Climate Change | Other Publication

Lobster on the Titanic: Remarks by Keith Porter to the Foundations 20

Keith Porter | September 2020

Earlier this summer Darren Walker, the head of the Ford Foundation, told a story that I have not been able to stop thinking about. As you know, the Ford Foundation is one of the largest philanthropic institutions in the world with assets of 14 billion US dollars.

He said that last winter, before the pandemic, before the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Walker was at a black-tie gala event with the wealthiest philanthropists in New York. And as he looked around the ballroom and listened to the remarks, he said quote “I had the ominous sense that we were eating lobster on the Titanic.”

Eating lobster on the Titanic. That image of enjoying elite luxuries while the very vessel we are riding is sinking into the abyss is hard to shake.

We are here representing foundations and philanthropy from around the world. Together we have enormous assets. We have all acknowledged that the world is in critically dangerous shape and we are here asking the G20, the most powerful economies in the world, to make drastic changes to their behaviors, priorities, and their financial systems.

Are we, the members of the F20, willing to bring our own organizations into alignment with the changes we are demanding from the G20 and other institutions?

We are demanding that the G20 dramatically remake the global economy by ending all use of fossil fuels and committing to a zero-carbon emission future. We are demanding that they rebuild from the current crisis in revolutionary new ways. And we are demanding them to do all this in a just and humane fashion that respects the dignity and health of all the people who will be impacted by these deep structural changes.

Are we, the members of the F20, willing to become living examples of the kind of change we seek in the world?

We are asking leaders for a just transition. Are we focused on justice in our own operations or do we give ourselves a pass because we have good intentions?

If we are asking for fundamental change in the world, we should also expect fundamental change in the way we do philanthropy in the United States and around the world.

So, what kind of change can we make in our own organizations in order to prove to the world that we mean what we say in all of these demands we are making. First, I want to talk about the easy steps… and then I want to talk about the radical steps.

The first step is to look at our own operations. How green are we? With little air travel, I’m sure our carbon footprints have shrunk. Can we keep it that way?

Are we treating our own staff in a just manner? Are we paying a living wage? Are we providing the needed benefits? Are we genuinely concerned about their health and wellness?

Are we being hypocritical in our endowment investments? Of course we can get out of fossil fuel stocks, those are sinking anyway.  But are we investing in companies that pay living wages? That have pay equity? That respect diversity and inclusion? Are we investing in companies that disavow the use of prison labor and profiteering from the incarceration industry? Are we investing for impact?

Changing these practices is necessary but insufficient to the challenge of the moment. Deciding to green up our operations, apply morality to our investments, and to treat our own staff better are not only low-hanging fruit, they are things we all should have done long before the current crisis.

So what else? What more can we do?

We need to change our usual way of grantmaking. We need to lower the bureaucratic threshold for those who need our help. We need to fund more overhead, general operations, and capacity-building to give grantees a fighting chance.

We also need to spend more. In the United States a grantmaking foundation is only required to grant 5% of their funds every year. They get to hold on to the other 95% every year. Why? And for what? Many people are looking at the simultaneous climate, pandemic, and racial injustice crises and asking, if you can’t give away the money now, what exactly are you waiting for?

There are other ways to be even more creative – more radical – about giving away more money. Some philanthropies are actually borrowing money so they can give more money away. Earlier I mentioned Darren Walker and the Ford Foundation. This summer, Ford issued a set of 30 year and 50-year Social Bonds and raised over a billion dollars. This will allow Ford to double the amount of money it gives away in 2020 and in 2021. Four other major US philanthropies will also be implementing Social Bonds so they can give away even more money and still exist in perpetuity.

This is bold. But there is an even more radical step philanthropies can take: Give away ALL the money.

Three American foundations, with endowments which total well more than 300 million US dollars, have committed to give all their money over the next few years.

The heads of these three foundation, in a joint statement, said quote “The grass-roots movements fighting for health, equity, and environmental and social justice are stronger, more interconnected, more knowledgeable, and more effective at creating change than grant makers like ourselves. ”

That is an amazing statement of humility rarely seen in elite institutions. These leaders have admonished all of us in philanthropy to do three things: One, spend every dollar on transformational change, two, upend traditional power structures, and three, redistribute resources to organizations led by Black and indigenous people and people of color.

Their ultimate goal is to dramatically reduce the need for philanthropy in our world… perhaps even end the need for philanthropy.

Now that is a bold vision. Of course, complete spend-downs may not be the right answer for every organization. What other bold steps could you take? We are asking the G20 governments to do incredibly bold things. So, are we willing to set the example and lead the way? Or will we spend the next few years eating lobster on the Titanic?