Glass houses

Funders: You can make positive social change that lasts  

In Short

Results that last require sustained focus, a commitment to evolving strategy and a deep understanding of your investment. This necessitates zooming out to understand the conditions that impact the success of our efforts.

What will it take to make lasting change for women’s rights and to eradicate all forms of discrimination, harassment and inequity? As we celebrate Women’s History Month, many funders are at a crossroads as we contemplate this question.

Over the past few years, in the context of the #MeToo movement, the pandemic and a racial reckoning, we stretched giving strategies and practices in new ways. Now, many of us feel the pressure — from ourselves, our boards and peers to demonstrate the impact of those investments. The stakes are high amid this collective moment of reflection, occurring in the context of (and perhaps in response to) a complicated socio-cultural moment, that observers are alternately describing as “backlash,” “the pendulum swinging the other way” or “a correction,” depending on your perspective. 

How do we as funders step out of the way of this pendulum swing to continue advancing women’s rights and safety, respect, and equity for all?

As thought leader, grantmaker and practitioner, SRE Network takes the 30,000 foot view. We see a lot of doubt, fear and fatigue in the sector. These sentiments are both understandable and need to be addressed, at the risk of losing significant gains from these prior collective efforts.

Here are three parts of a winning strategy for funders who want to sustain and build on efforts to create more safe, respectful and equitable workplaces and communal spaces:

Understand Your Investment 

Results that last require sustained focus, a commitment to evolving strategy and a deep understanding of your investment. This necessitates zooming out to understand the conditions that impact the success of our efforts.

Take for example the increased attention around signs of the “Great Resignation” hitting the nonprofit C-suite. Many nonprofit funders are concerned about the impact of CEO resignations and burnout on their investments. And many  seek answers. Some suggest that nonprofit leaders are struggling under an outsized, unreasonable pressure to prioritize and address equity and other workplace culture issues within their organizations. In her piece ‘We’re All Just Waiting to Get Fired’, chief operating officer of Maimonides Fund Felicia Herman shared concerns regarding the stress that nonprofit leaders experience. Reflecting on the workplace changes of the past few years, she suggests “…in our desire to right old wrongs and fix imperfections both individual and structural, in our efforts to listen to victims who were long ignored, we let the pendulum swing too far.” She goes on to suggest, “We have invested far too much time, energy, and money in individuals and institutions to enable or ignore the forces making our professionals’ lives [nonprofit CEOs] so difficult.” 

But what forces make the role of our nonprofit leaders today so challenging? Undoubtedly there have been massive recent shifts in the workplace and society at large, and this has led to both new and evolving expectations of nonprofit leaders in the areas of workplace safety and equity. But how have funders and boards evolved their own strategies for effectively supporting nonprofit leaders in this new reality?  For example, a  Community Foundation of the Ozarks study on what was causing a wave of nonprofit CEO departures (18 CEOs or executive directors resigned in 18 months), the findings were surprising: nonprofit CEOs most frequently cited a lack of board support as the primary contributing factor in their decision to leave. 

Many leaders have “muscled through” these past few years and have experienced the impact on their mental health, their personal life and their families. During this time, while expectations on nonprofit leaders to improve workplace culture has greatly increased, support from boards and funders to engage in this work has not. This misalignment between expectations and support makes sustained efforts in this area nearly impossible. It is important that boards and funders ask themselves these key questions: How are we demonstrating a commitment to these issues? What are we doing to ensure that adequate time, attention and financial resources are allocated to help nonprofit leaders be successful in workforce culture efforts? 

Avoid “Glass Houses” Thinking

Committing to making long-term social change is not easy; some change efforts are ‘ideologically underdeveloped and uneven.’ It is important that funders acknowledge where our efforts may be young and in need of shoring up and fine tuning. This should serve as evidence of the need to go deeper, not shift gears. 

In Maurice Mitchell’s Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis, he highlights several core challenges within the current social change space. He explores for example what he calls the ‘fallacy’ of the concept of glass houses, the idea that “change on an interpersonal or organizational level must occur before it is sought or practiced on a larger scale” and goes on to explain how this thinking holds back meaningful progress, namely because “A glass houses approach prioritizes perfection (usually of a small group of people) over progress (on a societal level) by establishing unattainable tests that can consume individuals and organizations in a journey toward personal or organizational perfection at the detriment of broad and urgent change.” Mitchell emphasizes the need to utilize the “both/and” frame – to work on both the individual and the society simultaneously.

Embrace the Both/And Strategy for Your Giving

What if we were to apply this “both/and” frame as we reflect on our funding community? Where might a current “glass houses” mentality contribute to a pressure (both external and self-imposed) to abandon our more recent efforts and re-entrench ourselves in the comfort of our prior funding priorities and practices that pre-date these massive and critically important societal shifts of the past few years? What if “glass houses” are keeping us from the kind of “both/and” thinking that would enable us to see the possibility before us: That we have the collective funding resources, patience, persistence and clarity to both continue to support those causes that we have cared about for so long (be it animal welfare, education, health services) along with these critically important social issues such as gender and race that will persist without change without our efforts?

So this year, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us gain clarity from more clearly understanding our investment, let us move beyond the fragility of glass houses, and let us embrace the both/and of the unique moment. Yes we have achieved gains together, yes progress has been uneven and not without its challenges, and yes we can make lasting change, if we do it together.

Elana Wien is executive director of SRE Network (safety, respect, equity), which launched five years ago this month as the North American Jewish network to address gender-based discrimination and harassment and create safe, respectful and equitable workplaces and communal spaces for all. It has awarded $5 million in grants, has over 160 network organizations, guided dozens of organizations in refreshing policies and improving practices to ensure safety and accountability and supported institutions in reckoning with past institutional harm in meaningful ways.