By Jen Bokoff, Disability Rights Fund
There are so many articles and even research celebrating the $14,000,000,000+ in MacKenzie Scott grants to date. The discourse is overwhelmingly positive, as it should be. Unrestricted, no-red-tape, unexpected big-bucks support is a fundraiser’s dream! For fundraisers like me excited about driving more money to under-resourced movements, the launch yesterday of the Yield Giving website brought hope, questions, and dreams of how greater inclusion—in funding, initiatives themselves, and sector discourse—could be possible.
With the launch of the website came a public list of grants, coded by focus area and geography and searchable by keywords. Since I work for an organization focused on mobilizing technical, human, and financial resources to diversify and strengthen disability rights movements around the world, I was curious to see how many other organizations with a disability focus area had received grants. I was thrilled to find 94 grants to many fantastic organizations that total—for the 74 organizations whose funding amount was shared—$590,500,000, or 4.2% of Scott’s grantmaking. This already represents a higher percentage than the low overall human rights giving by institutional philanthropy in support of persons with disabilities.
Still, with 1 in 7 people worldwide having a disability, philanthropic support—and Scott’s support—must still continue to increase.
We collectively benefit when these historically excluded groups are resourced in their leadership, ideas, solutions, and joy. However, when we miss this lens, funders inadvertently perpetuate further marginalization and exclusion.
It’s been clear from Scott’s letters that she is moving money with inclusion as a core tenet, and it shows powerfully in her giving data. Many philanthropic and nonprofit initiatives talk about inclusion as a goal but miss the mark. Some examples include women’s rights groups that are not inclusive of women with disabilities, racial equity-focused initiatives that do not use a disability justice lens, and participatory grantmakers that do not include persons with disabilities on their decision-making panels.
By taking a disability justice lens that centers the priorities and approaches of those most historically excluded groups, such as women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQIA+ people, inclusion can be more than a buzzword and pipe dream. We collectively benefit when these historically excluded groups are resourced in their leadership, ideas, solutions, and joy. However, when we miss this lens, funders inadvertently perpetuate further marginalization and exclusion.
As a philanthropy data nerd, I’m eager to follow the “org-reported” data shared on the website. Self-coding has strengths and challenges, and a question I have is if the current coding represents the organization as they describe their focus areas now, or what it will be in the future as they apply this grant to their work. Will we see more grants with multiple and intersectional identity groups listed? Will initiatives that include persons with disabilities believe this to be a “focus area” worth listing? And, will the website build in tools for more robust data analysis—for example to look at intersections of funding race and ethnicity AND disability AND sexual and reproductive health and justice? Data can be a powerful tool for sharing inclusive and intersectional approaches–and also for noting gaps in who might be left behind.
Hopes for an equitable and inclusive open-call process
Through this website, we learned that there will soon be an open-call process where organizations can submit information for consideration. This is terrific; the Bridgespan network is vast, but there are many organizations that undoubtedly get overlooked—particularly those led by marginalized groups with small budgets.
An open call gives these organizations a chance to share their work with MacKenzie Scott’s panel of decision-makers and hopefully win a grant. That panel selection process also brings forth a bit more transparency than the current model of closed-door decision-making. I’m hopeful that the panel and its to-be-announced process will embody a disability justice approach to continue to push the potential of this funding to be even more innovative, intentional, and inclusive.
Behind closed doors with other fundraisers, a shared experience has been brewing since the first grants were made in 2020. As one fundraising colleague shared, these grants’ public, highly visible nature leads to boards and leaders encouraging us to “chase lottery wins rather than focusing on the ongoing, consistent, diligent work that is fundraising.” We ourselves also feel the pressure to do so (and the failure of not). Non-fundraisers don’t understand that—up until this point—these aren’t grants that you could actively cultivate. With this forthcoming open call process, I wonder how much energy participating in that process will take, what the payoff will be, and how it will be explained publicly. My hope is that it models Scott’s current no-red-tape approach in asking for minimal information, but that the process also offers multiple submission possibilities for accessibility and flexibility in how organizations best express themselves.
Democratizing discourse and inputs to strengthen outcomes
Those closest to the work are best positioned to know the ecosystem of who’s doing it and—with the perception of competing for funding removed—might be willing to share.
I also wonder if current grantees might play a role in the open-call process. The current pool of grant recipients hasn’t to-date been able to influence additional grant decisions. They have not been asked as a collective to share the names of other organizations doing good work on their issue area or in their identity community. Those closest to the work are best positioned to know the ecosystem of who’s doing it and—with the perception of competing for funding removed—might be willing to share. Many of us who fundraise for movements already take to heart the community-centric fundraising’s principles, but particularly this one: “Individual organizational missions are not as important as the collective community.” It’s energizing to imagine how a wider swath of organizations could potentially lift one another up and see how our liberation and collective success is bound.
I appreciate how some discussion about MacKenzie Scott’s philanthropy journey has started to include some light critique. The overwhelmingly flattering discourse is problematic and simply amplifies one of the many issues with philanthropic discourse—the tensions are harder to name without the potential for backlash. Tensions are good and real and not a sign of something inherently bad, but there is no space to discuss them. I wonder if the shift toward an open process might also include the addition of a feedback mechanism. There are some great conversations behind closed doors by grant recipients and grant dreamers alike that could be really valuable for the team of advisers to hear and integrate that would ultimately keep pushing the envelope of inclusion.
With big bets should come deep analysis, including looking from a variety of angles. This is one fundraiser’s point of view. My dream of unrestricted funding parachuting in from the sky is still there. But the bigger, more sustainable dream is of a dialogue and feedback culture that moves beyond what’s nice to what’s authentic and more fully representative of the messiness of this work. To keep shifting power and strengthening philanthropy practice–and disrupting it entirely–we need to keep creating and fostering meaningful inclusion. Scott’s evolving framework is an energizing step in the right direction, but I also hope we can collectively engage in more nuanced reflection that can lead to an even more “yield” that, building on her tagline, can increase intersectional inclusion and cede power to communities.
Jen Bokoff (she/her) is the development director at the Disability Rights Fund and also does periodic consulting, writing, and speaking. Follow her at @jenbo1 on Twitter and check out disabilityrightsfund.org and jenbokoff.com to learn more.