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Building Our Own Economic Independence And Power

Why we’re breaking from convention and garnering our own assets to make strategic investments

Authors: Jessica Feingold, Co-CEO, Rakiba Kibria, Vice President of Revenue

The nonprofit sector has some fundamental flaws — many of which have been laid bare in the societal upheaval of the past two years. The extraction and exploitation of workers and the land has made possible massive wealth accumulation; during the pandemic alone, the wealth of billionaires surged to comprise 3.5% of all wealth, with the bottom half controlling only 2% of wealth, according to the Global Inequality Lab, founded by Thomas Piketty. In turn, the tax code facilitates the return of capital to the people via philanthropy, where it is controlled by billionaire interests and where those doing the work of repair supplicate for pennies on the dollar of what their communities are actually owed.

At Common Future, we not only believe that it doesn’t have to be this way; we are modeling that an alternative to the charitable industrial complex exists and is possible. As we’ve said before, “it’s not just a pivot away from how things are now — it’s a complete rebuilding from the ground up, that addresses the structural issues of the nonprofit sector.”

In December, we called for a new operating system; one in which communities have the economic independence and power to steward their own restoration and repair. To achieve this requires a radical — but dare we say pragmatic — rethinking of how philanthropy and charity relate to one another in pursuit of social impact. We must recognize alleviating wealth inequality is a shared pursuit and one that will not be achieved unless one gives, and one gains, power and autonomy over resources.

Over the past two years as Common Future, our programs have effectively proved to be pilots for how we might rewire the financial mechanisms of giving and investment:

  • By redistributing capital through our grantmaking, we showed ways that equity can be enacted through resource allocation. We trusted our network members with flexible capital; seeded investment in their success: and ceded control over the strategies and metrics that would get them there.
  • Our character-based lending pilot placed Black and indigenous community organizations in control of assessing the type of capital most needed to build community wealth, helping to raise a $800K loan fund.
  • Now, looking forward, our strategy to Incubate, Co-create, Fund, and Influence ensures that we are building a portfolio of community wealth-building ventures that can take these new models and ideas to scale. In turn, we hope to affect change on the practices and policies that affect our sector, and our ability to achieve racial and economic equity within it.

Each of these pilots serves as a fractal of our institution, designed deliberately to build economic power and independence for organizations that build community wealth.

What this means for Common Future is that all the while, we’ve been building our own economic independence and power, weaning ourselves off our dependence on institutional philanthropy by garnering our own assets to make strategic investments. These include the standard-bearer of maintaining operating reserves, as well as go far beyond to allocate funding towards strategic internal investments, general investments, and fund redistribution. Our board of directors has been forward thinking in helping us to build the internal infrastructure to invest in our own power and potential, and in turn self-determination for the communities we serve.

When it adds up, greater than the sum of its parts, this is what we mean by a new operating system — where the financial flows are regenerative by design. Let nonprofits self-determine their own pilots, strategies, and best path forward by also helping them build their economic power early on. For the sake of innovation, to derive new solutions, diversify revenue streams, and make the nonprofit sector more sustainable and less dependent — we need to fundamentally alter the source code.

We recognize we are working in a system with inertia, and that swimming against the tide may be an impossible bet. We are willing to try anyway. To hold up a light where it has been so dark.

As a Black-led, multiracial organization, we are betting on ourselves. Will you?

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