McClain and Cole

Policy intern weaves experience into understanding narrative change and trust-based philanthropy 


Georgia, Texas, Illinois, Puerto Rico, New Jersey, Kansas, and North Carolina were all home to me at some point. 

While I had the chance to live in different regions, experience contrasting cultures, and listen to diverse stories, some things remained consistent: There was always a “South Side” or “wrong side of the tracks”.

 Injustice on the basis of class and race was just a matter of fact. Yet there was always this belief that the American dream was obtainable through hard work, grit, and perseverance. 

This remains the dominant narrative in America. It’s a narrative adopted by many in our society, even the groups it harms. The common belief in the Black community that we must work twice as hard or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps legitimizes, at least to some degree, the myth that there is a meritocracy in America. 

However, one of the few things we have full autonomy over is how we tell our stories and how we construct our narratives. Reclaiming our stories and combating the dominant narrative helps restore power and autonomy.

For a while, I believed in the dominant narrative of the American dream without truly understanding its harmful implications and blatant falsehoods. It implies that if you don’t succeed, it is due to a lack of work ethic, grit, or some other innate moral failing that ignores the structural inequalities that minority communities face. This dream effectively faults minority groups for their own oppression. The dominant ideology exists in all facets of society including service and philanthropy. 

Narrative change

The contradiction of modern movements and non-profit spaces is that they are organized under the status quo to combat the status quo. In many cases, they have adopted the same narratives of the dominant culture while claiming to stand against it. These discrepancies can create a schism between philanthropic foundations and the communities they support. Narrative change helps bridge this gap. 

Narrative change: Narrative is the way we tell stories of real human beings and their courageous efforts to make change in the face of systems that hold them back. Narrative change includes moving people to act on their beliefs. —

By centering the communities we serve around their own stories, we can help restore power and autonomy to these communities while also building more mutually beneficial relationships. Another tool to add to narrative change is asset-based language. 

Asset-based language

Asset-based language: We avoid words and phrases that look at situations or people from a deficit lens that prioritizes what’s missing or what’s wrong. Instead, we prioritize language that focuses on strength and potential. — Here to Here Language Guide

Asset-based language should name the problem without making the problem the defining characteristic of the community it seeks to serve. The first example below is one that I would commonly face in organizing around electoral politics. 

Example 1: This underprivileged community has low voter turnout in elections because many are unaware, uninformed, and uneducated about the electoral process. 

Example 2: This community faces extreme acts of voter suppression and has the potential for high voter turnout/greater civic engagement if these barriers to the polls are identified and removed. 

The first example places the blame on the community, while the second example holds the government accountable for failing a portion of its citizens.

Changing the narrative and using language that emphasizes community strengths is a great start to understanding and truly valuing communities. But, foundations must also apply these same values to their grantmaking, which is often their most prominent activity. 

Trust-based philanthropy

“Philanthropy continues to uphold and perpetuate power imbalances designed to favor funders. Funders wield the power to not only distribute funding as they see fit but also to dictate the ways in which nonprofits use that funding.” — Social Innovation Forum

 The overwhelming goal within the philanthropic sector is to fund projects that affect the most people as efficiently as possible. This rhetoric leaves rural communities out of receiving grants as described in Philanthropy’s Rural Blind Spot. Rural communities are small and sparsely populated. Supporting projects in these areas may take more funding because it takes more effort to cover ground between communities and individuals. The best practices and models that work in an urban setting don’t nicely translate to the situations impacting rural folks. For foundations looking for platitudes and media coverage, rural communities simply don’t fulfill that desire. But people in need are not mere measures for a foundation’s success, and rural communities are not unworthy of support. 

This insidious narrative of inefficiency in grantmaking  allows foundations to label nonprofits deemed inefficient as untrustworthy. But narrowly defining inefficiency using urban standards hurts our rural nonprofits and rural communities. Foundations need to embrace flexibility and trust in their grantmaking. The use of unrestricted grants is one such example. Unrestricted grants remove strict guidelines that govern exactly how the funding can be used. Removing unnecessary restrictions allows organizations to be more creative and innovative in their solutions. Trust-based grantmaking is a key tool in allowing communities defined by the dominant narrative to create their own definition. It helps build trust in a relationship that has operated within a traditionally fundamental power imbalance. And, by doing that, communities can use funding even more efficiently than ever.

It is imperative that we adopt language that builds power in our communities and creates trusting relationships if we are to fight against systemic oppression. 

How can we apply these ideas to our everyday lives?  How do we tell our own stories in ways that legitimize the systems that cause others to suffer? It challenges us to be more empathetic in our approach, challenge our own biases, and stand united with the communities who have been fighting systemic issues for years.