Thoughts from a First-Time Conference Attendee

Monday, February 25, 2013 - 9:56 am EST
Zeke Spier

Let me introduce myself: I’m a young leader and a passionate advocate for social justice. I’m well into my second year as executive director of Social Justice Fund, a regional progressive public foundation. I’m an innovator. Since starting my role, I have implemented a new model of grassroots fundraising, leadership development, and grantmaking, resulting in significantly increased volunteer and donor engagement, interest in replication from around the country, and more than 60 percent revenue growth. I’ve spent time in the streets as a grassroots activist as well as the board room in the corporate sector. I believe that those of us with privilege-race, class, gender, sexuality-have a responsibility to work for equality and name injustice when we see it. I have seen the power of funding to transform society, but I’m deeply skeptical about institutional philanthropy.

For the last few years, I’ve started to get to know the philanthropic community. I became a member of the Board of Advisors of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) after attending two of their fantastic conferences. Although I did my best to crash the Council conferences in both Denver and Philadelphia (and had some good conversations in the hallways while avoiding Council staff), I have not attended Council events. I wasn’t sure if I was interested in an organization that didn’t take a stand on social justice or seem to address the assumptions, norms, and structural limits of philanthropy.

Whatever the specifics, taking money accumulated due to massive wealth disparity, avoiding taxation, and distributing 5 percent to organizations that ameliorate a small part of the human misery that the system creates is hardly a bold strategy for social transformation. We live in a world of rising inequality, increasing corporate political power, looming environmental catastrophe, and resurgent xenophobia and racism. We’ve also seen new movements arise from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, while grassroots organizations continue making progress in their under-resourced efforts to organize communities for social justice. We’re going to have to think deeply and open ourselves up to transformation if philanthropy has any chance of being relevant in this ever-changing environment. There is no single solution, but let’s start by talking about PRI, diversity in leadership, inclusive decision making, and prioritizing advocacy and organizing.

Thanks to a partnership between EPIP and Council, I received a “Stay in LA” scholarship to attend the full conference this year. As I have met more people in the field, I have a more nuanced perspective on the kinds of impact that visionary leaders can have within philanthropy and the value of neutral convening spaces like the Council’s conferences to catalyze necessary conversations. I’m grateful for this opportunity and I’m bringing an open mind, a hunger for new information and ideas, and a desire to engage.

I look forward to reporting back my experience at the end of the conference in another blog post. Meanwhile, it would be great if you comment with any advice you have for me to get the most out of the next few days. If you are interested in the issues I’ve raised (regardless of your perspective), I hope to meet you. Please seek me out. I can’t wait to chat!

Zeke Spier is executive director of the Social Justice Fund.

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