The truest, purest expressions of philanthropy can be found closest to you.
Recently, LFSOP alumni George Suttles addressed this year’s graduates during commencement exercises in May. We thought our whole community might benefit from his words and wisdom.
Dean Pasic, esteemed faculty, family friends, and celebrated and decorated graduates, I send you congratulations and gratitude, thank you for allowing me to be here with you today. I am here because I was fortunate enough to receive this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award. I am filled with gratitude to my Lilly family for providing me the education and support to pursue my passion to serve communities we all care about. I always tell people that my time here at Lilly, and in Indianapolis, was a transformative time for me. I made good friends and did good work here. I reflect fondly on my professors and classmates. Shout out to Lance Chrisman and the Anthem Foundation team, who brought me in as a graduate assistant and never looked back. The Anthem team poured into me and working with them is still one of the highlights of my professional life.
What an auspicious occasion! You studied, you wrote all the papers, did all the problem sets, listened to all the lectures, and handed in all the midterms and finals, and now, we are all here together to celebrate what you have accomplished. I would be remiss if I did not reflect on the fact that each one of you accomplished your academic goals in the midst of a global pandemic, a racial reckoning spurred by the senseless murders of Black people by the hands of police, the realization that it may be too late to turn back the damage that has been done by global warming, and arguably one of the most consequential election/legislative/political periods of our time, …and amidst all of that here we are…amazing.
You come into the world of philanthropy, and the broader nonprofit sector, at a time where you are needed most. Your hearts and minds are desperately needed in the sector, no matter what it is you choose to focus your efforts on, the tools and resources you have received here at the Lilly School will serve you, and communities we all care about, well. So thank you for all you have done to get here, and thank you in advance for all you will do to make the world a better place.
When I was trying to craft my remarks for this auspicious occasion, I must admit, I was a bit stuck. It is tremendous pressure to impart words of wisdom and inspiration to a room of people who may very well be smarter, more self-aware than you are. I was working on my remarks (aka snacking and scrolling through IG), and my brother called me. He asked me how the speech was going, and I said uhhhh. He laughed and told me to get to work. I told him I had writer’s block and he told me “Well, what would you want to hear if you were graduating at this time? What is it you are currently reflecting on about philanthropy, academia, and the nonprofit sector, etc, etc.
And with those wise words, I began to reflect on how philanthropy and service have impacted my own life, when in doubt, tell people where you are coming from.
The first thing I will tell you, that has been on my mind:
The truest, purest expressions of philanthropy can be found closest to you.
I am a New York City native, born and raised. I was raised in the Village of Harlem in the 80’s and 90’s, during a time when drugs and crime were ravaging our community. But be clear, there was love, care, and community where we were raised. I watched neighbors take care of neighbors, I watched a close-knit community take care of each other during challenging times…everyone was kin. Growing up I swear everyone was an Aunt, Uncle, or cousin. Even till this day I call close friends from my childhood “cousin” which is very confusing for people when they receive an unsatisfactory answer to the question, “well how exactly are you both related.”
My point is growing up I experienced philanthropy. I experienced our next-door neighbor bringing us food when times were tough. I experienced my mother letting neighborhood kids stay with us when things in their home were turbulent, and sometimes unsafe. I experienced philanthropy when the matriarch of our block passed away and we all rallied to take care of her kids, grandkids, and great grandkids.
When someone in our community needed something, we provided it. We didn’t have much, but the love, generosity, and compassion that flowed through our Harlem neighborhood covered, flanked, and supported us. It is the reason I am standing in front of you right now.
And then there is my mother.
Andrew Carnegie, Eli Lily, Henry Ford, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates…great philanthropists? Bleh. There is no greater philanthropist in my eyes than my mother, Ernestine Brower. Born in North Carolina, raised in Bedford Stuyvesant, she raised three Black children in Harlem who are successful, thriving, community minded individuals. She protected and poured into three Black babies, there is no greater feat than raising Black children in America, no challenge more daunting. She is the greatest philanthropist I will ever know. So just remember, the more exploring, the more research we do about philanthropic practice and its practitioners, you are closer to them than you think. They are our mothers, fathers, partners, friends, and neighbors.
Philanthropy can foster forgiveness, understanding, compassion, and healing.
