2024 Northern California Grantmakers Annual Conference

On Tuesday, June 18, Northern California Grantmakers (NCG) held its Annual Conference: Imagine and Act in Oakland, California. The NCG website included the following in its description of the Conference:

We can only act on what we can imagine. As philanthropy is called to meet this moment, we need to expand our imagination. How can we envision philanthropy not as it is, but what it could be at its best? Within philanthropy, we need practices, tools, and ways of being that are in service to freedom and equity. As those mobilizing resources, we must stay steadfast in imagining and co-creating generative pathways to a more equitable future.


Some Highlights: My (Imperfect) Notes from the Conference

Opening Performance – RyanNicole

  • without a vision, the people shall perish
  • when two or more are gathered in the name of love, we are consigned with some powerful work
  • Nexus (YouTube)
  • dream with me, think with me, believe so we, can be

Land Acknowledgement

CEO Opening Remarks – Dwayne S. Marsh

  • critical time for philanthropy – racial equity, social justice
  • goal to learn and unlearn
  • philanthropy’s role is as a critical investor but it must be understood that philanthropy is not on the front lines where the real risk is
  • we’re up against a polarized society, electoral system on the brink, a climate crisis, a housing crisis, underlying culture wars, endemic/pandemics
  • an election is a referendum for what we want for the country and the world
  • people look to California and some think if we can’t make it here …

Opening Keynote – Expending our Imagination – How Grief Powers our Movements
Malkia Devich-Cyril

  • mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living
  • mourning is required for transformative change
  • there are many conditions and events causing us to experience often profound grief
  • premature death has shaped the Black experience in America
  • rage and grief will give birth to our freedom movements
  • mass movements are critical – philanthropy either fuels them or weakens them
  • now is the time to answer the question – which side are you on?
  • after mourning, focus on gratitude, including for movements like OccupyWallStreet, the Arab Spring, Standing Rock, Sunrise Movement, Me Too, Reproductive Justice, Gender Justice, Immigrant Rights, Black Liberation Movement, Voting Rights
  • libation for liberation
  • authoritarianism is animated by patriarchy
  • helping an oppressed group’s freedom, helps everyone
  • philanthropy is not about giving dollars, it’s about fighting for who you love and what you believe in
  • how we spend the money matters
  • right now, we need to block fascism while fighting for the future
  • risk aversion is the key to losing everything
  • consider funding organizations other than 501(c)(3) organizations
  • we can do this, but it depends on you – do you believe? – what side are you? – the freedom side
  • philanthropy needs to make long-term investments in 50-year and 100-year solutions
  • see Malkia Devich-Cyril (MediaJustice)
  • see Book bans, grief, and love: what do these have to do with social movements? Malkia Devich-Cyril (YouTube)


Immerse yourself in the vibrant art space featuring large pieces of art created by Oakland youth from the Center for Art Esteem. This exhibition not only showcases the creativity and resilience of young artists but also ties into our conference theme by illustrating how art can inspire action and social change. Participate in the hands-on art-making activities facilitated by Center for Art Esteem staff and youth artists to stretch your imagination and create your own piece of art.

Great Debate – “Philanthropy has a role in supporting a vibrant, multi-racial democracy. Yes, or no?”

  • Yes:
    • civil society is required for a vibrant, multi-racial democracy; and philanthropy is a funder to civil society; philanthropic investments needed for informed democratic participation, which is key to civil society (need to inform on public understandings, public policies, storytelling, art – the soundtrack to civil society)
    • philanthropy must hold contradictions (e.g., it acts to preserve its own existence and status) and shift to provide this necessary support (purety cannot defeat transformation for freedom and liberation), through transformative, collaborative, trust-based funding; philanthropy must act even with all of its imperfections (perfect cannot be the enemy of good)
    • “find that friend” that’s willing to share, listen, amplify, organize, and make the people’s money the people’s money)
  • No:
    • philanthropy isn’t willing to do what is required, lacks courage, and is unwilling to share power (philanthropy is like the old friend you don’t remember why you’re friends, you console them when they are hurt but they ghost you when they’re doing better and you reach out – “don’t be that friend”)
    • philanthropy’s inability to share power and can undermine people’s will for the funders’ own values (taxpayers are subsidizing these donors’ actions to advance what they think is important); philanthropy lacks the muscle and buy-in (e.g., how many board members are present at this conference?); we should not center philanthropy to build transformations
    • “philanthropy is not the friend” movements are seeking

