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Edgar Villanueva and Sam Caplan

Edgar Villanueva and Sam Caplan: How Can Philanthropy Decolonize Wealth?

This episode of Impact Audio features Edgar Villanueva, the Principal of the Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital, discussing his book Decolonizing Wealth, with Q&A facilitated by Sam Caplan, VP of Social Impact at Submittable.

Edgar Villanueva and Sam Caplan: How Can Philanthropy Decolonize Wealth?

59 MIN

Join Submittable for a book club Q&A with Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth, facilitated by Sam Caplan, VP of Social Impact at Submittable.



On the path to healing, can money be medicine? According to Edgar Villanueva, the Principal of the Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital, the answer is yes—for those seeking to mend what colonialism and white supremacy have broken (and philanthropy has further compromised).

The fifth episode of Impact Audio was recorded during a Submittable book club interview with Edgar, facilitated by Sam Caplan, VP of Social Impact at Submittable. Including questions from Sam and the Submittable team, this conversation highlights major themes from the second edition of Decolonizing Wealth

You’ll learn about:

  • The inspiration behind Edgar’s book

  • Why white supremacy isn’t synonymous with white people

  • Model funders making change

  • The power of storytelling (and pop culture!)

  • How technology can help decolonize wealth

Plus much more, including topics such as participatory grantmaking, trust-based philanthropy, relationship-building, and Reservation Dogs. We hope you enjoy listening in.


Picture of your guest, Edgar Villanueva

Edgar Villanueva

Edgar Villanueva is an award-winning author, activist and expert on issues of race, wealth, and philanthropy. Villanueva is the Principal of Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital and author of the bestselling book Decolonizing Wealth (2018, 2021). He advises a range of organizations including national and global philanthropies, Fortune 500 companies, and entertainment on social impact strategies to advance racial equity from within and through their investment strategies. Villanueva holds a BSPH and MHA from the Gillings Global School of Public Health at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe and resides in New York City.

Picture of your guest, Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan is the Vice President of Social Impact at Submittable. Inspired by the amazing work performed by grantmakers of all stripes, at Submittable, Sam strives to help them achieve their missions through better, more effective software. Sam has served as founder of New Spark Strategy, Chief Information Officer at the Walton Family Foundation, and director of technology at the Walmart Foundation. He consults, advises, and writes prolifically on social impact technology, strategy, and innovation. Sam recently published a series of whitepapers with the Technology Association of Grantmakers titled “The Strategic Role of Technology in Philanthropy.”


Episode Notes

Learn more:

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Full Transcript

RACHEL MINDELL: Hi, everyone. Welcome to this special event. Thank you for being with us. If I haven't met you in person or online, hi, I'm Rachel Mindell, content marketing manager at Submittable. 

To begin today, I'd like to share two land acknowledgments. The first is an official statement from the city of Missoula where Submittable headquarters is located. The city of Missoula acknowledges that we are in the Aboriginal territories of the Salish, Kootenai, and Kalispell people. 

Today we honor the path they have always shown us in caring for this place for the generations to come. And I'm coming to you remotely from Tucson, Arizona, on the land and territories of Indigenous people. Today Arizona is home to 22 federally recognized tribes with Tucson being home to the O'odham and the Yaqui. 

Submittable is so pleased and lucky to be sharing virtual space today with Edgar Villanueva as part of our company-wide book club and podcast recording. Hi, Edgar. 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Hi, thanks for having me. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Happy to have you. Edgar Villanueva is an award winning author, activist, and expert on issues of race, wealth, and philanthropy. He is the principal of the Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital. And as you know, author of the bestselling book, Decolonizing Wealth. He advises a range of organizations, including national and global philanthropies, fortune 500 companies, and entertainment on social impact strategies to advance racial equity from within and through their investment strategies. 

Villanueva holds a BSPH and MHA from the Gillings Global School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is an enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe and resides in New York City. 

We're here today to celebrate the second edition of Decolonizing Wealth with a Q&A style discussion facilitated by Submittable's VP of social impact, Sam Caplan. Sam brings over 20 years experience in philanthropy to his role. He has served as a founder of New Spark Strategy, chief information officer at the Walton Family Foundation, and the director of technology at the Walmart Foundation. He consults, advises, and writes prolifically on social impact technology, strategy, and innovation. 

Thanks to everyone who helped make today's event happen. Thank you Edgar for being here, thank you to Tamanna Mansury for all your coordination, and thanks to the teams at Sunshine Sachs and the Decolonizing Wealth Project. Thanks Submittable for purchasing books and a special shout out to Jordan Marvin, our media guru and Natalia DeRobertis-Theye for dreaming up this event, as well as Laura Steele and Keriann Strickland for their support. Now I'll turn it over to Sam. 

SAM CAPLAN: All right. Thank you so much, Rachel. And I was telling Edgar right before we joined, I think we literally have more than half of the company joining us today for this really special book club. So a huge thank you to all of our colleagues at Submittable. So excited that you guys volunteered to read the book and that you've asked some great questions and that you're joining us today. 

And, Edgar, thank you so much for joining us as well. Taking time out of your really busy schedule, we know that the second edition of Decolonizing Wealth has just released. I can only imagine that you're super busy these days, right? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Never a dull moment but it's been really exciting. 

