Progress is possible, if our society is willing to make big investments that tackle inequity at scale and remove the impediments that systematically erode the gains we achieve. Our mission at Lever for Change is aligned with these goals.
In our most recent newsletter, I shared an early memory of watching my mom being arrested on the evening news. She and several friends were “sitting in” at the Trailways bus station lunch counter in Dallas, Texas. The 1960s were a transformative decade in U.S. history when we saw glimmers of a future where racial inequity in economic and social well-being would no longer exist. Our parents and grandparents made great strides, but, for every three steps forward, we seem to slide two steps back. My son’s generation has grown up without seeing any significant progress in eliminating racial economic disparity. However, there now appears to be new momentum toward taking action.
Progress is possible, if our society is willing to make big investments that tackle inequity at scale and remove the impediments that systematically erode the gains we achieve. Our mission at Lever for Change is aligned with these goals: we unlock philanthropic capital in order to accelerate social change around the world’s most pressing challenges, from economic and political opportunity for all to equal representation of women and people of color in our systems of power. We help donors find and fund high-impact projects, through customized competitions with a minimum award size of $10 million.
Lever for Change centers its work on the core values of transparency, openness, equity, and inclusivity. We take intentional steps to ensure these values are represented throughout our activities and within each customized competition, including sourcing from diverse networks, and building community engagement into competition design from the beginning. We provide applicants with detailed information about the competition, such as evaluation criteria and scoring rubric, competition timeline and process, and the names of judges.
We believe that meaningful social change can only happen if we pay attention to historically marginalized populations. In the United States, our focus tends to be on race and ethnicity. In other countries, inequity might exist along religious or other dimensions. In every competition that we manage, we ask each applicant to address how they will ensure, or have ensured, that their solution will include or engage the community in which their project will take place and also include historically marginalized populations—persons with disabilities, religious or ethnic minorities, people of color, native/indigenous peoples, women, and LGBTQ communities. Submissions that advance to the finalist stage receive feedback from an expert on gender and racial equity, and from an expert on inclusion of persons with disabilities.
Earlier this year, we launched the Bold Solutions Network as a vital component of our mission to accelerate social change, by helping philanthropists find, evaluate, and fund a pipeline of turnkey solutions, as well as matching vetted organizations with significant sources of funding. In addition, Lever for Change provides curated lists of proposals based on the philanthropic goals of donors.
Our newest Bold Solutions Network curated list focuses on solutions that address racial equity and economic opportunity. A search of the Bold Solutions Network using the term “racial equity” will yield nine projects from the top one hundred applicants for the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition and the five finalists from our Economic Opportunity Challenge. Soon, we will add the finalists from the Chicago Prize, funded by the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, to the collection, which includes opportunities to invest in reducing inequity and improving economic opportunity in our communities.
Our commitment to the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in solving critical social problems is also reflected in our staff and leadership. Our Board of three includes one woman and one man of color. Half of the 14-person Lever for Change team are people of color, as are half of our leadership team members. Together, we speak a total of 13 languages.
However, having a diverse team doesn’t give us a free pass. Traditional philanthropy has a poor track record of funding organizations led by people of color. We must be vigilant, so as not to replicate past patterns, which is why Lever for Change is committed to transparency. In each of our competitions, we strive to recruit a diverse panel of third-party experts to evaluate the submitted proposals.
We fell short of this goal at the launch of the 2030 Climate Challenge. Since we post pictures and biographies of each judge on the competition website, our community quickly called us out on the lack of diversity within the ranks of our judges and we addressed the issue. When we heard concerns that the video component of the application for MacArthur’s inaugural 100&Change competition might trigger implicit biases among judges, we conducted and published a systematic analysis of data. We found no evidence of bias, but we expanded the judges’ training materials to include content on implicit bias, and we continue to monitor the data.
We worry that the length of our application process might disadvantage organizations led by people of color because they tend to have fewer resources than white-led organizations. However, we also worry that, without a fulsome application, there will be a tendency for evaluators and decision makers to substitute brand name for substance—a tendency that would work against grassroots, Latinx, Black, or Indigenous-led organizations.
In an effort to balance these two concerns, we conduct ongoing assessments of what information is most valuable to evaluators and decision makers and continue to refine our applications to retain only essential elements. We believe that our open call and transparent scoring process provide a rare opportunity for organizations led by people of color to compete based on their ideas, rather than on whether they know someone who knows a program officer or board member of a foundation. It is too early to tell if the data supports this belief.
While we are pleased with the diversity of leadership among the finalist organizations for our current competitions, the Chicago Prize and the Economic Opportunity Challenge, this is just a start. Those of us serving in leadership roles must help accelerate social change in our organizations, our networks and our communities. To that end, I recently joined other women of color leading foundations in Chicago to call for the just treatment of Black people, and ultimately, all people of color in our region. We urged civic and philanthropic leaders to help redesign narratives and systems that produce persistent anti-Black sentiment and racial disparities in our communities. Progress is possible, but we need to take urgent action if we want our children and grandchildren to see meaningful social change in their lifetimes. My hope is that this time really is different.
If you are interested in learning more about Lever for Change, connecting with organizations in our Bold Solutions Network, or supporting highly-rated proposals focused on racial equity, please reach out to my colleague, Dana Rice, and join us.