I want to share a related story with you. Growing up in Harlem, although we were covered and supported by the love of our community, we were also deeply impacted by our environment. Many of my loved ones were negatively impacted by the Crack epidemic, including my father. My father, standing at 6’5, was my hero. He was the bravest, kindest man I have ever met. He coached all my sports teams and had a way of making people feel at ease around him. As a big black man, that ability is important. As a young man, I watched him leave for work every day at 6 A.M. He delivered payroll to offices. See, before the internet, or Quickbooks, or any of these other electronic payroll processing systems, offices had payroll physically delivered, like the mail. My dad worked hard. I must admit it wasn’t glamorous work but it was work he did proudly to take care of his family. But in time, as new systems were developed and easier ways to do payroll came along, my father lost his job. In the early 90’s, with a bad hip and only a high school diploma, my dad had a hell of a time finding work. His identity was deeply connected to his ability to provide, and so without that he went into a downward spiral. His emotional state, coupled with a pusher or dealer on every corner, caused my father to fall into addiction. He grappled with addiction for years, all throughout my high school and college career, until he passed away in 2009 from a respiratory illness that was caused and exacerbated by his addiction. I struggled watching my dad grapple with addiction. It tore our family apart. Some people say never meet your heroes, but I would contend that no one should ever have to see their heroes fall. I resented my dad for many years as an adult. I thought he chose drugs over his family; he had abandoned us. It wasn’t until years later that I had an opportunity to gain a different perspective. I joined my first nonprofit board in 2013, Odyssey House. Odyssey House is a nonprofit organization in New York City that offers residential and outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment programs to individuals and families. During my time on the board of Odyssey House, I have learned that addiction is not a choice, it’s a sickness that impacts millions across the country regardless of race, creed, color, socio-economic status or gender orientation. One story in particular stands out to me. Black fathers group…”man, I just want to get home to my family.” Through my service to Odyssey House, my ability to devote my time, talent, and treasures to the mission of this organization, I gained something invaluable, the ability to understand my father and forgive him.
Philanthropy is to be celebrated, and interrogated
Philanthropy is a particularly American institution. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Ford, Buffet, Gates, these are the names that we think about when we think about Philanthropy. And granted, philanthropy has spurred innovation, unlocked opportunities for many, and shaped American life for the last 200+ years. As a matter of fact, we all stand tall in our caps and gowns as proud graduates of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, we ourselves, our institution, is a philanthropic gift that has enriched us all.
I personally have been the benefactor of philanthropic efforts, whether they were efforts to provide opportunities to low-income students to access high quality education, or philanthropic efforts to develop youth sports programs so that inner city kids could have safe spaces to gather and play.
Through the Oliver Scholars program, an academic enrichment program that recruits Black and Brown students from NYC public schools and gives them opportunities to prepare to apply and enroll at Ivy League preparatory Boarding and Day schools across the country. I tested in and was chosen to participate in the program, and after months of academic enrichment, I enrolled at the Dalton School in the fall of 1995. When I got to Dalton I was amazed. But then, over time, I became furious. Why did students at Dalton get access to the best equipment, education, and opportunities, and my friends at public high schools were forced to learn in overcrowded classrooms with exhausted teachers and limited resources? Why why why? The receipt of generous philanthropic gifts that allowed me to go to Dalton also gave me the platform to sharpen my social equity lens. Philanthropy gave me this opportunity, but why couldn’t we stay in our neighborhood and go to a great school? Why did it take a philanthropic gift to lift me out? What were the systems in place creating this inequity?
I took that understanding of privilege, philanthropy, and broken systems to college with me where I further sharpened my lens. Student organizing. Building community power.
After graduation, I started my career in direct service, working for a community-based organization called Directions for Our Youth, a nonprofit that offers supplemental education programs to the most under resourced public schools in New York City. Two things that frustrated me the most were trying to convince individual and institutional donors that our work was worthy and trying to help children and their families navigate broken systems that served as barriers to their education. And the barriers were multi-dimensional, socio economic, environmental…these were all issues around a lack of access.
National Urban League, an historical, Century old Civil rights organization founded in 1910. I worked with local communities and affiliate partners across the country to develop and implement workforce development programs to prepare underserved communities for 21st century jobs in tech. We also worked with educators and school districts to use technology to enhance educational curriculum. From a policy standpoint, we worked on a national policy agenda to bridge the digital divide, working with corporate partners and the federal government to consider Universal broadband/WIFI in low income and rural communities across the country. We did amazing work through the power of philanthropy. And we were constantly fighting against corporate donor manipulation of our programmatic approach and the outcomes that they though were most important to communities that we knew more about and were closest to.
My first foray into the grantmaking side of philanthropy brought me to the New York State Health Foundation, where as a program officer I worked with clinical and community partners to fund programs focused on improving the health of New Yorkers. I worked with many great partners, and we did some really great work together. We also contended with systemic barriers that prohibited us from scaling life-saving healthcare initiatives due to the lack of political will, bureaucratic red- tape, and a lack of appropriate government resources to bring them to scale.