SAM CAPLAN: I have to ask, do you feel kind of like a rock star? I mean, since the first edition of Decolonizing Wealth came out, like I've been following you. And your book has probably been one of the most popular book conversation starters. The topic of decolonization has just absolutely exploded across the field of philanthropy. Like, how do you feel about all of this? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: It's a bit unreal to be honest. To kind of pour your heart into writing something… I knew probably a few people might read it, my mom would buy a few books but to actually kind of take a step to do that and to have your experience be validated and your perspectives be celebrated and actually adopted in so many ways is really the best blessing that I could ever imagine. 

So it is very surreal in a lot of ways and I'm daily inspired by the folks who share stories with me about how the work has really shaped their careers or influenced their work in so many different ways. So it's been a journey. 

SAM CAPLAN: Awesome. Well, we are super excited to have you. I know that most of my colleagues here on this call have read the book but would you mind just giving us a little bit of an overview of Decolonizing Wealth? I'm super curious to know what your motivation was behind writing the book and also what inspired the second edition. 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Sure. So as was shared in the introduction, I am a Native American. I grew up in North Carolina. I am from a family in a community that has no wealth. And I'm not the typical person that you would often find working in philanthropy, at least almost 20 years ago when I found my way into the field. 

And coming from that background, I had so many unique experiences, kind of being thrown into this space that was very privileged, lots of resources and very few people of color at that time in the sector. And so I have always been a person that loves storytelling and I kind of chronicled my experiences through the years. 

I also experienced some really painful moments in my career where I thought I was doing the right thing by community or advocating for what I thought was the right thing. And at some point honestly, I got a little disillusioned about the entire sector and thought like, maybe this isn't a place for me to make a difference in the world. Maybe working around money and wealth is like toxic or evil in some way. 

And so I had to go on my own journey to kind of heal from some of the experiences that I had and to really find my place in the world and to sort of reconcile this experience that I had. 

And what I also understood is that my experience was just very shared. I wasn't the only one who had a difficult time navigating the space. Many women, LGBT folks, other people of color who come from marginalized backgrounds who are often hired into this very privileged space because of the networks we have and the communities we represent often face a type of oppression or a forced assimilation into this like very dominant way of being. 

And I remember so clearly one day being asked by someone I was working for what side I was on. Edgar, are you on the side of community or are you on our side? And I was like, I didn't know that there was a side. I just thought we were just here to like support community. 

And so there are so many dynamics in philanthropy that are about legacy and maintaining wealth and reputation that are very performative that I got to a place where I just thought if we're really going to ever achieve this DEI stuff that we talk about at conferences all the time, we've got to just have a different conversation and get really real about it. 

And so I decided to write the book out of what I felt like was obedience to my ancestors. But also I felt the weight of all of these stories, my story and all the stories I had collected that needed to be shared. And I see the book as a critique, a very loving critique of the sector to really call out a lot of dynamics that are at play that we've been too afraid of discussing in the past in hopes that we can get to a more authentic place around like, what's really happening and how can we have better solutions for it? 

And in the book I bring in sort of the history of colonization in this country and a critique of how wealth has been amassed. And I'm just asking that this sector have a true sense of how we're connected to that because we are absolutely a byproduct of a system that hasn't been fair. And so as we are getting up every day, going to work, trying to do good, we have to bring that truth with us and account for that and try to use these resources in a way that is respectful to that history. So that's what the book is about in a nutshell and the work that we're trying to do. 

SAM CAPLAN: Yeah. So listening to your story, you mentioned going through this process of self-healing. And I imagine that this was a bit of a reconciliation in terms of figuring out is your place in the world really in philanthropy and really in wealth? And I'm wondering, like as you were going through that process of self-healing, did you ever imagine that you were going to make this transition from self-healing to healing others and even to a greater degree, not just healing others but helping to heal this whole sector? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: I never imagined that first and I wrote the second edition largely because of that reason. Since the first edition came out in 2018, the world has changed and flipped upside down. It feels like three or four times, right. And there's so much pain in the world. 

And I did begin to see and understand through my work, through all of the talks, through the workshops, through everything that we were doing on launch this organization that I was beginning to be identified as a healer. And I remember being introduced at a conference like, Edgar is a healer and I was like, why? Am I a healer? What does that mean? And that's a very serious kind of sounding title and it seems like it would have a lot of responsibility. 

But what I came to understand is that I talk about money being medicine and how we use it but also other things that we're doing like telling our story, being brave and sharing those stories is a form of medicine. And person after person after person has come to me over the past three years to actually share how the work we're doing has enriched lives. 

In fact, I remember being in Canada once and a couple came to me and said not only did this book save her life, it saved their marriage because she was so stressed out at work with all trying to reconcile and figure a lot of things out. It just kind of carrying the weight of a lot of things and that she had physically gotten sick. 

And kind of hearing my story and stories of others, she found some clarity around what she needed to do. She needed to actually leave that job and that situation. And in doing so her health improved and she became a better person and a better partner and that ultimately saved their marriage. And they were thanking me like I was this person who had directly made that happen, which was kind of odd. I'm like, well, I'm so thankful that all that happened. 

But there are many accounts of where folks have kind of looked to us as healing, and I can't take full credit for this healing and reconciliation. These are really indigenous ideas and practices that have been a part of my community forever. And to be honest with you all, when I got to the solutions part of the book, like, it's easy to critique. Like, all these things are bad. This is what is broken and this is what's wrong. And I was really pushing myself to get to what is like—what is my solution to fix this. 

