Last year, we asked a handful of leaders to reflect on how they were planning for risk in 2020. We, of course, were thinking about the upcoming elections. We invited these leaders to reflect back on their forecasts in the face of a dramatically changed reality.
EK: How do you manage not to freak out at the end of every day?
It is hard not to feel unsettled in this time. There is so much uncertainty and that makes it hard to know what to do or if you‘re taking the right actions. However, I also do not want the fear of the unknown to paralyze us or curtail our appetite for risk too much. If anything, now is the time to take advantage of opportunities that do not exist in peak market times – for housing that could include preservation and land-banking strategies, for example. We need to be responsible and as thorough as we can be, but funders are in a position to provide some relief and help in occasions like this. Don’t get me wrong, the need far outweighs what philanthropy alone can do, and we need government intervention at a massive scale. But we should also be looking at ways the public and private sectors can partner to help de-risk new ideas to respond to today’s challenges.
The worst of times also brings out the best in people. There are extraordinary examples of people and organizations across the country — and the world — who are coming together to fight this virus and support one another, from science and research partners who are fighting the spread of the virus, to frontline community health providers, to organizations who are working with vulnerable and justice system-impacted populations, to education leaders helping families and students navigate a challenging time and remote studies.
Between some amazing wins in 2019, a governor who has come out with such a pro-housing platform that's inclusive of the reform that we believe in, and a lot of advocacy groups and people paying attention, it's actually a great time to be in the work. I love it when Priscilla [Chan] talks about how we really want to take luck out of the equation.
EK: The upside of a big bet is it could have a big payoff. The downside is you could land right on your tail. How are you thinking about risk?
I think if we embrace risk as we should, that means accepting failure sometimes. If we're winning everything, then I don't think we're doing our job right. The real failure would be not doing anything or acting extremely risk averse in a time with so much need – it would feel like abandoning our partners in their darkest time. In housing, our focus on the 3P’s [production, protection, and preservation] remains our guiding philosophy but we may prioritize strategies that center on preservation and acquisition since we anticipate a wave of evictions and foreclosures perhaps comparable to what we saw in the Great Recession. Philanthropy can’t fill every need, but we have a critical role to play in piloting new ideas that can be brought to scale by either government, private or the nonprofit sectors. We can be the guinea pigs and use our capital to potentially accelerate change. The downside is not failure but rather not taking enough chances to allow the hope that one or two will work out.
I think if we embrace risk as we should, that means accepting failure sometimes. If we're winning everything, then I don't think we're doing our job right.
The one difference would be that we want to use some of the short-term gains that are possible in 2020, particularly because it's an election year and there's a lot going on, to help leverage some of the long-term capacity building.
EK: In terms of 2020 and this moment, is there anything that you're doing differently?
We launched the Partnership for the Bay’s Future last year, and that was built on an ethos of collaboration between tech, philanthropy, and business. At the time, even though it was just a year ago, it was a Herculean effort, and very risky. With that vehicle now in place we are thinking how it can be utilized to ensure we are still building housing for low and moderate income people, preserving existing housing, and protecting people to help them stay housed.
We launched the Partnership for the Bay’s Future last year, and that was built on an ethos of collaboration between tech, philanthropy, and business.
EK: How are you thinking about equity?
We try to use an equity lens in all our work. The pandemic is exposing the vulnerabilities and inequities of our country in a glaringly painful way. Additionally, there was a New York Times article about philanthropy published recently on how race remains a defining factor in which organizations get funded and how much they receive. Black and brown led organizations receive fewer dollars, particularly unrestricted general operating dollars, which translates to less power for their organizations and voices.
The study also noted 92 percent of foundation presidents and 83 percent of full-time staff members are white. How can we rethink building, sharing and wielding power – both internally and externally?
The timing is relevant because the coronavirus crisis can prompt foundations to challenge the status quo and use this as a moment to reconsider evaluation and process requirements. Things that were seemingly impossible are now possible – like the many foundations that have already allowed grantees to change their project grants to general operating, reduced or waived reporting requirements, and granted new rapid response dollars with a minimal application process. There might be opportunities to normalize some of these short-term interventions into long-term change.
One major way is if we look at equity through the lens of the three P's; if we talk about production, who are we building for? What are the communities that we want to live in? How do we integrate our cities and communities so that folks of all income levels can live there? And what makes more sense for us to prioritize?
EK: What are you most hoping to see from your peers in philanthropy?
One thing I’m seeing now that I want to encourage is collaboration. Funders are talking ― and collaborating ― tremendously. The openness and transparency, the sharing of ideas, and the genuine and earnest partnership is exciting. It’s this type of collaboration with various stakeholders that I think can unlock big ideas like the Partnership for the Bay’s Future.
Philanthropy has a role in piloting new ideas that can be brought to scale by either government, private, or other sectors, since philanthropy can never fill the true gap of what's needed. But we can be the guinea pigs and use our money to be more risk-embracing and find things that work.