Finding Purpose in Philanthropy

In Story by Esperanza Pallana

There is an ongoing, systematic erasure of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) movement leaders, particularly BIPOC women, in philanthropy. Sometimes, our work, ideas, and creative genius are co-opted. Other times, our contributions are rewritten or left unwritten. And often, we are denied any seat at decision-making tables. So, we make and invite each other to our own tables, where together we inscribe the dreams of our collective future and legacy.

It is because of my experience with the erasure of our work, and the opportunities I envisioned to build collective power, that I joined the field three years ago. I made this shift after spending several years as a grant writer at a Black women-led non-profit in my hometown of Louisville, KY. The organization I worked with is a beautiful, community-led family and childcare collective that has changed the landscape of our community; but we had to essentially prove ourselves to local funders who were not organizers and who were unfamiliar with the power of our community spaces.

By joining the Food and Farm Communications Fund, I hoped to be a different kind of funder. As an organizer and former grant writer, I wanted to ground my funding practices in the realities of the leaders and the organizations who are doing the work.

Being fairly new to philanthropy, I’m often seeking out opportunities to connect and learn from other values-aligned folk in the field. By values aligned, I mean people who are unlearning what traditional philanthropy teaches us (short-term, donor-dictated transactions) and shifting their practices towards ones that intentionally make space for grassroots voices to guide and lead their work.

For these reasons, I was thrilled to join Rockwood Leadership Institute’s Equity in Philanthropy (EIP) Fellowship earlier this year. Over the course of two in-person retreats, EIP brought together 18 philanthropic leaders who are BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and/or people with disabilities to strengthen our leadership skills and build new relationships across the sector.

Joining EIP offered me the opportunity to challenge my assumptions, affirm my values, and grow as a leader in this space. I was also able to reflect on my time in philanthropy and these questions: Was I truly living up to my values? Was I still bringing that grassroots lens to my work? Are my practices informed by and in service to community and movement leaders?

During our first week-long retreat in San Diego this January, with the help of peer-evaluations from my co-workers and community partners, I made space to answer these questions. As difficult as they were to answer, each response helped me unearth answers to even bigger questions: What is my purpose? And what do I want to create for the future?

Defining my purpose — to bring people together in cooperation to build the world we need, that is anchored in the learnings and traditions of our ancestors — has been instrumental in helping to ground me as I move towards my vision —  to reject oppressive and extractive forces and build/support work that is grounded in cooperation and solidarity.

In our second retreat in Racine, WI this May, I was able to outline how I can bring my purpose more fully into my work, while still showing up for myself and my own healing needs.

The transformational retreats helped me strengthen my leadership and find greater purpose and balance. Our sessions centered on six practices core to the Rockwood Leadership philosophy:

PURPOSE: To live and lead from that which gives our life meaning

VISION: To create and articulate a clear and compelling picture of our desired future

PARTNERSHIP: To build and maintain strong interdependent relationships that advance our vision

RESILIENCE: To shift from reactivity to a state of resourcefulness in moments of stress and crisis

PERFORMANCE: To enhance our capacity to produce results that further our vision

PERSONAL ECOLOGY: To maintain balance, pacing and efficiency to sustain our energy over a lifetime

Each day, reflecting on the purpose and vision I created during the retreat, I’m reminded of why I am doing this work and who I’m doing it for. I share the deepest of gratitude to the Rockwood team, facilitators, and my cohort of fellows for a truly transformational experience. My learnings from the fellowship are supporting my growth in philanthropy and strengthening FFCF’s work for participatory, movement-led, and justice-based funding.

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Shavaun was raised in Louisville, KY where she learned from her family and neighbors the power in community. She has worked in food systems, cooperative economics, and communications strategy for more than 15 years and is passionate about co-creating the healthy and abundant spaces that our communities need. Shavaun is the Director of Programs and Movement Support at the Food and Farm Communications Fund, a participatory grantmaker rooted in collaboration and community power. She co-leads FFCF’s initiatives to resource grassroots and frontline food and farm systems change organizations and manages the fund’s participatory decision-making process. She has spent most of her career organizing coalitions and is committed to working collaboratively to find solutions. Shavaun lives in her hometown where she is active with a Black-led childcare and family collective she helped co-create in 2017, Play Cousins Collective.