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How do you measure a year? What about love?

“Love is profoundly political. Our deepest revolution will come when we understand this truth. Only love can give us the strength to go forward in the midst of heartbreak and misery. Only love can give us the power to reconcile, to redeem, the power to renew weary spirits and save lost souls. The transformative power of love is the foundation of all meaningful social change. Without love our lives are without meaning. Love is the heart of the matter. When all else has fallen away, love sustains.” – bell hooks

THE PROFUNDITY OF LOVE

In January 2020, the Community Philanthropy team at Oregon Food Bank (OFB) embarked upon a transformational paradigm shift in our philosophical and practical approach to resourcing an end to hunger and hunger’s root causes: As individual staff and as a team, our performance would no longer be evaluated based upon the financial outcomes of our work. Instead, together, we would design and implement philanthropic development programs — and relevant assessments — oriented to new metrics rooted in love, equity and culture.

We sometimes shorthand this change initiative as decentering money to center love and equity. Sometimes we call it measuring a year in love, or MYLove. Sometimes we call it the source of our fears, our inspiration, our uncertainty and our innovation.

It is a journey of our reclamation of philanthropy, honoring philanthropy’s true meaning and the word’s early Greek and Latin etymology — a love for humankind. It is a vision for what philanthropy has been and is at its best and what it can be: any voluntary action for the common good, driven by love. 

In an infinite universe of possible and yet-uncharted paths toward a more just vision we hold for philanthropy — love is one path. And we believe it is a profound option.

With humility and vulnerability, we are committed to sharing our journey widely. We do not have all the answers nor is that our claim. In a learning and listening posture, we offer our thinking, experimentation, and early observations from our change-journey to the broader dialogue that’s shaping a new chapter for our profession, sector, and communities. 

As we consider our past year and look to the year ahead, this is a pause and reflection on why this change was paramount to us, how we’re already implementing it, and the relationship between our work and those partners who’ve inspired our progress. And we hope this offering generates a healthy exchange of ideas in response.

“The enormous task of undoing racist systems feels overwhelming, but this past week painfully reminds us that lives depend on figuring it out. All of us engaged in philanthropy must constantly ask ourselves: What of this work is mine? How can I do it with care and humility?”  – Lisa Pilar Cowan, Dismantling Racism May Require Philanthropy to Dismantle Itself – June 2, 2020

DISMANTLING WHITE SUPREMACY & DECOLONIZING THE PROFESSION

Decentering money has felt radical and overwhelming to our team at times (as it reshapes everything we do). And as disorienting as it may land with “fundraisers” in the nonprofit sector, we are not alone in our observation that status quo standards — harmful philosophies and practices — are an impediment to the very missions we aspire to advance. 

Indeed, even in the “fund-raising” nomenclature, money is at the core. And money can be a gateway to harm. We believe an orientation to financial outcomes creates the conditions for professional trauma and a consequent barrier to nonprofit organizations that aspire to resolve the most pressing moral and societal challenges we face. 

This is evidenced by: 

It is why, informed by our ongoing collaboration with Justice Funders*, that OFB Community Philanthropy’s theory of change acknowledges that the philanthropic development profession has evolved within white supremacist and colonial cultural paradigms. And the characteristics of our profession, at times, represent the worst traits of capitalism — greed, the exploitation of people and the environment, and extractive practices to accumulate resources.  

Decentering money is an inherent decentering of whiteness, colonialism, and greed. And in a profession where money reigns supreme when we decenter money, a massive space opens up for something else. We’re filling that space with love. 

“The fading away of greed and hatred is the foundation of liberation. Liberation is the ‘sure heart’s release’ — an understanding of the truth so powerful that there is no turning back from it.” – Sharon Salzberg

DEFINING & SCOPING LOVE

Our liberation requires an understanding of what we’re turning toward — not just what we’re leaving behind. 

So, what is love? What isn’t it? And how do we know it when we see it? 

Early in our process, OFB’s Community Philanthropy team collectively defined love. From themes identified in the word-cloud compilation of love definitions (sourced by 20+ participants from our team), we lifted and further clarified our key hallmarks of love. 

Drawing from a Just Transition framework as well as evidence of the crises in our profession we’re solving for (by centering love and equity), we also defined love as not being extractive, transactional, exploitative and harmful. 

