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In Conversation: Sara El-Amine

22 March 2018 at 8:34 am
Wendy Williams
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative director of advocacy, Sara El-Amine, talks to Wendy Williams about reimaging philanthropy.

Wendy Williams | 22 March 2018 at 8:34 am


In Conversation: Sara El-Amine
22 March 2018 at 8:34 am

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative director of advocacy, Sara El-Amine, talks to Wendy Williams about reimaging philanthropy.

El-Amine is a leading expert on grassroots advocacy and organising. As a progressive senior adviser and strategist she has led thousands of volunteers to take on progressive issues.

She is currently the director of advocacy for the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, which was founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan in December 2015 as “a new kind of philanthropic organisation” that brings together world-class engineering, grant-making, impact investing, policy, and advocacy work.

Prior to making the move to philanthropy, El-Amine was a key leader within the Obama campaign, and held the position of executive director of Organizing for America, president Obama’s grassroots advocacy arm.

She was also the founding executive director of the Global Foundation, and has a degree in diplomacy and world affairs from Occidental College.

El-Amine has been in Australia speaking at the NEXUS Australia 2018 Summit on the subject of reimaging philanthropy and the neuroscience of persuasion.

Here she talks to Pro Bono News about becoming a swiss army knife organiser, catalysing change at scale and how all to often philanthropy “moves slowly and breaks nothing”.

Sara El-Amine headshotOn the website, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative describes itself as “a new kind of philanthropic organisation”. How do you see it being different?

I can speak a bit for CZI but I can more speak for myself and the way that I approach philanthropy. But I would say in general, changemakers aren’t treated like entrepreneurs. There’s a very different set of rules for people who want to take bold capital risks than there are for people who want to take bold social risks. And it’s really inhibited the type of change at scale that we need in order to address the broad slate of social issues that crop up more and more every single day. And so, one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out and CZI has been trying to understand as well, is how to treat community organisers more like we treat entrepreneurs, how tech and product could play a role in engineering change at scale and if giving multi-year general operating grants, like the types of things we know to be best practice in philanthropy that still aren’t used across many of the traditional institutions, truly produce better outcomes. We’ll see.

There have been some concerns raised that foundations like CZI, which are established by people who have been very successful in business, are creating a new form of “philanthrocapitalism” which is trying to justify modern day capitalism. Is this a concern or it is a good thing that these people have chosen to give on such a scale?

I mean I can only speak for myself as a community organiser, in saying that, I really wish every rich person committed to donating 99 per cent of their wealth to social impact. I think the scale of the problems that we face today require big bold solutions. And it’s exciting to me that some of our biggest boldest innovators in the private sector care enough about their countries and about humanity to spend their limited time and capital trying to do good things. And not every rich person has made that decision. It is a really impressive one.

What do you see the role of philanthropy being in terms of advocacy and creating systems change?

Over the last 15 years that I’ve spent as a community organiser, I’ve fought in winning battles like marriage equality and minimum wage and The Affordable Care Act, both its passage and its implementation, and then I fought in losing battles like gun crime prevention and immigration reform. And some of the biggest differentiating factors I saw in each of those movements was the capital and the philanthropy behind them. Not just the scale of the support of those philanthropies but also the flexibility.

Movements that have flexible capital and are able to deploy resources in moments of rapid response are always better equipped to win the battles they need to wage and to wage them in the first place. And at the same time movements that have long range support and stability financially are able to take big bold risks and wage multi-year campaigns.

I think tech gets criticised often for moving fast and breaking things, philanthropy moves slowly and breaks nothing all too often. And as a community organiser I really believe in breaking only what the community tells you to break, at the pace that it can sustain. So I often feel a little caught in between those two poles, but I left community organising, a) because I wanted to really become a swiss army knife organiser and I knew I needed to understand how capital was deployed in order to do that from the philanthropist perspective, but b) because my theory was that I’d be able to do a lot more change at scale by being the wind beneath other advocates wings.

What can we do to make philanthropy quicker?

I think no one should work out of philanthropy who hasn’t been an active change maker in the field before they join the fund. There are far too many staff of big traditional institutions that have beautiful fancy academic degrees, or private sector pedigree, who’ve never actually engaged in changemaking in the gritty field, like taking tiny salaries and stayed up sleepless nights. How can you possibly understand how to catalyse change when you’ve never made it of your own volition? And so I’m just constantly shocked at that and I think so much could be solved just by hiring organisers and people who’ve done systems change work to run these portfolios. That’s number one.

Number two is that, I think there’s been a good movement to trust-based philanthropy which is a model that the Whitman Institute in the US, has pioneered. And they have nine principles that they use. An amazing woman Pia Infante is doing a lot of really great advocacy in the philanthropic community around this, that helped philanthropies basically take on a lot of the burden that they are outsourcing to nonprofits currently. I think there’s a really exciting and promising movement toward that type of model and it’s a much more entrepreneurial model. So there’s a private sector model for it.

And I think third, is the stories that aren’t often told by organisers. You know you see beautiful glistening wins like the marriage equality movement in Australia and some of the incredible stuff that’s happening in Parkland with the kids that are speaking up in Florida, but what you don’t see are the stories of decades of organisers who joined the movement, burnt out, left, stayed up sleepless nights, went without retirement accounts, all types of really grueling tough things, often people who had undergone trauma as a part of that fight, and I don’t think we tell those stories often enough. It looks like these wins are easy, and issue advocacy or electoral advocacy wins happen overnight because volunteers step up, but really it’s a professional class of community organisers who are sacrificing over and over again in really thankless ways for decades that lay the foundation for this work and they need to be funded.