I kind of first didn't want to go in that direction because I felt like, oh, I'm Native American so obviously I'm going to bring the Native American perspective into this. It's too on the nose, right. And as I searched for something else there was just nothing else for me. And I'm like, if something's broken, the only thing I know to do is to heal it. And this is how we heal. It's through this process that I share in the book that we can find healing personally, we can find healing in our organizations, and we can think about healing as a role for this sector. 

SAM CAPLAN: So in the book you describe how medicine exists in these many forms and that the purpose of medicine is to help heal. And you say that money can be a medicine and so can storytelling. And you describe the stories of Camille Kalama and her efforts to prevent the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. 

And you also share the story of Andre Perez who spoke at the same conference you were at. And he flew there directly from his job coordinating the protection of that mountain. And these stories, I think, are really essential. But how do you balance that openness to storytelling in a diverse range of different perspectives without pressuring people of color to be overly open or to share their struggle? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Yeah, I mean, that's a really good point. I think when we are ready to share our stories, the story will come. And for me, it's easy to kind of put me on a pedestal like, oh, Edgar, you're so brave. You spend all of this work but I haven't always been brave, I've been afraid to speak up. I've been at risk of losing a job if I tried to push against the status quo, right. So I absolutely understand what it's like to not feel brave enough to share. 

I also know what it feels like to be the only Native American or whatever person in a space and feel the weight and responsibility of always having to be the one to teach or to share. And so, I think, it's really—we all will know when we're called to respond with sharing our stories. And maybe being a storyteller isn't the medicine that someone has but maybe it's some other gift or superpower that you have to make change in the world. So it's not that everyone has to get a microphone and get on a stage and talk or share. But I do think that storytelling is a very powerful form of medicine. 

We can put out all the research and reports and we do that in the sector quite a bit right. Like, there's so many academic books about philanthropy and leadership and those are important, data matters. But at the end of the day, I think one of the reasons my book has had such an impact is that it's just a heartfelt story. Like we love a good story as human beings. And it's a powerful way to shift hearts and minds. 

And the other thing about a story is that it's not up for debate, right. Like, folks often said, you get all this pushback and I'm like, no, I actually don't. I'm sure everyone is not here for what I have to say. But when you're sharing your personal experience it is facts. This is how I've experienced the world and what I have seen in experience on my journey in this sector. So there's something sort of profound about that, that is based in my personal reality that can't be contested. 

So I think that we all should just kind of lean into that. And if the universe calls you to speak up and share your story, then I think that story will find a place and a time to come out. 

SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And speaking of sharing stories, I was really sort of debating a lot like on how to approach this conversation because I am a white male. And since reading the first edition of your book, I have been really trying to figure out how to decolonize myself. And another part of my own identity is that I'm Jewish. 

And you may know right now we're in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays and it's the time between Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish new year and Yom Kippur. And during this time, Jews around the world atone by acknowledging and apologizing for our sins and for seeking forgiveness from those that we've harmed and committing to do better in the upcoming year. 

And it feels very much like the Jewish religion is aligned to this sort of sense of justice that you write about and to repairing the world, which we call Tikkun Olam. And so for me, your book was especially timely and poignant on so many levels. So thank you for helping me find my own voice and telling my own story here. 


SAM CAPLAN: So you talk about your Indigenous identity as a sort of foundational piece of your approach. And I know that some folks who might struggle talking about white supremacy because their whiteness is a central pillar of their own identity, and it can feel like their value and their family history and sort of everything is tied to this sense of being white. I'm wondering, do you have any advice on how to frame the dialogue for folks like this? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Yeah, I love that question. I often say when I'm talking about white supremacy that I'm not talking about white people. And I know that seems like-- that might be hard to kind of separate in some ways but there are white people, right who are… a cohort of folks that have a shared experience and a shared privilege due to simply the color of skin. 

But white supremacy is an ideology. It's a big lie that someone came up with, right. It is like propaganda and it's not a real thing. But it is like the most successful lie that's ever been told. And this is sort of a message that has just permeated every aspect of our society and we've all internalized it at some level. 

I am an Indigenous person who has internalized ideas of white supremacy because of the books I've had to read in school and what I was taught and just the world that we live in. So when we talk about decolonizing ourselves, which is unlearning in a lot of ways and relearning ways of being, I have to actively work to do that because I have internalized lies that have been just permeated throughout my lifetime because of the history and the systems that we live in, right. 

I have to say to myself, like, I'm beautiful and I may not meet this standard of beauty, or I'm smart and I'm a leader even though I lead in a different kind of way. And so it's discerning the difference between the two things, white people and white supremacy. 

And also for white people, it's really important for you all to understand that this lie that has been told actually hurts you as well, right. Like, it's obvious how white supremacy has hurt Indigenous folks, Black folks, other people of color but this lie that has been circulating for so long now actually harms all of us. And it does create these feelings of guilt and shame and it creates this isolation, I think, in white families and just all types of—it shows up in different ways. 

And so that's why it's so important for white people to be a part of dismantling white supremacy because we've got to be like, this is not working for us. This is not working for white people, it is not working for Indigenous people. 