Scoping love included our draft of staff and donor attitudinal and behavioral indicators of love exhibited in our work and relationships. And, from there, we theorized what activities within OFB’s Community Philanthropy programs are influential to those indicators — activities to which we can hold ourselves accountable as a basis for evaluating our own performance.

Defining and scoping love became two cornerstones for implementation — supporting the architecture for our programmatic evolutions to liberate staff and donors with a new experience of philanthropy that centers love and equity. 

“When greedy consumption is the order of the day, dehumanization becomes acceptable. Then, treating people like objects is not only acceptable but is required behavior. It’s the culture of exchange, the tyranny of marketplace values. Those values inform attitudes about love…Relationships are treated like Dixie cups. They are the same. They are disposable. If it does not work, drop it, throw it away, get another. Committed bonds (including marriage) cannot last when this is the prevailing logic. And friendships or loving community cannot be valued and sustained.” – bell hooks

OUR BELOVED COMMUNITY

The more inclusive our liberation through love, the more expansive it can be — rippling out from our individual and organizational experiences, through our sector and washing over the institution of philanthropy itself. Liberation must therefore encompass how staff and donors, as key constituencies composing our beloved community, experience philanthropy and relate to one another. 

At Oregon Food Bank, we have therefore made an unequivocal commitment: In the advancement of our mission, we will value our people — those requesting and offering resources — more than money itself. 

Valuing Staff within our Beloved Community: Decentering money as a performance metric for staff is fundamental. That’s because financial outcomes are beyond our control. Centering love and equity brings into focus what is within our sphere of influence: the activities that shape relationships between donors and our organizations. To that we can be held accountable. And being accountable to what is within one’s sphere of influence is empowering and motivational. 

Although we can create a favorable context for donor decisions in the relationships we build, those decisions are ultimately not ours to make. And more often than not, environmental influences (like fluctuating markets and unemployment rates) drive financial outcomes. In contrast to monetary goals, mission may be a more powerful motivator in any case, as 93 percent of those in our profession say they couldn’t work for a charity if they didn’t have a strong connection to the cause. 

Never upon reaching our annual operating or capital campaign goals do we, in this profession, shut down the laptop, turn off the lights and close the office door until the new fiscal year or the next campaign. Money doesn’t motivate us to keep going. Yet, we do keep going. And we keep going because our missions and our communities require it. 

Decentering money also changes the conditions that might otherwise compel or require an individual staff person’s continued engagement with harm (like sexual harassment and microaggressions) in pursuit of financial outcomes. 

With love and equity centered, our priority shifts to protecting and retaining our people. We turn to creating a profession more inclusive and representative (including of BIPOC, transgender and gender nonconforming and immigrant and refugee communities). We aspire to build a profession wherein an individual can better expect care, respect, dignity and opportunity while bringing their holistic and intersectional identities authentically to bear in service to the critical missions our nonprofits uphold. 

This does not mean we believe an inclusive profession is at odds with strong financial outcomes (quite the opposite is true). It means we will deprioritize activities or relationships wherein strong financial outcomes result in harm to staff and compromise achieving an inclusive, diverse team and profession. For example, we prioritize supporting staff to effectively navigate experiences of sexual harassment and microaggressions perpetrated by donors more than we prioritize financial outcomes. 

We cannot prevent harm altogether — power differentials are inherent to donor relations. Our team has, however, drafted this OFB Community Philanthropy Staff Bill of Rights as a public facing declaration of Oregon Food Bank’s commitment to the integrity and well-being of our people. And we are backing up that Bill of Rights with departmental standard operating procedures for supporting staff and managing data and relationships in response to harm, as well as the provision of tools, training and resources to navigate harm.

Valuing Donors within our Beloved Community: Community members — seeking reprieve from marketplace transactions — engage with movements advancing gender, economic, racial, and social justice. What they find, instead, is yet another iteration of that marketplace manufactured by organizations that steward progressive movements. What would it take at Oregon Food Bank to realize a more regenerative, transformational donor experience imbued with love and equity?

In our work with Mario Lugay and Jamie Carter at Justice Funders, we explored answering that question to transform the breadth of our Community Philanthropy programs that reach all 40,000+ annual donors to OFB. 

