Angelique Power and the power of trust in philanthropy
The new head of the Skillman Foundation reflects on MacKenzie Scott’s new giving approach
MacKenzie Scott, who has given away more than $8 billion in unrestricted gifts over the last two years, announced this week that she would no longer announce the amounts or recipients of her gifts. Scott is one of the most high-profile donors to ascribe to the concept of trust-based philanthropy, which centers on multiyear, unrestricted funding.
Scott’s methods of giving have made waves in the philanthropic community. “Because of this act of trusting organizations to know what’s right for themselves, she’s become a trusted philanthropist,” Angelique Power, the new president and CEO of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, told eJewishPhilanthropy this week.
Power moved from Chicago, where she led the Field Foundation, to join the Skillman Foundation, which works with children in Detroit through a range of programming and initiatives to position them for educational and professional success. In a wide-ranging interview, she discussed uprooting her family during the pandemic, how trust is the key to philanthropy and her Black-Jewish identity.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Melissa Weiss: You made the transition to the Skillman Foundation in September. How are you settling in? What has it been like to make this big career switch in the middle of a pandemic?
Angelique Power: I have an 11-year-old daughter, and I’m married, and we all had a conversation about doing this in a pandemic. Everyone felt like this was, in some ways, an opportunity to extend the best learnings of the pandemic. So the pandemic slowed us all down. I used to travel one week out of every month. I’ve never cooked as many dinners as I did during the pandemic — and still do — and spend so much time with my kid that we didn’t really want to give up on that. And we felt like this was a way that we could upgrade our lives by being near a city, being near a small town, being with the school that my child can walk to, which is really incredible. And so we all decided that this was the right move for us. And I think that made the transition easier. And so we are grateful. We are so happy to be in this space. And even if it’s like, the housing market was crazy, there was flooding, there was a lot of stuff like that happening — we are approaching it with a lot of gratitude.
MW: I like that you talk about it in the sense that this was a family decision.
AP: I don’t think I would have felt that way pre-pandemic. If a pandemic didn’t happen, this would have been a career move. I loved where I worked, I worked at the Field Foundation [in Chicago]. I ran a different foundation there focused on racial justice. A lot of the work that I led was to help the foundation understand what racial equity and racial justice means, and to start to live it in its values in 2016. In many ways, we were training up for 2020. So when that year happened, we were ready. And we had already done the work to change our grantmaking. So I do think that the pandemic allowed us to gel as a family and realize that there are certain things that we want to live out. There’s so many terrible things that we could talk about that we are still dealing with in the pandemic, but a connection to self and being centered and connected to nature and connected to family is something that I’m carrying with me.
MW: I wanted to talk a little bit about the role of faith-based organizations doing different types of anti-poverty work. Often they can encounter bias from philanthropies and from government when they’re looking for funding. You’ve worked in this space for so long, I would love to know whether you’ve observed that, and where those roots come from.
AP: Well, I’ll say that it’s true, and there is a rationale behind it. I pulled some numbers around giving in 2020. So, in 2020, Americans gave nearly $500 billion philanthropically, and the truth is, the majority of that came from individuals. So 69% of total dollars that were given through philanthropy came from people like you and me. And I think we sometimes think of foundations, because they’re so public and out front as the main distributor of philanthropic dollars, but it’s individuals. So when you look at where the majority of that $500 billion went, most of the money went to religion. So actually 28% of the total pot of $500 billion went to religious organizations — churches and synagogues — and then it’s a big leap from there to get to the next biggest amount, which is 15%, went to education. And then 14% went to human services, which is health and food and shelter. And then it goes down from there to, like, [the] environment and animal welfare and arts and things like that. So I’ll say just the rationale, I think, for a lot of public foundations is 1. That it is being covered in other places. 2. I think it’s a little more complicated in that it’s a little bit of separation of church and state. So there’s the feeling that foundations tend to look at issues that they’re trying to address, and then fund organizations that are, you know, agnostic in terms of philosophy, but really just focused on, in some ways, an academic approach to solving that issue.