So my attempt to dismantle white supremacy is not an attempt to harm white people or to escort white people off this land or whatever kind of ideas people tend to come up with. But it is acknowledging that there is this ideology, it has hurt some more than others. It has created privilege and opportunity for some. But at the end of the day, the net value of white supremacy is a major negative 0 for all of us and it's something that is just really hurting the very fabric of our society and our way of being. And that we've got to figure out a way to turn this thing around and get our country back on the right track here and bring our communities back together. 

SAM CAPLAN: Here here. A moment ago you were describing that when you entered the field of philanthropy 20 years ago, that it was rare for there to be an Indigenous person that was working in philanthropy at the time. In the book in the chapter titled “House Slaves,” you write that the most excluded and exploited by today's broken economy possess exactly the perspective and wisdom needed to fix it. 

You also write that evolution and innovation arise from difference and variation not from sameness. Right. And yet we know that many grantmakers still exclude people of color and that they're rare in philanthropy and that when they are hired into the ivory towers, that they're still expected to assimilate. I'm very curious, do you have any examples of any grantmaking organizations that have really made significant progress towards not only diversifying their own staff or their board of directors but that are also giving people of color the freedom and the power to really influence change within their organizations? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Yeah, Sam you ask really good questions and there's always like seven questions in one question but I'm going to—


So one, thanks for naming that we still have a problem. And, y'all you know we've invested hundreds and thousands of dollars if not millions by now in different diversity initiatives in the sector and we still have a major diversity problem. More than 90% of our executives are white, 90% of boards are white. Right now in this country to my knowledge there's only one Native American on the board of a national private foundation. I don't know off the top of my head all the other percentages but I know that they're small. 

And there's a direct correlation between who sits in those seats and where money goes, right. We know that less than 10%, about 8% of grant dollars go explicitly to communities of color, which is like so-- just like not staying here. But I think it's deeply rooted to the lack of diversity in the seats of power in this sector. 

At the same time, I do think there's progress but the progress is nuanced. What has happened in the last couple of years from my interpretation, there's a little bit of data that might back up these assumptions that I have. With the emphasis on diversity there was a rush to kind of like hire people of color, right, and I can't tell you how many times a week I get called by search firms saying we need us one of those. Can you help us find one? Right. 

SAM CAPLAN: Oh, man. 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: I think that's going to be a future line of revenue for me. I'm like, I should be paid for helping you all do this job, OK. But what happened is that we saw an uptick in the numbers of people of color and then we saw a decline in the numbers because what often happens with diversity initiatives is that we do run out and we hire people of color, but we don't change our cultures or our way of being. And it gets, it's really difficult for people to feel supported and successful in those roles. 

Literally I've heard so many executive directors of foundations say, I was brought in, they were a person of color, but my hands were completely tied. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't make any changes. I felt like the hired help to this board or whatever and I was just a face that they wanted to be able to say they had done this thing. 

And so what happens when brilliant people of color don't feel like they can lead and be their best? They leave. And so we had this mass exodus out of philanthropy. And so we have to go beyond diversity to understand that it's not just about filling the seats with different types of folks but what's deeply rooted in our culture that needs to change so that we can have a sense of belonging and empowerment. 

I do think some folks are really working hard at this. And I'll call out the Kataly Foundation. I know Regan Pritzker very well. And Crystal there. And I've seen the way that the Pritzker's have engaged leaders from the community to really actually hold power and make the final decisions about resources because that's the thing that's really key at the end of the day. It's like, we can have all the performative diversity kind of things from participatory grantmaking to whatever and there's some good models of all of those things out there. But if at the end of the day, if there's still a room of like white men who make the final decision, then we're not really sharing power. 

I think where I'm really pushing the conversation is like, yes, more diversity but deeper than diversity how do we shift the culture? But even beyond shifting the culture, how do we shift ownership of the resources? Right. And so beyond making a handful of good grants to communities of color, how do we think about redistributing wealth? 

We have a robust ecosystem in this sector right now of BIPOC-led intermediaries. We've built philanthropic infrastructure. Even in our Native communities, I can probably name half a dozen or more of Native-led philanthropic intermediaries who are able to do this good work but just need capital. And so what would it look like to actually not push on these ivory towers for 100 more years to make the change to say, hey, just put your money over here and let these folks do this work in their communities in a self-determined way. 

I think all of the above need to change and be impacted but there are various levers of change that I think could be more powerful and transformative at the end of the day. 

SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, that makes perfect sense and I'm so excited to hear you talk about shifting the culture and even more importantly, sharing power. From my perspective, having been involved on the operations side of philanthropy for many years, I sort of experienced firsthand what the power imbalance often feels like between funders who are making grants and the nonprofits who are seeking those grants, right. And that we know that the funders hold all the cards in this process. 

And I would say up until last year, very little had ever changed or evolved in the sense of that power sharing. We saw that manifest itself in these like very burdensome grant applications and the length of time that nonprofits have to wait to find out about funding. And if they're fortunate enough to receive a grant, then they're expected to provide very specific, often very difficult to accumulate data to demonstrate their progress or lack of progress. And they even have to change the way that they approach their mission or doing the fundamental work of their non-profit organization to meet the needs of the foundation that's providing the grant. 