In our exploration, one definition of love that inspired us especially is bell hooks’ definition: Love as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth

As overarching principles, we therefore concluded our paradigm shift to center love and equity would necessarily entail: 

  • Oregon Food Bank Becoming a Political Home: A space that facilitates an individual or organization’s political journey by providing opportunities to engage in action, cultivates and nurtures growth and learning and connects supporters to others, moving us all toward OFB’s 10-Year Vision.
  • OFB Community Philanthropy Facilitating Political Journeys: When an individual recognizes systemic problems in their community, we lead them to connect and create relationships in order to work together to build community solutions, make meaningful change and encourage growth in themselves and others.

Ending hunger isn’t a partisan issue. A political home and political journey includes clients, donors, partners, elected officials, and community leaders from across a diverse ideological spectrum — all engaging civically. And as a nonpartisan organization, Oregon Food Bank is well positioned to leverage these concepts toward systems change in service to our mission.

Becoming a political home fosters abundance. And staff performance should be evaluated by our promotion of and ability to bridge donor relationships to other organizations — those partners essential to the strength of our regional, interdependent, leaderful anti-hunger movement. Some of these organizations have included Mudbone Grown and Oregon Worker Relief Fund. In the past year, our team has directly connected more than 1,000 OFB donors to and helped raise hundreds-of-thousands of dollars for these and other nonprofits in our movement’s ecosystem.   

Reinforcing philanthropy as any voluntary action for the common good rooted in a love for humankind, the Community Philanthropy team holds itself accountable to creating a political home through demonstrable integration of diverse action-taking opportunities in our programs. For example, our inclusion of voter education materials in direct mail, encouraging engagement on the slate of ballot initiatives OFB supported in the November election cycle

Facilitating a political journey includes our accountability to tell the true story of hunger as an outcome not of personal choices but systemic barriers to employment, housing and healthcare. In donor communications we unflinchingly amplify inequity (like racism, xenophobia, transphobia and more) as poverty’s antecedent and hunger’s root cause. Across political ideologies, we can find common ground on the issue of hunger and leverage it to cultivate broader community understanding of and commitment to social progress. 

Commonly used, transactional messaging from hunger relief organizations (including our own) can propagate a charity model of food assistance. Too often we create a false impression that THE solution to hunger is achieved through the exchange of  $1 for 3 meals. Historically, this is highly effective in generating strong financial outcomes. 

Made bolder by the decentering of money to center love and equity, we are increasingly committed to difficult and more nuanced messaging (and conversations with donors) about systems change needed to end hunger for good. A political journey requires us to state explicitly — ending hunger requires more than a meal. It requires advocacy, organizing and policy work to upend systemic oppression. And telling the truth is an act of love. 

Money-centered philosophies and practices manifest differently across the varied functions and specializations on our team. For example, moves management permeates our sector — guiding how we interact with and think about higher-capacity donors and prospects. Moves management reinforces a notion of linear relationships with donors culminating into closing a gift or a donor declining a solicitation. It centers money. 

At Oregon Food Bank, we’re building and implementing a parallel system for qualitative moves assessment utilizing our key hallmarks of love. Honoring the wisdom of our staff, we will denote donor interactions as loved-based, or not (for example, was an interaction demonstrative of care, client-centrism, respect, etc. or was it transactional, extractive, or harmful). This new system and practice will help deepen staff’s analysis of and gravity toward love in donor relations. And, over time, qualitative data will help us determine the efficacy of our philosophical orientation to love in our relationships with higher-capacity donors and prospects. 

“If we’re not about love in our social and racial justice work — and holding ourselves accountable in and to that love — then we might as well be doing something else.” – Shiree Teng 

MEASURING LOVE

Guided by a new philosophical paradigm, equipped with a theory of what love is and isn’t and programmatic evolutions designed within our theory — we stalled out. How the hell would we measure our impact?! 

Amidst the uncertainty we had launched ourselves into…To prevent inertia dragging us back into comfortable, old habits in the absence of something else…To ensure our transformational change effort could take root — we needed a data-driven lifeline. New, alternative metrics would be essential to a profession that knows virtually no other way to work. 

And while our profession is rich with options — retention rates, click-through rates, open rates, response rates, total actions — nothing quite honored the complexity of love as we had scoped and defined love. Nothing, that is, until we discovered Shiree Teng’s Brown Paper: Measuring Love in the Journey for Justice. Yes, a Brown Paper — Shiree notes there are already plenty of “white” papers out there and her writing captured our contemplations. 

