Jennifer Sampson and Darren Walker at bigBANG! 2021 | United Way of Metropolitan Dallas

The Role of Philanthropy in the New Economy

See highlights of United Way CEO Jennifer Sampson’s panel with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, at bigBANG! 2021

This fall, Jennifer Sampson, McDermott-Templeton president and CEO of the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, joined Darren Walker, president of The Ford Foundation, to explore a hot topic in North Texas: the part philanthropy can play in a world changed by COVID-19. The event, “The Role of Philanthropy in the New Economy,” was part of bigBANG! 2021, a social impact experience hosted by Social Venture Partners (SVP) and coproduced by United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.

During the panel, moderated by Tony Fleo, CEO of SVP Dallas, Sampson and Walker discuss partnerships between nonprofits and government agencies, the evolving role of corporations in philanthropy, trust-based philanthropy and more.

Read on for highlights of Sampson’s and Walker’s comments during the Q&A:

Fleo: Give us a local perspective on how philanthropy can engage with government programs. What is United Way doing along those lines?

Sampson: We see the role of government playing out in our work more every day, because increasingly United Way of Metropolitan Dallas is serving as an intermediary between government and community-based organizations—particularly smaller, grassroots entities that are the trusted resources in many communities of color. And we know that direct support from government entities—whether it’s cities, counties, ISDs or even the federal government—to people is cumbersome at best. It’s not new for government entities to partner with nonprofit organizations to provide direct services, but managing those government contracts is difficult, if not impossible, for some smaller organizations with limited infrastructure and capacity to deliver. As a result, oftentimes those organizations are left out of the game. Forging relationships with local United Ways has been an effective way for these grassroots nonprofit organizations to get public funding, resources and services into their communities.

One example that we’ve seen over the past 18+ months is the City of Dallas, who’s contracted with United Way of Metropolitan Dallas to distribute millions of dollars in federal funding to provide rental eviction prevention, assistance and support. And we don’t do this alone. United Way partners very closely with almost 20 small, community-based organizations that operate directly with families in high-need neighborhoods. We established the Dallas Rental Assistance Collaborative, which has resulted in keeping over 5,000 families housed throughout the pandemic. And the positive results are really dependent on the partnership, because it gives each entity the power to do what it does best.

Fleo: What do you think the role of philanthropy speaking to government should be?

walker: We have a nation that is built on the idea of a strong civil society, but we also have a thriving private sector that includes philanthropy and private capital that is being deployed both for profit, and in the case of philanthropy, non-profit, primarily through grants. And then government’s role is critical too: We need each of the three legs of the stool to be healthy and able to deliver. If we don’t have that, we won’t have a healthy democracy.

The role of philanthropy cannot be to replace government. But philanthropy has a unique role because we can pilot, we can test, we can put capital at risk that government may not be able to.

Fleo: What do you think corporate America’s role should be in advancing social justice?

walker: I am a person who believes there is something unique and special about this country that we all love. I reflect on my life and how grateful I am to have been born in a country where, as a poor kid growing up, I felt that my country was cheering me on. Part of the reason for that was because we had the kind of economy that made it possible for a strong and vibrant middle class. We had facilitators for mobility that allowed people like me to get on that mobility escalator and soar. What I worry about today is that young boys and girls don’t feel as I did, that America is cheering them on. Part of the reason for that is we have hollowed out the middle class in this country. We see more income inequality and other forms of any inequality that we’ve seen in over a century. I can only imagine what it must feel like today to be confronted with the reality that you could go to college and come away with six-figure debt at age 22. We need to think about the mechanisms that ensure that opportunity is available to every American. We know from just about every credible economist and study that we are not enabling mobility. If you want the American dream today, you need to move to Canada, because the Canadians are delivering every metric of wellbeing and social and economic mobility.

Fleo: We know that Texas is extraordinary in the business sector. But when it comes to the social determinants of health, the state scores very poorly. What are you hearing from the corporations in Dallas that you’re working with to make a counter to our current challenges?

Sampson: United Way works very closely with the corporate community, and oftentimes we’re viewed as a bridge between corporate funding and impact in the nonprofit sector. Our experience tells us that the corporate community here in North Texas is committed to not only raising awareness of the issues but also acting to drive change. I believe that corporate leaders understand the short- and long-term opportunity to build diverse and inclusive workforce pipelines, to recruit top talent across the state and to protect all the people who keep Texas business thriving, day in and day out.

One clear example is the Southern Dallas Thrives initiative, which was created with Frito-Lay and the PepsiCo Foundation. Steven Williams and his team, along with several of our corporate partners, are driving significant impact through this initiative. It was developed back in the fall of 2018 to advance economic mobility for low-income women and children of color in southern Dallas. There are four current focus areas under this initiative: increasing the quality of early childhood education; engaging high school students through career mentorship and workforce-centered experiences to increase workforce preparedness; connecting southern Dallas families with nutritious meals and emergency food resources; and providing workforce development training and career navigation to ensure more women in southern Dallas have the skills, education and wraparound support necessary to enter and advance in the workforce.

How did we do that? Really understanding the need, the opportunities and identifying the community assets has been key to this initiative and a critical first step in the development of the overall effort. Also, having a clear plan of action, resulting in measurable progress, has been essential. This type of work is well beyond what we think of as traditional charity; it’s really about transformational change and engaging the community and designing and driving impact.

And while Frito-Lay and PepsiCo initiated this effort, it’s always been their goal to bring other corporate partners to the table to increase the impact. Last year, Steven WIlliams made possible a $5 million match in investments for Southern Dallas Thrives, and more corporate funding followed, including from Vistra, Hilti North America and Celanese. It’s my hope that we continue to draw down that match even faster than Steven anticipated.

Walker:  I really commend the folks at the United Way in Dallas. Ultimately, we want to help the populations that they are working with to have transformation in their lives. They are not going to have their lives transformed or materially improved if the only opportunity for them is low-wage, no-benefit, no-opportunity employment. We have to realize that if we want Texas to succeed, we cannot have a state, we cannot have an America, that has such concentrated wealth in the hands of people like me and so much poverty and misery among far too many. This is a core issue that plays out every day, and it is challenging and difficult to talk about. But in my view, the idea that we need an economy that works for more people is not a divisive idea.

Fleo: What would you describe as the bold things that United Way is doing here in Dallas?

Sampson: We’re committed to becoming a fully inclusive, multicultural, anti-racist organization. This is hard work that requires internal focus for us to make sure that we’re making external changes to our partnerships, investments and advocacy and all of our initiatives. We have a lot of work to do in continuation of our racial equity journey, but to that end, we’re making some changes in our grant-making process aligned with the practice of trust-based philanthropy. This approach seeks to address the inherent power imbalances between nonprofits and the communities they serve.

On a practical level, trust-based philanthropy is demonstrated by multi-year investments, unrestricted giving and flexibility of awarded grants, an open application process, a diversified network of partners, streamlined applications and reporting, and a commitment to building relationships based on transparency, dialogue and mutual learning.

 

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This article was published on: Dec 3, 2021