How can we ensure there is more long-term funding?

I think that’s one of the saddest things I saw when I first stepped over from being a community organiser to being a philanthropist, there was an incredible leader who won many different fights that talked about having each year to kind of take his tin cup to 27 different foundations to patch together his funding. He had more foundations to report out to and send different metrics and different applications to than he had campaigns that he was waging and this happens all over the place. The most successful organisation is still patching together funding from so many different places in really unsustainable ways and so I hope that we can start to hold ourselves, as philanthropists, more accountable to better practice.

I think we spend a lot of time and energy studying metrics for our organisations and we spend almost no time or energy really looking in the mirror – I mean we look in the mirror but we look in the mirror maybe the wrong way – to think about the ways that we’re perpetuating the systems of oppression we’re trying to tear down.

In the coming years we’re going see the biggest generational transfer of wealth of our time, how does philanthropy need to change to keep up with that?

I don’t know. I have a hard time with this. There’s a Julian Bond quote that I love, that I’ve used a lot over the last couple of days, that’s something to the effect of: “Many are attracted to the rewards of social service, the gratification is immediate and the rewards are quick. But if we have social justice we don’t need social service”.

And I think that we, definitely as a country in the US, have failed ourselves in not teaching and training enough young people some of the basic tenets of community organising and civic engagement. You know, people graduate high school without ever learning who their member of Congress is or how to powermap or how to have a persuasive conversation, or how to register to vote, basic things that to me are like the backbone of our democracy. And so I feel like there’s a lot more, even resourced money people as I’ve come to learn, have a lot of learning to do about what the nature of campaigns look like. They’re just like the average person but they have a lot more privilege to leverage.

So I would encourage anybody that’s coming into money or that would like to figure out how to spend their sizable resources effectively, to a) hire an organiser to manage your portfolio and b) even before you do that or as you do that, actually go out and volunteer on campaigns and understand from the issue advocacy side, from the direct service side, from the electoral advocacy side what does an issue ecosystem actually look like. Who are all the different players? How do they measure up? How are they connected to each other? And how does your particular position within a given market make you powerful in ways you might not even understand now? I don’t know if we ask enough of these hard questions of ourselves.

In terms of CZI, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, are young and they have decades of investment ahead of them which is quite different to some other foundations. Do you think that has an impact on the things that they’re choosing to invest in?

Yeah, there’s a Bill Gates quote that is part of our new employee orientation at CZI which is “people underestimate the amount they can do in 10 years and overestimate the amount they can do in two”. And so one of the things we’ve had to work tremendously hard on, and it’s not natural even for the people inside the building that are given the license to do it, is getting our program officers and our grantmakers to actually digest that and sort of integrate it into a cohesive strategy. Because I don’t think that’s how humans are programmed. It’s really a different way to think. So I know that we’re very committed to long-term investments. But operationalizing that is another challenge in and of itself.

As you mentioned earlier Chan and Zuckerberg have pledged to donate 99 per cent of their Facebook shares over their lifetimes to CZI, which is a huge amount of money. How do you manage that amount of money and choose where it’s best spent?

I’ll let you know when we figure it out! I mean I think that we started with issues that Mark and Priscilla felt were the most pressing and also the most under-resourced. And we’re learning as we go.

I think, we’re not afraid to take risks but also very humbled by the size of the issues that we’re trying to have an impact on and the magnitude of the pain that’s felt by a lot of the affected communities at the center of them. But yeah, it’s a journey.

You’ve been on quite a journey personally in your career. Are you happy working in philanthropy or do you miss being an organiser?

It’s hard not to be cynical with Donald Trump as our president, which you won’t be surprised about given where I have spent my last decade, but I feel like the best organisers were organisers who were really able to be swiss army knives and really understand all the different types of campaigns they can run and all the different types of tools at their disposal and the types of partners they need to authentically engage and link arms with, in order to march forward towards progress.

So for me this is about understanding philanthropy and taking some time to walk in the shoes of a philanthropist as a really important part of my own journey of trying to catalyse change at scale and be a community organiser of community organisers. Because I think that I’ve rarely seen two communities that misunderstand each other as much as philanthropy and community organisers and community organisers and philanthropy. And so I feel really called to build bridges between the two. And also hold each of them to account from the other’s perspective.

How do you stay so motivated?

Well my dirty secret is that I’m an introvert. I love people but I have to be alone quite a lot to recharge and I am absolutely fanatic about sleep, so I don’t mess around, I get nine hours a night.

But I’m not always this joyful, I mean I think this work is really heartbreaking. You take on a lot of other people’s trauma and you lose a lot of really important battles and you lose them carrying the stories of the people that you’re fighting for in your heart and on your shoulders. I would be lying if I said I didn’t, at least once a day, daydream about leaving because it’s hard. That said it’s rooms like this and it’s honestly being with other organisers and seeing their hope and their inspiration in the face of tremendous challenges that keeps me going and keeps me energised and helps me remember that this is so much easier with a spirit of joy than it is with natural cynicism that I think we all struggle with.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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