“…in our social justice responses, we become pre- and overly-occupied not with centering love, but with campaigns on specific issues in specific places; strategic communications; turnout numbers and demographics; obsessed navel-gazing and over-intellectualizing; and stuck in the mind-centered think-analyze-write cycle. As a whole, the social sector is too short on mentions of love as tied to results and transformation: its power and potential to bring positive and fundamental change in impacted communities, on our youth and in our organizations. But isn’t love the reason we’re in this work? And, how do we “measure” that love and know it when we see, hear, touch, feel it?” 

Our collaboration with Shiree unhinged our inertia. Through her facilitation of team-wide dialogue and the design of assessment tools focused on staff and donor constituencies, we’ve woven her theories into our own — to measure a year in love

Measuring Love Among Staff: The internal-facing, staff assessment tool inspires our team’s reflection on personal and professional growth. It holds us accountable to our goals. And it gauges the dosage, authenticity and duration of our team’s experience with various indicators, determining whether implementation of our theory of change — our efforts to value staff within the beloved community — are effective. 

These indicators are structured under Four Tenets of How Love Shows Up: 

  • Self-love: How Community Philanthropy staff see themselves and their work to transform philanthropy.
  • Love Others: How Community Philanthropy staff see each other as well as supporters.
  • Love in Community: How Community Philanthropy staff see OFB and how OFB sees the Community Philanthropy staff.
  • Love as Power: How OFB shows up in Oregon with love that’s fused with (advocacy and organizing) power and how the community (including donors and constituents) loves OFB in return with its (advocacy and organizing and monetary) power.

Outcomes from our use of the tool will: 

  • Strengthen staff’s practice of love in the course of our work. 
  • Help us identify the need for strategic interventions in the work.
  • Hold us accountable and help us learn as we lean into the big stake that we’ve laid out (decentering money to center love and equity). 

Measuring Love Among Donors: The external-facing, donor assessment tool prompts responses that yield attitudinal and behavioral data — indicators of our success in transforming Oregon Food Bank into a political home, facilitating a political journey and creating a regenerative, transformational experience for donors in their relationship with OFB. 

For example, our successful transformation of OFB into a political home should be evidenced in donor behaviors that include diversified engagement over time — broadening actions to include legislative advocacy, volunteerism, financial gift-giving, storytelling and beyond. From wherever they’re starting, engagement should expand. Another indicator of love among our donors should show, over time, their increased engagement with Oregon Food Bank partners that we uplift in our operationalization of abundance. 

Successful facilitation of a political journey should be evidenced in donor resonance with and understanding of systemic inequity as hunger’s true cause — yielded from our communications and messaging initiatives. 

And what we hope to learn, most importantly, is that donors feel cared for (beyond the financial value of their donations) and that donors understand their engagement as an act of love. 

In February 2021 we will move both of these tools from beta-testing into active use. While we happily share our product now, we know it will change. We operate with a spirit of innovation as we experiment, succeed in and fall-short of our intent, learn and refine over time.  

“Money should be a tool of love, to facilitate relationships, to help us thrive, rather than to hurt and divide us. If it’s used for sacred, life-giving, restorative purposes, it can be medicine. Money, used as medicine, can help us decolonize.”  – Edgar Villanueva 

BOTH/AND — MONEY AS LOVE

If philanthropy is a love for humankind represented by any voluntary action for the common good, a financial, charitable donation can certainly be an act of love. It can also be an act of tax evasion. And it can be both concurrently, or neither while being many other things. 

Perhaps intent matters?  

The intention of our paradigm shift — decentering money to center love and equity — is to bring into balance love and equity in a profession long-obsessed with financial outcomes. And to ameliorate the harm caused by that past imbalance. 

To be clear, on OFB’s Community Philanthropy team, we have financial goals. The nuance of our philosophical approach is simply that we will not be evaluated by that metric. Whether or not we reach our financial goals, we will be held accountable to the performance evaluation metrics we’ve designed within a framework of equity and love. 

From time to time we’re told that we’re making a big bet with this theory of change. The irony of that analogy isn’t lost on us. 

In 2020, the excellence of our team, combined with many environmental influences, resulted in raising organizationally-unprecedented financial support for OFB — to end hunger and hunger’s root causes. Our community demonstrated an outpouring of support to care for their neighbors in the economic wake of COVID-19 and devastating wildfires and donors gave in solidarity with uprisings against anti-Black violence following the murder of George Floyd. We perceive this generosity as love. 

