times, shifting the narratives to focus on institutions led by people of color, and innovating through impactful giving. 

Even before the panel began in earnest, Darren Walker and Don Gips both shared that they had received enthusiastic notes from members of the GDS alumni community in advance of the panel. “While I was aware of GDS,” Darren said, “I have been made aware of the potency of the GDS alumni because my inbox and my phones have been ringing nonstop since you sent this message out. It's one thing when you're speaking at Davos or Sun Valley or one of these places to hear from people, but my goodness I don't think I've ever encountered such a powerful force—what a community this GDS group is. It's really quite remarkable, so kudos! And it just makes it even more exciting for me to be here.”

The panel opened with a discussion of the multiple pandemics gripping the nation, the enormous privilege philanthropic foundations like theirs carry that allow them to operate without the constraints of the private or nonprofit sectors, and the urgency for philanthropy to do much more. 

Lisa explained that Annie E. Casey is “an organization that I think has always put the basic needs and issues of kids and families front and center...trying to keep families together, trying to help families have financial stability, trying to keep communities safe. That's all we do. And we can't do that unless we recognize the role of racism and racial equity in that mission. So in some ways I feel like we had been trying to exercise and get our muscles built up for a time such as this. It didn't require us to pivot what we were doing, but [instead] to try to muster every ounce of everything we've learned over our history to bring to bear in this moment.”

The conversation quickly pivoted to systemic change, advocacy, and lifting up the voices of marginalized communities to inform on action planning and policymaking. In a conversation with the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson the morning of the panel, Don was reminded of a learning experience from a grant Stevenson rejected nearly two years ago because Skoll had put too many restrictions on it. Stevenson told Don, “No, you're diverting us from our work.” “We learned from that [rejection],” Don explained, “to recognize that we don't have the solutions, and we need to empower those closest to the problems.”

Darren shared a story that highlighted the importance of empathy, listening, and what Lisa called “leading with curiosity.” “Privileged institutions, even progressive ones like the Ford Foundation, have learned a lot from our impulse to want to do good in the world and how that can actually turn to harm if the path to doing that doesn't start with the people we want to impact,” he explained. Darren recalled a billionaire philanthropist who decided he wanted to build a hospital in Tanzania. “Who in Tanzania asked you to do that?” Darren asked him. That really struck a chord with former GDS Board of Trustees member Ralph Cunningham ’79—who repeated that question in sharing his highlights and note thanks for the event.

Don echoed the essentiality of listening and advised: “Focus not on trying to solve somebody's problem but to empathize with where others are coming from. That opens up the doors to the real conversations we need to start having.”

Lisa said, “Approach these issues with curiosity rather than with an expert lens. Asking a question is the way to start a conversation—not asking questions of the system leader—but asking a question of the frontline caseworker, or of the family. ‘Tell me what you needed to be different that would have made this a better intervention in your life.’ ...It's extraordinarily important to have the voices of those who are most impacted by the issues we're working on to have their voices, their ideas, lifted up and invested in.” 

The conversation covered the creation of GDS’s new Center for Civic Engagement and the ways GDS students can grow in their capacity for social impact work in the world. Darren explained his focus on the three “i” words: ideas (or innovations), institutions, and individuals. His charge again and again was that more needs to be done. "We've been tinkering around the margins,” he said. “To really engage in empowering low-income communities and people of color, we are going to have to give up some power and control...There are many paths to excellent philanthropy and impact.”

Lisa said, “Engage young people in the creation of [the Center]. They are never short on great ideas.”

Many thanks to our esteemed panelists and their staff for making this impactful evening possible.

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