I was actually a part of conversations earlier this year brought together by Muslim leaders who were really strongly against that practice, and were trying to push against it, because they felt left out of a tremendous amount of funding that was happening when they are working on issues. And you could make that argument for Jewish communities as well, along with Christian communities, that a lot of the issues around homelessness, around domestic abuse, around health, that, in fact, within religious communities, these are trusted ambassadors that are delivering services in a religious, cultural, ethnically sensitive way that makes them more effective at delivering those services. So I can see all different sides, there’s like a sort of the rational, ‘Where’s money going?’ And then there’s the more philosophical, ‘Who is the right deliverer, the service-delivery methodology behind it?’
MW: The Jewish community has started to see the benefits of unrestricted, long-term grants. MacKenzie Scott’s gifts are a great example of that. But there’s this kind of trust-based philanthropy that we see now. Do you think it’s having an impact?
AP: Absolutely. I unequivocally believe that trust is the main variable that leads to impact in anything in terms of if a business will be successful, if a marriage will be successful, if children will be able to learn in schools. It’s really the glue to make sure that everything that we’re pursuing works. What’s complicated about philanthropy is that money and power are often synonymous. And so while the sector is directed at helping, being the arbiter of how capital moves makes you — in some ways, it jeopardizes trust, just in that act right there. It creates this uneven scenario where people are coming to you asking for funding. And then something happens in philanthropy… where people start to believe their own hype, you know. I call it, like, the fallacy of expertise in philanthropy, where even if you used to do really great work in the nonprofit sector, and that’s what got you in philanthropy, once you’re there, you’re there to move capital. You are not the expert on what an issue needs to be solved, what metrics need to be put on an issue. The experts are the people that are most proximate every day, working overtime to solve the issues. They should be the ones to determine how they use the money, what impact looks like, if it’s even measurable. And so then you have to kind of go overboard in philanthropy, and if you don’t center trust as the thing you’re solving for — you’re trying to create trust — then the rest of the investment isn’t really going to have any impact.
So many people have actually been practicing what MacKenzie Scott did. Many people have been saying for a long time, ‘Unrestricted general operating, release burdens on grantmaking, release burdens on reporting, remove metrics that are strenuous,’ but I think the shocker that happened with MacKenzie — and I’m obsessed with the way that she did this — I think the shocker of it is that this very wealthy white woman, who I think most of us would assume is in this sycophantic, surrounding culture — because very wealthy people are surrounded by sycophants who just sort of tell them what they need to be told — that she somehow found a crew that gave her the real advice. And she listened to them. I have long said that I’m obsessed with Mackenzie Scott’s crew, who got no credit. There is a crew there that said to her, ‘No, first of all, we’re going to sweep the nation and find the most interesting smaller organizations, many of them Black- and brown-led, we’re going to not ask for anything, we’re going to just find them like a hurricane, we’re going to like get out of the way and let them do their thing.’ And she’s a very public person. And because of this act of trusting organizations to know what’s right for themselves, she’s become a trusted philanthropist.
MW: I’m curious to see, in a post-COVID world, if that becomes more of the norm.
AP: It’s a big question. Grantmaking practices changed during COVID. Foundations pooled funds. They didn’t make it about their process, they removed process. Foundations are just one part of philanthropy. Nonprofits are philanthropists, like the mutual aid networks that popped up overnight, where nonprofits that might be working on community organizing would suddenly raise a million dollars and send it right back out the door. They could easily find people who needed cash and food and their bills paid and [be] driven places. And so in order for foundations to not fall back on old practices, I actually think we need to study how nonprofits reacted during COVID. And learn, ‘How do you remove some of these things?’ And it’s a policy lesson, too. We’re talking about guaranteed income and cash assistance. It’s not just giving organizations the ability to do what they want with money. It’s giving people the ability to do that too.
MW: You’ve been on board for three months. What do you see as your goals for this first year as you’re getting settled in?