And so it strikes me that last year a lot of these nonprofits sort of finally stood up and with one voice, raised their hand and said like, we're drowning as a result of COVID and all of the cultural change that is taking place, we can't serve our constituencies as well as we should be able to. So funders, we need you to help reduce all of this administrative burden. And we need you to find ways to start leveling the playing field a little bit so that we can achieve our mission and help you achieve your mission in a better way as well. 

So let's talk for a minute about this power dynamic that exists and some of the ways that you might be sensing that power sharing is beginning to happen. And one of the ways that gets me very excited that you mentioned in your book is participatory grantmaking, where members of the community, constituents who are actually being helped, are invited in to participate in that end-to-end process. Like, is this one way that we think we can begin to see the culture shift and power begin to get shared? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Yeah, I appreciate you naming what has happened over the past year because I do think it felt like we've been talking about making these changes for like, I don't know, 15 years and in one year lots of things happen really quick for the good, so I'm really inspired by that. And I hope that now that folks have done some of this stuff, like provided general operating support, reduce the administrative burden, they will see that it's also just easier for the foundation staff. I've been on both sides and it's a lot of work for the people who work inside foundations to collect all those forms and all that information as well. 

But in terms of participatory grantmaking, in general, I think it's a good thing. And it's something that's been around for a long time and is kind of re-emerging as a trend in philanthropy right now. I do think that there's some nuance in it because our field is so funny. 

Our field at the end of the day does not, people do not want to give up power, right. So we create sometimes alternative ways to appear to be sharing power, giving up power but we're not really giving up power. So I do think it's again, kind of like—it comes back down to who's making the final decisions because if we bring all these folks into our organization and ask them to do this work and then what they decide actually is not what happens like someone else has to approve, then we're not really sharing power. We've just kind of done a dance here. 

The other thing that I'm still kind of thinking though, I don't have a final opinion about this, but I do know because I work with a lot of social movements and grassroots leaders and folks that often foundations are tapping these leaders, bringing them—and they're so busy, they already have a lot going on. And so I just want to be clear, when we're in a participatory process is being designed, are we asking community to do our job? And like if we—how do we design a process that really isn't a heavy lift for them? 

Because of the power dynamic they're often going to say, yes, we do pay them. But I think we have to just be really aware of our intentions. Are we trying to do this to have some—to be cool, to put activists on our websites so we appear woke. And what is the scale of this? I talked to a funder recently who was like, we have $5,000. We want to create a participatory… I was like, for $5000? 


I was like, that's not meaningful for them, just give the money to someone, right. So, there's a lot of nuance in that we have to just ask ourselves the question, what is really the intent here? Are we really shifting power or are we just creating another level of activity for the community and for ourselves? Another process to facilitate this not resulting in a major shift of dollars. Is more money going to communities of color as a result of this process or are we just taking some money and putting it through like this process for optics and then sending the money out? 

So there are great models and then there are models where it's like, I'm not really sure what's happening there. It looks good on the surface but we need to bring a little bit more analysis to the intentions behind the process. 

SAM CAPLAN: Yeah. All right, if that feels like a really good segue into what will be my final question, and then I will turn the microphone back over to Rachel and we will let some of my colleagues ask a couple of questions as well. 

So, Edgar, if you had a chance to take a look at our website you'll know that Submittable develops software to launch, manage, and measure social impact programs. And so I'm really curious, do you have a perspective on what role technology might be able to help in terms of decolonization? Like, is there something that software or technology can do to help grantmaking organizations further decolonize or make grantmaking more equitable? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: I think there's so much that technology can do. There's the opportunity absolutely to democratize philanthropy and make that like an efficient process, right. By using technology and not creating these 500-page board books that have been used to be like the bane of my existence working in foundations. 

I also think that technology creates the opportunity for more transparency and accountability, right. Like, collecting data is really important. And to hold ourselves accountable to our mission statements and to our intentions. So there's a lot of opportunity, I think, for technology to support those types of campaigns within the sector. Who's giving what to who? Right. 

And knowing that for many, many years, Native Americans have—philanthropy did that report like decades ago that was like only 0.03% of funding goes to Native American. And that, just having that one data point has helped us campaign for a long, long time to increase that over the years. 

So there's a major role in terms of the efficiency because also as a grantmaker, I will say in our defense because I do critique us a lot, that often we are understaffed and have had portfolios of like tens of millions of dollars and like 80 grant applications per docket and the sense of urgency and the lack of capacity on our end has been a barrier to be as equitable as we need to be, right. I probably haven't had the time in the past to do those extra steps that it would take to get that grant to that group. 

And so, I think the efficiency that you all provide, because I've played around in your programs and it's really clean, it's really helping bring philanthropy into the 21st century, can open up more space for folks to build relationships and spend less time like reading these stacks of paper in the old-fashioned way. 


SAM CAPLAN: Amen. Amen to that, brother. Thank you, Edgar. I really appreciate chatting you with me. I'm going to let Rachel direct us through the rest of the conversation. But thank you again, Edgar. Really appreciate it. 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Thank you, Sam. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Thanks to you both. So we have a few folks from Submittable prepared to ask questions. Submittable team, if you would please introduce yourself and your role at Submittable before asking your question, that would be great. And we'll start with Chad. 

