I read Decolonizing Wealth, now what?

“The basis of traditional philanthropy is to preserve wealth, and that wealth is fundamentally money that’s been twice stolen, once through the exploitation of natural resources and cheap labor, and the second time, through tax evasion.”

As a part of our Apra Houston book club, we recently read Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance by Edgar Villanueva.  This book has been among the most recommended reads for nonprofit professionals since it was published in 2018, but it took on a renewed of importance after the 2020 racial justice protests as the world of philanthropy began to focus more attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

For those who have not read Decolonizing Wealth, I highly recommend doing so.  At its core, the book focuses on Villanueva’s career in philanthropy and his self-awakening to the darker side of it.  He began his journey as a program officer for a large foundation and gained a newfound power to effortlessly direct large sums of money to organizations he personally believed in.  The role is prestigious, gives him access to power brokers and gives him the good feelings of working at a nonprofit.  I will not spoil the rest of the book entirely, but that feeling is short-lived.

The book touches on several hard truths that those within the philanthropy world would rather not acknowledge or talk about.  One of these is how wealthy individuals have used foundations for decades to shelter their wealth that would otherwise be taxed and utilized by the government for the public good.  Under the guise of charity, some of today’s biggest foundations allowed their founders to simultaneously avoid taxes and rehabilitate their image in perpetuity. This is not a new phenomenon, given that the Gateses and Bloombergs of today traveled the well-worn path began by the Rockefellers and Carnegies of the past.

Villaneuva couples his professional awakening with his personal experience as a member of the Lumbee tribe. As most indigenous peoples, the Lumbee were oppressed and exploited for generations by the American government, only officially being recognized in 1956. Villanueva uses his unique perspective on oppression and inequity to discuss how the structure of philanthropy in America is working to keep the status quo and what we can do to disrupt the system. To learn more about the Lumbee, visit their official website.

Not to detract too much from Decolonizing Wealth but a great companion article to this topic is the recently published expose on the wealthy and their taxes at ProPublica.

The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax

Given the problematic history Decolonizing Wealth uncovers, the book introduces the concept and need for community-centered fundraising (CCF).  For me, this book was a great introduction to the concept. At the very least, the main takeaway for the average reader is to learn more about CCF and the differences between that and donor centric fundraising (DCF), the de facto norm.  Several great resources to learn more about this include:

The donor-centered baby and the community centric bathwater: Is an accord between the two philosophies possible?

Community Centric Fundraising

There are numerous pieces about this, so anywhere else your research background takes you

So now what do we do? I think the similarities between exploring community-centered fundraising and being actively anti-racist are striking.  It is fitting that the emphasis on CCF is so aligned with the racial justice issues of 2020.  At the heart of being an anti-racist ally is a checklist centered in educating yourself, acknowledging past wrongs, using privilege to benefit those who do not have it and amplifying the voices of diverse communities to enact substantive change.

That same checklist can easily be used by those of us who work in the philanthropy industry to be a catalyst for change in our industry.  DCF has made a lot of great work possible, but that does not mean it is without fault and should continue to be the standard in our ever-changing world. Alternatively, we can consider a new pathway forward, but that doesn’t necessarily mean CCF is the solution. Possibly instead, having conversations about the merits of the two different approaches can lead to a hybrid model that is more authentic and impactful.  Either way, as we continue to work toward greater equity in the world of philanthropy, we need to acknowledge the need for significant education, strategic planning, and a considerable effort to get diverse representation to the decision-makers’ table, with equal power to champion or veto ideas. The road forward will probably be difficult and messy, but that is why each of us work in the nonprofit industry—to change the world; not to simply uplift the status quo.

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