AP: I’m in the midst of this yearlong listening tour where I’m sitting with young people for the most part, which is the coolest part of my job, but also principals and teachers and civic architects, and asking them all like, ‘What does this moment need? What does Detroit need? And what can we do better — in philanthropy and at Skillman?’ And so all of that is fueling a part of our learning of how do we rise to the occasion. There are certain lessons from 2020 that I am trying to help us realize, one of which is around racial equity and racial justice. We are at this moment of undeniability that there is an exquisite design of racism, that is creating outcomes without our consent. And if we do not actually remove that from our design of systems, we’re going to still get these broken systems that are harming everyone, not just Black and Brown people, everyone. So we’re doing a racial equity audit at Skillman, so we know exactly where the money is going. We’re studying power internally, and how it moves. We’re studying racial justice, which is different than racial equity, which really means power-building in communities to be designers of their own destiny. We’re studying systems change. Everyone is using language like, ‘We need to change systems.’ But I don’t think most of us know what that means. And so we’re studying ‘what does education systems change actually look like? And how do we play a role in that?’ And we’re focused on young people and their power.
MW: The racial equity assessment that you mentioned, is that something that’s becoming more common for organizations to do?
AP: It’s something in Chicago that we talked about a lot. And there are actually racial equity assessment tools that have been created that can be used. I find that there is a distance sometimes between people who have adopted the language of racial equity, and the ability to operationalize it through things like an audit, and a transparent process around changing your practices. So it is actually not a hard thing to do. It’s something that I would highly recommend every organization in different sectors use to begin the actual work. But I don’t know if it’s widely accepted yet.
MW: What keeps you up at night?
AP: Last week, there was a school shooting that happened in Michigan… I have an 11-year-old daughter. I had a call the very next day, a listening session with principals in Detroit who were grieving, even though this was an hour north of Detroit in a predominantly white community. And I was sitting with Black and brown principals. They said to me, ‘School leaders of wherever you are, we are all united in hero leadership. That’s all we’re trying to do is show up every day to do the best we can.’ So they were grieving. I will tell you that there have been 28 school shootings this year alone, 20 since August. And that is when students are returning to the classrooms traumatized; there’s so much trauma. And in this school shooting was a traumatized 15-year-old, who had drawn pictures asking for help going into a classroom carrying a gun made available by his parents. And so lives were lost, and trauma multiplied that day. My kid is 11. And she went to school on Monday for another training on what to do when a school shooting happens — when — and came home telling me a story about how you run for this door, you run through that door, you barricade in this classroom, you pick up things to throw at the shooter. And if, God forbid, you don’t make it to the classroom, the door won’t be open for you, because the teacher has to protect those inside. My 11-year-old came home thinking through how to save her own life. Just imagine in a place with pastels and inspirational things on the walls and awards that people have won — places that are supposed to be nourishing. There’s so much trauma that’s mounting right now, that if we do not center it, if we don’t put it directly in the middle of everything we’re trying to do, not just for the young people, but for the teachers and the bus drivers and the school office workers and the principals. If we don’t center it, then we multiply it. We give it our consent to grow. So that keeps me up at night.
MW: On the other side of things, what gives you hope?
AP: Young people give me hope. So we did this research at Skillman where we asked young people in Detroit about their perceptions of their future. And hands down, the majority of young people felt optimistic, they felt powerful, they felt like they had agency in their future. And that actually gives me so much hope because, you know, when I was sitting in June of last year, I started watching and this is part of why I’m here in this role. I started watching these uprisings that were happening around the world — in Chicago, but all over the world — and noticing that they were led by young people. They were mostly in many cases, black and brown, multiethnic, multicultural, multigenerational, coalitions of people that are young, saying, ‘We do not want incremental change, we don’t want your solutions anymore. We want to change the whole game.’ And I was like, ‘OK, let’s see this happen.’ And in fact, let me dedicate my life to moving those barriers out of the way, to moving resources, to recognizing power and seeing what young people will do to make a difference. So I think that they will bring justice across systems, every system in ways that we have never seen before.