Also in 2020, our team began designing and implementing programmatic evolutions reflective of our theory of change. We decentered money to center love and equity and raised unprecedented resources — at the same time. Unprecedented financial support falls as a correlative point of data on the same timeline as our paradigm shift. Correlative as it may be — we’ll take it. 

Centering love and equity hasn’t impaired our effective resourcing of an end to hunger. 

“Transformation is change that is profound, radical and sustainable—change that fundamentally and indelibly alters the very nature of something. We agree that transformation is what’s needed when it comes to raising resources to support social change. Fundraising and resource generation have long been pain points in a sector where there is real ambivalence about money and power.” – Robert Gass & Linda Wood, Inside Out Fundraising — Forward

TRANSFORMATIONAL CHANGE

The profound, radical and (hopefully) sustainable change we’re making at Oregon Food Bank hasn’t been a cake walk. Reimagining the work of philanthropic development in a paradigm that decenters money — it calls into question all we’ve learned and all we know. Without a toolkit or handbook served up on a digital platform, without ten easy steps to transformation — we have strengthened our comfort with uncertainty while steeling our resolve to change. 

Committing to change meant understanding our fear of change, the hidden commitments we make that prevent change and the big assumptions we make about the consequences of our change. 

Just a few of OFB Community Philanthropy’s worries included: 

  • What if it doesn’t work? And what would that mean for our colleagues and the future of Oregon Food Bank and those who rely on the food assistance system?
  • Leaning into social justice and organizing — we are challenging the very systems that gave our donors their wealth. How do we engage and rely on those systems while also dismantling them? 
  • We work in a complex and robust ecosystem — that ecosystem values money and influences our reality. Can we retain our credibility as an organization and our hireability as individuals with a reputation for “measuring love”? 

James Baldwin reminds us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” And we are privileged to benefit from the expertise, care and coaching of Mark Rovner at Sea Change Strategies in our ongoing process of facing and reconciling our fears in the transformational change we’re undertaking.  

As mentioned, other partners in this work have also been crucial — like Shiree Teng as well as Jamie Carter and Mario Lugay from Justice Funders. And along our journey, Community-Centric Fundraising has provided leadership and inspiration as well as a sense of belonging to a broader movement. 

We are not alone. 

*And Justice Funders remains a steadfast partner. In 2019 Oregon Food Bank’s Director of Community Philanthropy (C. Nathan Harris) joined Justice Funders’ Development Staff Dialogue hosted in Portland, OR. Since that first encounter, we identified the interdependent power of intentionally marrying our enterprises with love. Our complimentary thinking uplifts the importance of creating political homes and facilitating political journeys. This union is opening a new chapter as we continue, together, advancing transformational change at Oregon Food Bank, in the philanthropic development profession, non profit sector and in philanthropy.

Watch the video below as Mario Lugay, Shiree Teng and Nathan Harris engage Sea Change Strategies’ list-serve participants in dialogue facilitated by Mark Rovner and Alia McKee. 


Whatever the risks and fears involved in this change,
fiddling around the edges won’t suffice for our team — lives depend on those involved with philanthropy trying something different and trying something transformational. 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

While representing the work of the entire OFB Community Philanthropy Team and our collaboration with partners, the authors are Vivien Trinh, Associate Director of Community Philanthropy — Operations and C. Nathan Harris, Director of Community Philanthropy. 

Vivien Trinh (she/her/hers) is a non-profit professional with 11 years of philanthropy experience. Her career has taken her through the many aspects of philanthropy including direct mail, digital fundraising, donor relations, database management and prospect development at non-profits of all sizes. As the daughter of refugees, she is deeply committed to building inclusive communities that honor the dignity of each individual. You can reach Vivien by email.

C. Nathan Harris (he/him/his) is a social justice leader with 16+ years working at the intersection of love and generosity to realize positive, transformational change through philanthropy. Prior to joining Oregon Food Bank in late-2019, Nathan served as Chief Development Officer at Freedom for All Americans — a political campaign and nonprofit organization dedicated to securing nationwide LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. Nathan also served ACLU of Northern California, leading an historic resource development campaign for civil rights and civil liberties at the largest affiliate in ACLU’s nationwide enterprise. As Director of Advancement at Transgender Law Center, he partnered with supporters to achieve break-through results that shattered the glass ceiling on individual-donor philanthropy to trans-led, trans-specific nonprofits — resourcing expanded legal protections domsetically for trangender and gender nonconforming communities. You can reach Nathan by email.

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