CHAD VIELLGAS: Hi, I'm Chad Villegas. I'm the talent engagement specialist here at Submittable and a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes locally here, so it is a pleasure to meet a fellow Native American. And my question, I'm very excited to ask is, I love what you had to say about pop culture as both a way to connect with others and as a form of storytelling medicine. I'm curious if there's any pop culture you're enjoying currently that feels like good medicine? And I appreciate being able to use the term good medicine because I use it all the time but now I can officially use it in a question. 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Yeah. Oh, I mean, pop culture is—I mean, I am a consumer of it and I—it's such a just mainstream way to get ideas into the world and to shift perceptions in a really impactful way. So obviously I'm going to talk about Reservation Dogs. If you all have not seen the new show on Hulu, it's so good. 

This is one of the first or maybe the very first TV show that we've ever had. It's like all Native actors, writers, producers, creators. And it's a hit show. I live in New York City. There's a billboard in Times Square with Native people, Native young people on it, which just blows my mind. 

Sad that it's taken me this long in life to see that representation of my community, but I'm really inspired. We're having a moment in our communities right now with these breakthroughs in entertainment, and then—so many great books out there right now. And tonight I'm co-hosting an event, this is Fashion Week in New York for Indigenous designers here. So our community is kind of killing it in all types of spaces and pop culture right now. So I would definitely check out that TV show and just pick up—Tommy Orange is a fantastic writer. There's just so much good stuff happening, content being created by Indigenous folks right now so thank you for that question. 


RACHEL MINDELL: Thank you. We have a question from Ben. 

BEN BACH: Yeah. Hi. Thanks Rachel. Edgar, thanks for your time and thanks for taking the question. Your book described a concept called both/and where it's possible to incorporate good ideas or inspiration from two seemingly opposite sides. Do you have any examples of both/ands in your world and philanthropy where maybe founders, nonprofits, constituents can come together in a sense of connectedness 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Yeah, thank you for that question, Ben. Yeah, if—there's research that came out a few years ago about characteristics of white dominant culture. And if you haven't read some of these articles, they're really fascinating because just really kind of inform us around some of the practices of the way that we operate that's really steeped in dominant culture that often make it hard for people of color to feel a sense of belonging or to thrive in organizations. And frankly, they make it hard for white people because of this fascination with perfectionism and who can be perfect? None of us can, right? All the time. 

So one of the tenets of white dominant culture is either/or thinking. It's being so absolute that something is like black or white or whatever. And the reality is we live in a world that's just full of complexities and gray areas, right, and sometimes that's just the way things are. 

The example that I share in the book is that I was raised in a Christian faith. And if I had to check a box I guess my religion would be Christianity although I kind of see myself as more spiritual these days but even some other Native American relatives have been like, how can you be like Native American and Christian? Isn't that like an oxymoron or something? And I've come to really understand that I can be all the things at the same time. All the time, right. Because that's just how it is. 

And in our work in philanthropy, I think it's just being honest and calling things what they are, right. Like, yes, we're doing good things with this money and it's also true that sometimes the money came from a bad place or there's a history behind this money that we need to come to terms with and call out and just bring that awareness into how we're actually doing our work. 

One example that comes to mind is the Bush Foundation, who I did some work with recently— the Bush foundation, I'm sure you all know them. I mean, a great foundation. They're not radical. It's like a run of the mill good foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota but they did some work to say, hey, we've been doing good work. We have, like, a program that specifically supports Native nation building and we also do our part to support Black communities and other communities of color here, but let's actually also acknowledge that we've benefited from a history of accumulated privilege because of the resources we have. 

And so all that we've done good work, we have benefited from this system. It's all true, both things are true at the same time. So what is our obligation to do something even more radical to kind of help repair this history that's been rigged in our favor and against these communities? And they made a commitment earlier this year of $100 million on top of their grantmaking to basically redistribute, to create two trust funds, one for Native folks one for Black folks to take those dollars and redistribute them in their communities in a very self-determined way. 

And so it's like when you begin to understand that all the complexities and just own up to it, we're not perfect. And we all have a history that's complicated but we've got to be honest about it and speak the truth about it because that will set us free to be able to live in our truths, to do our work in a way that we're not kind of trying to sweep our stuff under the carpet. And we can be more authentic in our approaches to supporting communities. 

BEN: Awesome. Appreciate that. Thank you. 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Thank you, Ben. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Thanks, Ben. Caroline?

CAROLINE SIMMS: Yeah, thank you. Edgar, it's good to meet you. I'm Caroline Simms. I do sales enablement here at Submittable. And I very much appreciate your book. One of the things I appreciate most is that it's written in a way with stories in plain language that make it accessible to everyone. That was my side comment. 

My question is that here we are in 2021 and 2020 presented this opportunity for all of us to become more aware, be better listeners. And you talk a lot about listening in your book and specifically the question is, do you feel like now that we're in 2021 funders are starting to embrace some of the empathetic listening that you called for in your book? Do you have any examples of that? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: I want to be hopeful Caroline, like I really do. And I do see things moving forward in so many ways. I'm also just cautious because of our history in philanthropy of just sort of relapsing to business as usual. 

And I definitely can say there are funders who have reached out to me as a result of 2020 to say like, oh, we want to create this Black-led fund or just trying to respond to the moment. And as I've circled back to them more recently, they're like, oh, we've decided we're not going to do that because the heat is not on or the pressure is not on quite as much right now, right. So I know we have a tendency to do our grantmaking around new cycles and what's popular, hot in the moment. 