Maurice Mitchell: Resourcing Movements for Our Collective Futures

  • radical vision – radical means getting to the roots of what really matters
  • radical imagination – bold ideas – we are at the precipice of a transformation now
  • some of the big ideas come from the those who do not believe in liberation
  • fighting not to lose is not a strategy to win
  • don’t vote against, vote for (but people need to see what that is)
  • can we invest in those who organize in order to dream BIG?
  • philanthropy can be transformative or it can put the velvet glove on neoliberalism (marketing for capitalism, launders reputations)
  • philanthropy – investing in the same advocacy you’re seeking to destroy is a nefarious goal
  • status quo of philanthropy and politics is not enough – voting on the same things with the same choices over and over is a win for authoritarianism (it suggests that politics don’t matter, that there is no need to vote)
  • if you don’t know where/how to start – that’s okay – small things lead to big things – sometimes, you have to go through the trudgery, but you need to also focus on the desired transformations
  • why can’t our politics also be poetry, a love letter that sets your heart ablaze?
  • philanthropy – think, act, fund BIG – invest in making our radical imagination real
  • this is a moment – a global fight against authoritarianism and fascism
  • freedom can win if we truly believe we can win – but philanthropy must fund with the true belief that it can be transformational
  • see About Maurice Mitchell (Working Families Party)

Strengthening Democracy by Building, Winning, and Wielding Power

  • power-building is about sovereignty and solidarity, empowering communities for self-determination and liberation, enabling people to take collective action (no matter what their politics)
  • power-building is “the strategic act of shifting power away from historically oppressive systems and towards a new center of gravity that advances authentic democracy, redistribution, and reparation” – San Francisco Foundation
  • power-building may include voter engagement, narrative and communications work, policy development and advocacy, and mass protest and action
  • key question: are you shifting the dynamics of power from those who have it to those who do not
  • power-building is not just about money, but it is highly under-resourced
  • for power-building, people need to be organized into systems and organizations set up to bring in more people, innovate, and develop over time
  • there needs to be more resources for interstitial infrastructure – each organization doesn’t need to do everything, but each can belong to a movement-led coalition
  • leaders must understand their goals and roles and their organization’s goals and roles and that they don’t have to perfectly align
  • philanthropy is often not helping power-building (a strategic alignment problem) by promoting an environment of competition and scarcity
  • philanthropy must support honest leadership (and grantees must feel free to be honest) so they can take big leaps with big risks and big losses along the way
  • we need wins, but there are many wins within even big losses, including regarding relationship-building, leadership development, capacity-building, and resilience-building

Arts and Culture in Movement Building

Closing Plenary – From Imagination to Action: Shaping A Future with Bold Philanthropic Actions

  • meeting at a very important time when we have risk of long-term substantial losses re: housing, women’s rights, gun control, etc.
  • history – voter registration with driver’s license registrations changed California (motor voter law)
  • structural changes to allow more communities to exercise their voice (infrastructure investment required from philanthropy)
  • immediate needs vs. future needs – balance needs to be struck for all organizations, but philanthropy may be better positioned to address future needs
  • places where population has radically changed and politics don’t meet population – Central Valley, Orange County, San Diego, etc. – philanthropy needs to focus in these areas
  • think long-term but think quickly (don’t take 5 years to make a 10-year plan)
  • women of color are the fastest growing group in this country – absolutely critical in leading movements – philanthropy, if you’re not following the movement led by women of color, you’re not in the movement
  • when someone cracks the glass ceiling, the glass ceiling rains down on the person (see also glass cliff) – philanthropy, can’t support just one person for one year; support a team, support a movement; there are forces that are interested and heavily invested in defeating political and social movements – one person alone isn’t enough
  • philanthropy needs to support local news to fight misinformation
  • philanthropy needs to fund power, ecosystems, relationships – not just programs
  • philanthropy needs to build infrastructures to allow working people to be in places of power rather than in individual persons, celebrities, influencers
  • see Aimee Allison
  • see Michael Tubbs

Photos and recap from NCG available here.