Recently, a client approached me with a challenge: is there a way that our organization can call out the President of the United States’ recent racist and abhorrent statements, even though we aren’t explicitly a social justice funder?
She pointed to the Nathan Cummings Foundation, who in a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, called on other foundations to speak out against the rise of hate. That foundation, though, specifically funds organizations that track extremist activity, trains communities and movement leaders about the manifestations of white supremacy, and supports organizations that hold leaders accountable.
Our client’s organization, on the other hand, is focused on a host of initiatives that benefit the community in the areas of health, education, and the arts—but doesn’t explicitly refer to social justice in its mission. It raises the question, do funders who improve their communities in a variety of areas have credibility when it comes to speaking out about the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers or issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other injustices?
After all, isn’t there a risk that they’ll be told to stay in their lane and focus on their areas of expertise?
The counter to that fear, of course, is that silence equals assent. Foundations, especially, can be risk averse and thus can unintentionally support damaging language, actions, and policies by failing to raise their voices and flex their power.
Consequently, foundations and community organizations have no choice. Simply because of the weight of their influence and power in steering community outcomes, highly influential organizations have a responsibility to speak out against injustices and their causes, especially when it emanates from the White House.
Sean Gibbons from the Communications Network shared this same viewpoint when he wrote last week: “what might it look like if, over the next few weeks, every nonprofit or foundation did a simple, decent thing and used their institutional voice to clearly and publicly affirm their core values, purpose, and aspirations? Silence speaks volumes. And words matter. They can harm. Or they can help, heal, and keep hope alive.”
In order to respond well, an organization must consider five key questions:
- Is your response mission-aligned? Have you tied your response to the work you do well and your areas of expertise? Be clear about how hate speech affects your ability to accomplish your mission. An organization that works on behalf of children needs to respond differently than an organization working for housing solutions.
- Is your response brand-aligned? Does your response reflect the values, personality, and positioning of your organization? For example, an organization that has built its brand around courage will choose different vocabulary than an organization that prizes harmony. Both can respond, but they’ll highlight different reasons for doing so.
- Do I know who my audience is? While everyone SHOULD care that your organization is taking a stand, not everyone WILL care. Be clear from the outset about who you’re trying to reach and why. Who amongst your target audiences will be most likely to consider what you’ve written? How will their hearing it help you advance your goals?
- Is my response specific? It’s not enough to call the President a racist. Be clear about what was said and why it’s wrong. Educate your audience about the history and impact of each statement. For example, when the President says, “There are good people on both sides,” make sure to point out that saying this emboldens individuals who use violence and intimidation to illegally harass their fellow citizens and neighbors.
- Is there a clear call to action? Every time you communicate on behalf of your organization, you should include a call to action. Be clear about what actions you want your community to take. Let people know how they can stand with you.
At least three foundations spoke out following Communication Network’s appeal.
Will your organization respond? Why or why not?