Michael Kleinman, Director of Investments at Humanity United, a San Francisco foundation committed to building peace and advancing human freedom, is no stranger to challenging political environments. Having worked for CARE and International Relief and Development in countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, and Iraq, he now leads the foundation’s grantmaking on technology and in West Africa. We recently spoke with Michael about his reflections on grantmaking in such complex circumstances. As you’ll see, his insights about the role of politics in realizing social change are relevant to funders working in just about any setting.

What were some lessons you learned from your time with CARE and IRD that carry into your work at Humanity United?

I encountered three major realizations or surprises:

  1. We often mistake presence for expertise. Just because you’ve been in a place doesn’t mean you’re an expert. When I look back at going to Afghanistan at the age of 27, I assumed that because I was smart and American that I had something to offer. And I think I did, vaguely, around the edges. But most of what I had to offer was related to internal organizational issues or liaising with other Western groups or governments. It sounds obvious, but I think that we assume we know so much more than we do. The best example of this is how many people claim to be experts on countries whose language they don’t speak. I might have interesting insights, but I know damn well less about Afghanistan than any Afghan.
  2. It’s really hard to get from individual impact to systemic change. We can have a tremendous impact on an individual level, or even a family level. A woman doesn’t die in child birth. A child learns to read. These are not to be discounted, but they don’t necessarily aggregate up to systemic change. Interventions that impact a community or individual may not address the root causes of poverty or conflict. We want to believe that we are doing something more. We want to extrapolate. But we should be careful about doing so.
  3. Rather, systemic change is a question of politics – and in particular, the allocation of resources. We, as the international community, have turned political questions into technical questions. We don’t talk about politics. We talk about democratization, corruption, governance. This has two implications. First, it allows us to assume center stage. We can portray ourselves as technical experts. But we will always know less than we think about the way power actually functions in other places. Secondly, it means we don’t have to deal with the dirty nature of politics. It allows us to think political change doesn’t have to be tumultuous. But the result is that often our impacts don’t scale, because scale is an issue of politics, and we often don’t have the capacity, knowledge, or will to engage at a political level.

My takeaway is not that we are useless. We certainly can play an important role, but we have to realize that we are often peripheral actors, and we have to work with and through the political context.

How do you bring those insights into the work you do as a grantmaker? Can you translate them into more effective philanthropy?

First, we have to take politics into account. You can’t wish politics away. At Humanity United, when we start new work in any country, we try to understand how what we are doing fits into the political landscape. We’re not choosing sides politically, but we are careful to account for politics in our analysis.

Second, it’s crucial to involve people with contextual knowledge. This is as – if not more – important than thematic knowledge. There is a corpus of knowledge that can be applied from location to location, but contextual knowledge is always necessary, even if it’s not sufficient. Think about how much American companies and organizations spend on lobbying and trying to understand power even in their own country!

Third, it’s important to keep history in mind. Look at the long, tortured process that led to liberal democracy in the US or Europe. Hundreds of bloody, horrible years. To expect a functioning democracy – or even, say, a strong health system – in a country emerging from conflict on a one, five, or ten-year timeframe is pretty unrealistic. There can be improvement, but creating a functioning liberal democracy is a really long-term process. So as grantmakers, we need to put our work into this broader picture.

Finally, we must be careful with our use of language. For example, we talk about “empowering” local communities, which positions us as the ones aiding, abetting, or allowing local communities to feel or achieve power.  As Gloria Steinem said, though, “Power can be taken, but not given.” Again, our language treats political questions as technical problems and puts us in the center when we are often more peripheral. Our work as grantmakers must fit within local communities and local politics.

Many of our clients have come to a similar realization: that philanthropy sometimes has seen issues as mainly technical when they are in large part political. Are there specific tools or ways of thinking that you apply when working in a new context to ensure you’re considering this dynamic?

One tool is simply to see people’s motivations as they are. If our starting assumption is that people in power are going to try to remain in power, we have to consider the implications for what we are doing. Let’s not be surprised when people do things that maximize their ability to stay in power. Let’s not wish that away, or hope they become the Platonic ideal of the Jeffersonian democrat. Most of the people we’re advocating toward are not, whether heads of state or local leaders.

Also, I try to think about whether there are powerful actors in civil society with whom I have not engaged sufficiently. Organizations that have been successful in pushing for change usually are those that draw on a broad base of support, such as religious organizations. However, these often are the very organizations that we don’t engage well – they don’t need to speak our language since they don’t need our funding. In short, they don’t need us to survive. This creates less of a power imbalance than is often the case between grantmakers and civil society organizations. Although making the effort to engage is harder, we need to do more of it. The groups that don’t need our funding or support are often the civil society groups that have real power.