As I mentioned, my time at Anthem was transformative, but at the height of Affordable Care Act implementation, I began to realize that the real solutions were never about more healthcare philanthropy, it was about fixing broken systems that disincentivized healthcare providers and insurance companies to actually care for people. The real solution wasn’t the next grant to IU Health or some community-based nonprofit, it was transforming the healthcare system to hold insurance companies accountable for positive health outcomes so that they design benefits that provide access to affordable, high-quality healthcare.
When I came back to New York City after graduating from the Lilly School, I received an opportunity to work in the Private Wealth Management side of the bank at US Trust/Bank of America as a Philanthropy relationship manager, partnering with HNW and Ultra High Net worth individuals and their families on their strategic philanthropy, from grantmaking, to governance and the best philanthropic models to use to operationalize their grantmaking strategies. I worked with amazing families, helping them develop philanthropic road maps and effective and meaningful ways to express and transmit their values through their giving practice. I also experienced how the wealthy utilize philanthropy as a wealth management strategy, leveraging tax write offs, Trust instruments, and other mechanisms to protect and grow their wealth. I also began to understand that the wealthy were the most disconnected from communities they wanted to help, and wielded power to influence public policy and the way the work was done without taking the time to examine the dynamics of power and listen to community voices.
At Commonfund, in my current role, I am the Head of the Commonfund Institute, the education and research arm of Commonfund. Fun fact, Commonfund was founded by the Ford Foundation in 1971 to help struggling college and university endowments become more savvy long term institutional investors.
We are an asset management firm so we manage endowments and foundation investment portfolios, so we moistly work with colleges and universities, private/community foundations, independent schools etc. That also means we work with advancement/fundraising/ and development offices on endowment building strategies so that a combination of investment savvy and fundraising can work together to grow the endowment. We help these organizations grow their endowments so that they can fund their mission-oriented work. At the same time, these endowments represent great wealth that could potentially be unlocked more creatively to fix some of the intractable and complex social problems we are facing.
During Covid, I did a lot of work in the private and community foundation space to help these orgs think about increasing payout strategies well above the IRS minimum 5%. Many foundation leaders were nervous to spend more, what about future generations who will need access to these resources? What about that “rainy day” we have all been preparing for? Well, my friends, we are in the middle of a monsoon, tsunami, and hurricane, its not just raining, it is pouring.
Or what about the trustee at this mid-size college my team works with, when asked to consider their student body clamoring for transparency on how the endowment is being managed and seeking divestment from fossil fuels and private prisons. And I quote: “The students pay tuition, the donors pay the bills”.
What are the implications of philanthropy fighting against many of the complex social issues that capitalism has caused? How can philanthropy espouse love when its parent, capitalism, extracts without regard for human life? Are we stewards of missions or stewards of donor feelings desires, and satisfactions? Who are we accountable to and why?
Here is what I know to be true:
- The philanthropic/nonprofit sector saves lives and generates social impact for tens of millions across the world
- it connects people to their passions and serves as conduits for you and me to express our values, philanthropy connects us to each other.
- It is the backbone of civil society and it is what makes the study of, and the participation in this dynamic sector so fulfilling.
Here is what I also know to be true.
- Philanthropy is imperfect, like any institution built by humans and it must be interrogated.
- Philanthropy is a byproduct of extractive capitalism and white supremacy that throughout its history has enslaved, indentured, displaced, and erased African, Indigenous and Persons of color and their communities.
For example, In the 1930’s and 40’s Carnegie Foundation funded the Carnegie Institute of Washington, a research Institute that was in the Carnegie Corporation’s portfolio to foster innovative research practice. Unfortunately, in the 30’s and 40’s, one of those innovations was Eugenics.
If you are unfamiliar, Eugenics is the study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable. Developed largely by Sir Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, eugenics was increasingly discredited as unscientific and racially biased during the 20th century, especially after the adoption of its doctrines by the Nazis in order to justify their treatment of Jews, disabled people, and other minority groups.
Fun fact you all probably know: The State of Indiana was the first to pass Eugenics sterilization laws in 1907 and one of, if not the last state to legislate against Eugenics, in 1977, 70 years later.
Philanthropic practice is a tool, and its best practices are subjective to those who have access to them. Some times the common practice isn’t the best one.
Harvard recently announced that after an extensive, years long initiative to uncover the truth about Harvard’s ties to American slavery, Harvard President Larry Bacow released the report from the committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, and committed $100 million to fund the implementation of the committees recommendations. Harvard currently has a $40 billion+ endowment portfolio, the report outlines that many of Harvard’s most prestigious schools were built on the backs of slaves, the Law school, Business school, etc. Do we really think $100 million is the answer? $250 million? What number will restore and heal centuries of chattel slavery and the impact Harvard’s participation has had on generations of African American families?