At the same time, I do feel like there is a breakthrough in 2020 but also just in the last three years, where I think philanthropy has been having a reckoning with itself that really inspires me that maybe we're not going to relapse completely to where we were before. I don't think we're going to stop having conversations about race and power and how we show up in the field. 

There are foundations that—one example I'll give—I don't think they'll mind me sharing, the Weingart Foundation, in California, is doing some really remarkable work, where they are actually hiring a researcher to research their history and how the money was made and what, who may have been harmed in the process so they can have a truth and reconciliation with community over that. That blew me away. I'm like who does—I never imagined a foundation would do that, right. 

And at the same time they're holding listening sessions across their grantee community to really understand, how have we failed communities in the past? And what do we need to do better? So I do think that we're at a new place now where we're not so naive to think we're the good guys and we only help, we've only done good and—but we are interrogating like, yes, we're trying to do good. No one is coming to work at a foundation saying, oh, I can't wait to be like racist today and not fund Black people, right. 

But there are inequalities that are built into our systems and practices and programs that have not resulted in the impacts that we want to see. I mean, like the 8% thing that I said earlier, that is embarrassing. It is embarrassing that only 8% of grants go to communities of color. It is embarrassing that 90% of boards and executives are still white after all of this progress and work that we've done to change that.  

I do feel like we've reached a place that the status quo is not working and our way of doing business is not working and so we are beginning to look to community to listen. To say, OK, it ain't working the way we did it. We need to make it a different way. We need to like maybe trust solutions that are in communities so I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful but we have to all continue to push because if not, we are in jeopardy of kind of relapsing to the way business as usual. 


RACHEL MINDELL: I'm going to call on myself and interject a question. So you bring up the idea of focusing on what's working in community and supporting that rather than focusing on what's broken necessarily, especially when you discuss reimagining the notion of people needing to be quote, unquote, "empowered." I wonder if you could talk about what that looks like in practice. 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Well, I'll speak on behalf of Native communities right now. I constantly am talking with funders and others about what's going on in Native communities and there's so much narrative shifting that I have to do before we can even get to the real conversation because, one, our community has been super invisible. We just talked about the TV show. Like, it's all the way until 2021 for me to see a contemporary Native person on television that wasn't in some stereotypical kind of role. 

We still live in a society that thinks it's OK to have my people as a mascot of a sports team. And so these harmful kind of mindsets that are in place or the preconceived ideas around our community with the stereotypes and some real data around like suicide rates or alcoholism.

So there's just such a mindset sometimes where folks say, well, I need to—I want to help where there's a white saviorism kind of that's in that of I need to go and do all these things without also understanding, yes, we have, there's real problems in our communities, but we also are resilient and have some really badass solutions, right. Like, finally, after so long with the fires in Northern California, people are beginning to say, oh, what about-—like there are tribes who have traditions of burning in ways that have prevented those fires for many, many generations. So let's actually talk to those folks and maybe put some of those practices into place. 

Our communities were on the front-end of protecting ourselves during this pandemic with shutting down our borders before the country did anything and making sure we have very high vaccination rates. So there are ways of doing things in communities that have not been seen as solutions. But I think more and more folks are saying, well, like native folks have survived a lot you're still here, maybe they do know something that we need to understand. So that's sort of like what we have to push back on. 

I think in our do-gooder attempts to help, we can approach folks with the mindset of like I'm here to save, I know best, there's a way to respect the resiliency of folks and the pushback on mindsets that we have in this country about people living in poverty. 

And I've faced that as a person who has a Southern accent. I moved to Seattle and everyone was like, all the stereotypes they had about me and my people and people in the South because of my accent or just like really kind of silly. But those kind of jokes find their way into like our work and how we approach designing solutions for communities when we think we know best. So that's why it's so important to shift the paradigm and to really trust the solutions and community and to really listen as we were talking about earlier. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Thank you. And we have we have two more questions submitted. I know you've shared so much with us and I appreciate it. I see a note that some people are going to be dropping off on the hour. So thanks, everybody who has joined so far and thanks again, Edgar. So we had a question from Truxton.

TRUXTON ROLFE: Edgar, my name is Truxton. I'm an account manager here at Submittable. I get to work with a lot of the incredible foundations that we do work with. And just want to thank you for your important work. My eyes have been opened to your work, thanks to Sam and the team, and I'm very thankful for them and thankful for what you've shown me. 

In the book's section I believe it's—hold on, let me look it up there. Relate, that's exactly what it is. You write that every institution in the process that deals with money has in common a focus on transactions rather than relationships. How do you think trust-based philanthropy is making progress and transitioning funders from transactions to those relationships? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: I think that trust-based philanthropy is really taking off more and more. At least I hear people talking about it and I think it's being seen as a best practice. But there's a ways to go. I will still say now that I'm running my own public fund and nonprofit, I'm interacting with funders as a grantee and so I'm like, wow, you really need me to fill all of that—you need all of that information? Why? But at the same time I've had many funders—I've gotten grants from large institutions where I haven't filled out any paperwork, including the Ford Foundation. 

