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Democratizing Philanthropy


On this Veteran’s Day, let’s talk about democracy. Brave Americans have fought and died for freedom for all. With the election of a new president, we’ve all just witnessed the power of the democratic process. Like many, I am reflecting on the privilege of living in a country where every voice and every vote is being counted. In America today, we are struggling to live up to that ideal, inside and outside the election process. Democratic models serve not only government, but also the philanthropic sector. How does philanthropy measure up?

The nonprofit sector, our profession and philanthropy have been criticized as reinforcing the concentration of power into the hands of the elite. Philanthropy’s purpose in a capitalist society is to serve as a great equalizer that redistributes wealth justly and equitably. Is philanthropy funneling funds into the hands of the poor and most vulnerable in our society? According to the USA Giving Report in 2019 over $449 billion was donated. Some researchers estimate only 5% of that philanthropy was directed at programs that uplift the poor. They argue that the majority of philanthropy went to institutions of the elite, colleges, universities, prep schools and healthcare institutions which remain hard for everyone to access equally.

As we grapple with the reality of inequality, the social justice movement is evolving and reshaping our perceptions. One foundation, Cummings Foundation, offers the world a unique example of democratizing philanthropy. Long before this concept became vogue, Cummings Foundation was already blazing the trail. Founded by Bill and Joyce Cummings, Cummings Foundation has been addressing the need to increase diversity, leverage inclusion and redistribute wealth in innovative ways that tip the scales.

As a fundraiser and volunteer, I’ve sat on both sides of Cummings Foundation table and had the privilege of receiving, witnessing and participating in their grantmaking. What I’ve discovered is that trust is the bedrock of their philosophy of giving. The Cummings deeply believe that each community holds the key to a better community tomorrow. The Foundation’s record of philanthropic investment in nonprofits, embedded in the community, represents a path forward.

As Cummings Foundation’s radical model has proven, these smaller nonprofits punch way above their weight. The Cummings’ strategy serves more community members, more directly and more effectively with less infrastructure and expense. With little overhead, a unique collaboration between 1.5 Foundation staff, 100 diverse, local-sourced volunteers and pro-bono staff of Cummings Properties redistributes approximately $25 million to community-based, front-line, nonprofits annually. Trust empowers local community volunteers to assess, evaluate and direct grants of $100,000 and $250,000 to nonprofits that serve the poor and most vulnerable.

Each volunteer brings their expertise and life experience to the table. Instruction on our role includes cultural sensitivity and diversity training. We are taught to be curious, to ask questions respectfully and most importantly, to listen to the voice of the nonprofit and the wisdom of the constituency they serve. This asset-based, egalitarian approach defines engagement and Cummings Foundation brand of democratizing philanthropy. When every voice is heard and valued, sustainable solutions are discovered and embraced.

Don’t miss Bill and Joyce Cummings’ enlightening conversation on democratizing philanthropy held by Duke University.



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