I love philanthropy, but I find myself lately asking: Instead of focusing on the transformational power of philanthropy, What about focusing on dynamic public sector systems that take care of the citizenry and provide a true safety net for everyone? What about access to high quality healthcare, education, housing, and healthy food as a public good, a right, and not the next philanthropic effort of a foundation?
These things cannot be achieved by philanthropy and the nonprofit sector alone and as the sector is currently organized; we must understand not only how philanthropy can help, but interrogate, explore and ask what are the real, radical transformations that need to occur in order to realize the change we all want to see? At its very best, philanthropy is creative and aspirational, but the reality is philanthropy as currently understood is a band-aid. So as much as we celebrate, study, and laud philanthropy and its practitioners, we must keep that same energy, and interrogate, question, and imagine what the world would look like if philanthropy was right sized, maybe, for example to truly foster innovation while progressive tax reform allowed us to take care of each other? What if we made capitalism more inclusive, or explored alternative economic systems that allowed everyone to access sustainable, living wage jobs with career pathways instead of advocating for public policy that continues to protect the rich’s right to be philanthropic while exacerbating the wealth gap between the 1% and the rest of us?
How come Black and POC led nonprofits are chronically underfunded even though many of those organizations are led by those who are directly impacted by the issues and are also, by the way, closest to the solutions. Philanthropy doesn’t empower communities of color, they already have power, philanthropy just allows communities of color to fully activate it. If private and institutional donors are so worried about return on investment, impact, and efficiency, why aren’t dollars overflowing to Black, Indigenous, and POC led grassroots nonprofits? To community organizing groups? This trend begs the question: does philanthropy really care about social impact?
And what about the professionalization of the nonprofit sector?
I would argue that the professionalization of the philanthropic sector is diluting and perverting the real essence of philanthropy, similar to how one could argue that consumerism and shallow materialism dilutes and confuses the real essence of Christmas and the holiday season. At its best, philanthropy connects people and communities to causes they care about and at its most transactional it distracts us from making deep, meaningful, messy, beautiful connections with real humans who are all grappling with complex personal, social, and systemic issues that impact us all. Philanthropy gives us permission to avoid the deeper, more radical transformation we all deserve. Progressive tax reform, redistribution of wealth, living wage jobs, access to healthcare and education as public goods, and reparative frameworks that not only acknowledge harm but look to heal and restore. A grant agreement doesn’t tell the whole truth, a gift acceptance policy doesn’t outline the real opportunities. The fundraising textbook doesn’t focus on the people closest to the solution.
And yet, I love Philanthropy and believe in its power, and I will both celebrate, practice, and interrogate it with my whole heart.
And finally, the essence of Philanthropy is love. Don’t forget that. Always remember that it is the love of mankind that will bring us closer to our collective humanity, not gift acceptance policies or grant impact reports. Don’t let this degree, or the professionalization of the nonprofit sector distract you from the essence of philanthropy. When in doubt, seek out and tap into your love for self and each other, and I promise you when you’re tired it will revive your love for the work that needs to be done. If we remember love and lean into it, then compassion, grace, forgiveness, healing, restoration, repair, and justice will prevail. Philanthropy is not a destination, but a bridge, allowing us to achieve all these goals and connect more closely as human beings.
During Covid, we saw mutual aid. Truly inspiring, neighbors helping neighbors.
As you move on from here and continue to pursue your professional and academic paths, always remember to see who is in the room. Then look again and see who is missing. Identify them and call them in. If its your voice that is missing, yell and scream, demand to be heard. I want you to always keep and use your imagination. Purse the type of philanthropic practice that will lead to our shared freedom. The type of love where the existence of other humans is inseparable from your own, and you’d fight tooth and nail to ensure their safety and their rights to live full lives. That is what love is, that is what philanthropy is. This isn’t a political statement, or a moral imperative. I am not sharing what we ought to do, I am using my imagination and sharing what I think we are capable of.
So as we celebrate this momentous occasion, remember to let your professional path be propelled by love. You are a part of a special group that has dedicated itself to the pursuit of philanthropic study and practice. No one can take that away from you, it is an honor and you have earned it.
Celebrate philanthropy and also interrogate it, think of this accountability as a love offering in and of itself. We don’t examine things we do not care deeply about. Question everything, get the fancy job, but always remember to do the real work. Always remember that every single one of us, every human being is capable of giving and receiving love, we are all philanthropists.
In closing, thank you for this honor and the opportunity to be here with you today. We are all here to support you, your friends, loved ones, your Lilly Family. We are all here. We can’t wait to see what you do, we know it is going to be amazing. Congratulations again.