So it goes to show that when foundations really want to do it, they can. And I think we have to just kind of keep pushing and community and nonprofits have to keep demanding that. And I do think that's such an important role that you all play with your technology that you can sort of help with that, right. Like you're helping to lighten that load for grantees who are seeking funding and making things easier so that maybe foundations can get more into an authentic relationship with folks. 

And then just one little nuance I want to add to that because it's so important, because for so long there was this conversation of philanthropy around proximity like, we need proximity with folks. And there's a nuance in that, right, where sometimes nonprofit folks may not want to be in a relationship with a foundation person. Maybe they just want your money and they want to go do their work. 

When I tell you during COVID I had a funder who was like, we want to give this money to support Native communities and we want you to take us to the community to meet people and all this, and I was like, hmmm, you really want me to take you to Arizona where literally my community is in crisis and people are trying to get water? To people who were, 30% of folks don't have water, electricity? You want me to stop them to take you for a meeting? That's not how you build a relationship. 

Building relationship is based on trust. And like sometimes it does involve like, let me just give this funding to and like take a step back. I think more and more of this is why we're seeing more BIPOC intermediaries kind of springing up because we already have these relationships and funders in the ivory tower don't have to like create those relationships from the ground up. 

And I'm also wondering at this point in time, is it even possible for those institutions to build an authentic relationship with our communities? There's a question I have around that, that I'm not sure. I think in some cases, yes, but maybe sometimes there's been a lot of damage and it's just not possible. I don't want to be like not hopeful about that. 

But there are ways to build a relationship that are respectful and not taxing on the communities and we have to just kind of figure that out. It can't be a forced relationship, right. Like, I want you to be in a relationship with me if they don't want to be in a relationship back just kind of like with people, right. But, yeah. Thank you, Truxton. 

TRUXTON: That's a great point. Thank you very much. 

LAURA STEELE: Hi there, Edgar. I'm Laura. I'm a content writer on the marketing team. Just thank you for this and thank you for the book and all of your work. So you touched on this a little bit already but at the end of the book, you talk about to be versus to seem. And these days when so many folks are focused on optics, how do we sort of avoid the vanity surface level conversations and initiatives that often happen around these issues or how do we kind of push past those into meaningful work? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: For my organization, we've made a decision—we don't put donor funders on our website. We got a grant from Mackenzie Scott, I didn't put out the press release or run to Twitter to thank Mackenzie Scott. We're thankful. We're really grateful, the gift is meaningful. But at the same time, it's our decision to not do that. It’s a decision to not feed into that vanity monster. Plus like, Mackenzie Scott isn’t going to see the tweet, she doesn't care. 


It sounds like, why are we announcing all of this stuff. They actually asked us, told us we didn't have to do that, which I appreciate. So I think there just has to be a shift maybe on the funder side where we say, let's stop taking credit for so much. Let's stop asking folks to put out a press release. 

I just got a grant from another foundation that has put out so many press releases and like tweeted several times they gave us money and we're like, thank you but like, you did your job. You're a foundation that gives money. You gave money, congratulations you did your job is kind of how I see it, which is—I know coming from a place of privilege because I've worked in philanthropy, and the average nonprofit probably won’t feel like they can say that. 

But I think if we could collectively start saying, that's not best practice behavior that you need to ask your grantees to promote that you gave the money and all of those kinds of things. And also understanding that no single foundation can take the credit for anywhere in that community. And we often do that in this sector. Like a foundation will say, we won this. I've worked at foundations that put out these press releases but they also have funding from 20 other foundations, so how do we take credit for that win? 

So those are some of the silly kinds of things that we do. So I think we just have to kind of start making fun of people who do that and make it not cool to do that until we maybe stop. But it's hard because the DNA of this sector came from a place—we were kind of birthed from a PR incident, right. So PR is like a part of this sector in so many ways. But we need to reenter community in that and lift up their work and what they're doing and less of ourselves and how we get there, I'm still trying to figure out. But there are folks who do it really well. And I actually think Mackenzie Scott is a person who is kind of leading that from being very modest and behind the scenes behind her work. So that's—maybe that'll teach us a different way. 

SAM CAPLAN: Edgar, I was going to ask if he felt like Mackenzie's sort of style of grantmaking—is that the future for grant makers? Does she get close to what you'd like to see from grantmakers? 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: I'm really happy about a lot of the ways that work is happening. And I think there's a very strong race and gender and other types of analysis she's bringing in the selection of who gets funding. It's large amounts that are transformative. It was the easiest funding I ever received. I didn't have to do anything. I just gave an EIN number. There's—

I also think in all of that, Mackenzie has been honest about, yes, I'm doing this work, I don't want to—I don't want praise for it and I have benefited from a history and a system that creates unfair conditions. So that's the part I appreciate the most that she actually is addressing the system that allows for so much wealth accumulation in the first place, which is kind of messed up. So I'm glad to see her philanthropy being directed towards organizations that are looking to change that.

RACHEL MINDELL: Well, I'm going to close us out here. Thank you so much for spending time with us today. This was wonderful. 

Sam, thank you for being our host and thanks to everyone on the team who read the book and joined the conversation. Thanks, everybody so much. 

EDGAR VILLANUEVA: Thank you, it's been a pleasure. 

Additional Resources

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Impact Audio features short conversations (and a few longer ones) with social impact experts and practitioners. We cover the world of philanthropy, nonprofits, corporate citizenship, and social change.