MW: I’d love to kind of get a sense of a challenging moment or experience that you’ve had in your career. Where you had to break through on your own.
AP: Well, I will tell you when I first started my first real job…I was in graduate school at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where I was getting a master’s of fine art. I had a part-time job at Marshall Fields, which was a department store, in the public affairs department. And I would go between classes, and I would do assistant work. And I had a boss, her name is Laysha Ward…. I was making copies of grant proposals, because Marshall Fields gave grants out of their public affairs department. And I was reading through all of the grants while I was making these copies. And I turned over the copies to her with a Post-it note on every grant with my recommendation of if they should be funded or not. And that could have gone either way…But she instead called me into her office and challenged me on my recommendations. ‘What did the finances look like? Well, how did the last grant go? Well, why this one instead of that one?’ It was a Mishnaic conversation that began with this lovely woman. And we ended up working together for years, she kind of took me with her, I moved to the Twin Cities, I was promoted, I worked in Target Corporation. And she laid out the chess game for me at the time to be a Black woman in corporate philanthropy like her — she actually gave me suits of hers to wear. She laid out the landmines of what it means to not only be a woman in corporate America in the late ‘90s, but to be a Black woman, and a Black Jewish woman for me. And so it was really quite an education. And I think that a lot of what I learned there is that you could feel like you have to fight your way to get a seat at the table, you could assimilate into a culture and appreciate that you made it, or you can create new tables. And you can assume that there’s so many other people that will make those tables better by reenvisioning even what the room looks like. So that is why I don’t feel lucky to have made it this far and keep the door closed behind me, I’m walking on so many paths laid by ancestors. And I think that we have an opportunity to just do it differently. So it’s more than passing the baton; it’s like, hoping that the next generation will take us somewhere else.
MW: Your mother is white and your father is African American. What was it like growing up in a community where multiracial families were less common than they are today?
AP: Hyde Park, on the South Side of Chicago, is a predominantly Black and Jewish community, which is really wild… So I don’t have a sad biracial story. Because I always say, like, ‘If you’re going to be Black and Jewish, you should grow up in Hyde Park. That’s kind of what we do.’ And there are a lot of actual biracial families that were white and Asian, or Black and Asian or Black and Latinx. So it was when I left Hyde Park, that I realized how unique my upbringing was. And I feel like I grew up with kind of a passport into different cultures, and ways of being that I carry with me to this day.
MW: What role does faith play in the work that you do now?
AP: You know, I will say one thing about being Black and Jewish, which [is that] I don’t have what other Jews who look like the classic definition of what one thinks a Jewish person looks like. I don’t have the nod in the Jewish community, the way that I have the nod in the Black community. Do you know what I mean? ‘Oh, you’re an MOT.’ Like that doesn’t just get said to me randomly. And in fact, I remember when I did go away to school, telling people like, ‘Oh, I’m Jewish, and having Jewish people say to me, “Well, prove it.” And the saddest part is that I would, immediately say, ‘Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech.” I was so eager to show.
But I think to your point, to this day, there’s a much broader awareness that Jews come from all over the world and look so many different ways. So that didn’t actually happen to me until later in life. And because of that, I still am a little shy at times about going to different temples that are not ones where people know me. I still have that feeling… I’m just being very honest with you. Like I’ll be a temple and I’ll find myself like, letting people know I can read Hebrew. Like ‘It’s OK.’ And I can’t tell if that’s them, or if that’s me, at this point, to say like, ‘Accept me, accept me.’ So religion for me is very personal. I identify strongly with my upbringing. I went to Hebrew school twice a week. I was bat mitzvahed. But it is not pageantry at all. It isn’t about showing up and being in a space and being in that community. It’s about tikkun olam. It is about tzedakah in the real word, [the] meaning of justice. It’s about chesed, it’s about not just loving kindness, but the ministry of presence of showing up and being there for people. It’s about studying: studying words, studying language, how it’s used for us or against us. And really believing my worship is making the world more just — that is a big part of what Judaism is to me.