Year 1: Spiritual Survival as a Funder

July 21, 2015 8:30 AM | Pia Infante

This post first appeared on the The Whitman Institute Blog on July 10, 2015.

Year 1 of my co-executive directorship at TWI is a wrap.  At the start, a colleague warned me that the field of professionalized philanthropy could inflate my ego and warp my soul, and that I should set a timer for a philanthropic career of no more than seven years.  Conveniently, TWI is sunsetting in 2022.

Many (more eloquent than I) have written about the potential spiritual pitfalls of professionalized philanthropy. Michael Lerner’s piece on the “light and shadow of organized philanthropy” is one that stays with me. Or, more recently, Erica Kohl-Arenas’ insightful query about Ford’s announcement to focus entirely on inequality: “Can philanthropy ever reduce inequality?”

Both Michael and Erica speak to a core irony – philanthropy is set up to leverage a portion of the gains from an inequitable system to ameliorate the inequities that stem from said system. Both wonder if comprehensive structural change, economically and politically, (e.g. ‘the revolution’) is fundable within this paradigm. Both seem doubtful, but, like me, find hope in grassroots and community led efforts and solutions.

As I close out my first year as a funder, I find myself caught in the shadow and the light of these questions.

On the national scene, it’s been a year of continued horrors stemming from the U.S.’s “peculiar institution” (e.g. insidious, prevalent white supremacy and its lethal tolls), rapid ever-widening economic inequality, and the life threatening effects of global warming. It’s also been a year peppered with iconic moments of love, resilience, resistance, and hope.

With this as backdrop, and TWI’s spend down and mission of spreading a gospel of trust-based investing rooted in multi-year unrestricted funding and equitable relationships, I feel a sense of urgency and responsibility.

In this moment, though, I notice more light than dark within me. And, actually, I’ve generally been more inspired than disillusioned in the past year, though I didn’t avoid the moments when I needed to sit heavy with grief and fury.

As usual, taking time to reflect has its antidotes to despair and overwhelm. It’s dawning on me that my spiritual survival as a funder is buoyed by a handful of practices that I’ve gleaned from many spiritually sustained mentors and leaders along the way.

Here are a few to consider:


Listen to learn. Listen to others. Listen to subtle inner guidance. The practice of listening is one we often blog about, and I loved this recent post on What is a Justice Funder? about the virtues of listening to non-profit partners, especially given our positions as funders.

I think what has also helped me is to listen inwardly, intuitively. This has been particularly helpful when I needed to take a break from my habit (or affliction) of perfectionism. Listening inwardly led me to show up in settings that I wouldn’t have pre-selected and come out with widened understanding and vital new connections.

Coat Check the Ego

You know, ever since I took on this role, I’ve become incredibly smart and funny. Or at least it appears that I have. The truth is my proximity to an endowment has placed me squarely on the funder side of the nonprofit fundraising game. I have much compassion for the many who continue to bear the burden of fundraising for the revolution, and I certainly do not want to drink the kool-aid that I somehow am smarter and funnier than I used to be.

Even though my natural sympathies will always be with the fund seekers, a year in, I have to admit that coat checking my ego is a practice I have to enforce the longer I’m in this role. There are many studies that demonstrate how wealth (and proximity to it) can become an obstacle to empathy, or worse, create an inflated sense of superiority.  I’ve heard privilege described as a learning disability.

Hence the intentional ego check is a practice that (I am pained to acknowledge) is an on the job necessity for me.

Fund and Participate in Systems Change 

My co-pilot, John, often says it’s not only the “how” it is the “what” we fund.  Since TWI focuses so much on the practice of grant-making, we sometimes forget to name our lifetime commitment to supporting initiatives to bring about systemic change through many methods – some disruptive, many creative – all relational, dialogic, and equity based.

Our core, multi-year grantees should provide a comprehensive picture of the ways we fund and support systemic change.  Our learning partnerships with them inform our own understanding of what it takes to fuel change and those leading it.

I’ve also deeply benefited serving on the board of the Center for Media Justice, which is a central organization within the Media Action Grassroots Network.  Participating in these generative efforts to create culture shift in media representation to democratize the economy, government, and society helps me stay connected to real people, real struggles, and real wins.

Claim, and Celebrate Wins.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Speaking of wins, TWI core partner IDEX, recently announced a 2.65 million dollar, 7 year partnership with NoVo Foundation that lights up all of TWI’s trust-based investment buttons. This is a development of epic proportions. Over time, it’s also one I am confident we will be able to lift up and point to as a positive, pro-active, simple way to take philanthropy’s core ironies and turn them inside out.

I’d love to hear from you, friends, how you survive spritually in your work, particularly as it relates to supporting systemic change. What buoys you? What are your antidotes to despair? What do you coat check at the door of your purpose?


Pia Infante is Co-Executive Director of The Whitman Institute (TWI), having been a part of the TWI staff family for 10 years.  Pia was the Director of Organizational Partnerships at Rockwood Leadership Institute for 3.5 years prior to this new post – conducting capacity building initiatives for nationally recognized social justice movement leaders and organizations.


  • July 22, 2015 9:58 PM | Dana Kawaoka-Chen
    Thank you Pia, for your very poignant reflections. Your concluding questions--particularly, "what is my antidote to despair?" prompted me to follow your lead of modelling vulnerability to really explore this question in a very personal way.

    Recently, an extended family member chose to end her own life. As the inevitable archaeology to figure out “what happened” or “what went wrong” surfaced a very large amount of debt, it literally raised the question, “how much is a life worth?”

    Obviously for this individual, she didn’t think hers was worth more than she owed. As I’ve cycled through my own grief and loss, and mourn both the life of suffering she must have endured, as well as a life of abundance she’ll never have, I keep coming back to the question: “would being a part of a movement have saved her?”

    I ask, because I think it's the only way that I’ve been able to spiritually survive in this field of contradictions. Because in a movement, the focus is on a collective, not an individual, so in order to show-up, be present and do your part, you’d better get your sh*t together for the sake of the collective. In a movement, you are accountable to others and others are accountable to you, so even if your family by birth doesn’t feel like a safe space that can hold you, there are numerous others in a chosen family that can lift you up. In a movement, the focus is often on the long-term, which helps keep in perspective the smaller bumps, detours and dead-ends.

    While we'll never know whether being a part of a movement would have saved my family member, the clarity that I have had in thinking about the questions you posed is that I have found myself more grounded amongst the privileges that I am surrounded by in philanthropy because at the core, I have clarity of purpose. A purpose that exceeds beyond my current role, and even beyond that of myself as an individual. Ironically, this purpose can be best described by the Buddhist practice of “dana.”

    The core precept of “dana” is a giving heart—which calls people to look beyond the material and give freely “seven gifts that require no possessions:”
    -The gift of a gentle smile;
    -The gift of a positive outlook;
    -The gift of kind words;
    -The gift of good manners;
    -The gift of a heart full of love;
    -The gift of offering others a place to sit;
    -The gift of welcoming others to one’s house.

    To truly embody these precepts in a movement context within philanthropy, a field created around a tax shelter for the wealthy is to be clear in my purpose about the collective goal for culture change. To truly embody these precepts in a movement context within the field of philanthropy, is to be accountable to those most impacted by inequity. To truly embody these precepts in a movement context within the field of philanthropy means letting go of the attachment to needing to “see” change in my lifetime, while working every day like change is around the corner.

    You see, “my antidote to despair," is literally living the gift of purpose.
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