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Cannabis and Philanthropy

The position explored here encourages intersection of these two communities.

A Mutually Beneficial Opportunity: Cannabis and Philanthropy

In Stephen Kump’s, “What Will Charitable Giving Look Like in 2023?” he addressed how the “financial roller coaster of 2022” set the stage for an uncertain 2023 in regards to charitable giving. Among commentary about market stabilization and how people give, he predicted that “trust-based philanthropy will reach mainstream adoption” (Kump). He described philanthropist MacKenzie Scott as a catalyst in this trend, noting that her $14B in donations to thousands of nonprofits has set the stage for giving with less strings and more trust and transparency. Scott’s contributions are being widely discussed in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, as they are a deviation from the traditional approach to the funder-fundee dynamic.

This could be quite the shake-up in philanthropy. Is this signaling the beginning stages of a shift in the standard approach to charitable giving? What is the current status of philanthropy in America? It is booming. According to the National Philanthropic Trust (NPT) website, Americans gave $484.85 billion in 2021, which is a 4% increase from 2020. Foundation giving increased by 3.4% in the same time frame to $90.88 billion. In 2021, the largest source of charitable giving came from individuals, who gave $326.87 billion, representing 67% of total giving. That year, charitable dollars went to religion (27%), education (14%), human services (13%), grantmaking foundations (13%) and public-society benefit (11%). In their report, NPT also mentions that “adults are more likely to give to charity if their parents gave to charity,” which is indicative that charitable giving is, at least, partially a learned behavior that is influenced by our own experiences and perspectives.

What does this tell us? Nearly $485 billion indicates that there is considerable interest from the American citizenry to donate to causes that make the world a better place to live. What does it mean, though, that it’s only today that we’re arriving at a place of trust-based philanthropy? If this latest trend continues to gain momentum, what impact could that have? Are we ready to set aside the “it’s the way it’s always been done” mindset? If so, it is time to look at how we give and the obligations attached to funding. While we’re analyzing innovative approaches to giving - begging the question, why has it taken us so long to green light a dynamic where we trust our nonprofit professionals to allocate funds appropriately - it’s an ideal moment to ask ourselves “If we’re willing to question how we give, should we be questioning who we give to?”

If there’s willingness to consider alternatives to the status quo, then is it time to ask ourselves about which community could be transformed by the perfect convergence of trust-based philanthropy, the rise of civic engagement philanthropic responses, and an opportunity to respond to a crisis created by unjust power dynamics?

It is. And that community is the cannabis community.

The Trust-Based Philanthropy Option

According to the National Philanthropic Trust, "trust-based philanthropy is a charitable approach that reimagines the relationships between donors, nonprofits and communities to rebalance power and decision making...the trust-based model shifts the donors’ position from patron to partner." This does not mean that funds are administered without structure. It simply means that steadfast reliance on the sizzle of new projects and initiatives over general operating support, high-maintenance reporting, and other cumbersome grantee obligations are eliminated because the work of the organization is enough to convey smart and intentional decision-making. Healthy organizations save time and resources when the hoop-jumping no longer dominates to-do lists.

When we consider the size of the national nonprofit sector, a sector that contributes 5.7% of the US GDP, we realize its heft (Ariella). According to the Nonprofit Trends and Impacts 2021 report courtesy of the Urban Institute, there are 1.8 million nonprofits operating in America. The publication reports that 55% of these organizations have programs that serve the general public and 45% focus on people and families below the federal poverty level. Vital needs, like housing, food, education, and access to medical care, are met for millions of people through this powerful network of community-focused organizations. Unburdening this network from playing the tedious reporting game and the balancing act that accompanies donations with strings attached could result in more efficient and productive operations across hundreds of thousands of organizations, not to mention encourage more authentic relationships between charities and donors.

The Nonprofit Trends report also provides an important, comprehensive snapshot in time at a point unlike any other, as the COVID-19 pandemic and its unprecedented impact, has deeply affected the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. The conclusions reached in the report reinforce data that is widely known by many among those working in the sectors, however it bolsters anecdotal evidence and allows for a supported dissemination of this insight. Conclusions about donations from individuals being essential, the extensive damage done to the sector in 2020, and the disparities among white and POC leadership are reported with the numbers to back them up as opposed to observations from those working in nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. By making intentional changes to get rid of the “the way it’s always been done” mindset, which starts to chip away at the “it’s the way it’s always been done” operations, high-functioning organizations could experience a transformational shift.

The messaging that accompanies trust-based philanthropy is clear. By offering philanthropic monies and then only requiring what is absolutely needed in terms of applying for, using, and reporting on the funding and eliminating extraneous expectations, strings, and hoops, the streamlined process addresses the authority and power dynamic that inherently exist in the charitable giving exchange. To better understand the inherent challenges and tensions that can exist because of the relationship between those providing and those receiving philanthropic funding, it is helpful to consider how philanthropy in America began.

Philanthropy Origins in America

The opening page of Philanthropy in America: A History by Oliver Zunz provides a summary of where it all started.

"In the span of two generations following the Civil War, an unprecedented number of Americans became rich and powerful enough to shape community and national affairs by themselves. In the 1870s, there were just 100 millionaires in the United States. During the next twenty years, more people made more money more rapidly than ever before in history, and they made very large gifts to society. In 1892, the New York Tribune counted 4,047 millionaires. By 1916, there were over 40,000, and at least two of these millionaires, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and Henry Ford counted their fortunes in billions. The many of these men - in some instances, their widows - opted to give much of their newly acquired money away was to have major consequences for the way Americans manage a host of important endeavors" (Zunz 1).

As described here, the practically-overnight rise of the wealthy and powerful in America established the ways to help those in need, reinforcing a dynamic between the haves and the have-nots.

Philanthropy today, as a powerful sector with wide-reaching economic and social impact, has evolved from a complicated history in the United States. In the November 2020 Smithsonian magazine article, “The Storied History of Giving in America” by Amanda B. Moniz, “philanthropy can best be defined as “recognizing and supporting the humanity of others.” Moniz examines the complex history of philanthropy in America, including the initial establishment of organizations in the 1700s to further the practice of how people cared for others to strengthen society through benevolence. It is no surprise that over time, philanthropy intersected directly with issues of racism, social injustice, and inequity.

Those intersections sometimes “tackled prejudice and racism, economic disparities, and the human suffering they cause-sometimes tentatively, and sometimes head-on” or, antithetically, revealed “how the practice can reflect and reinforce inequity” (Moniz). Early on, formal charitable efforts, often initiated in response to a disaster or tragic events, activated financial support and general awareness of the dangers that accompanied aspects of daily life for Americans in the 1700s and 1800s. Philanthropy also advanced awareness of suffrage and social activism as well opportunities to aid society through betterment and enrichment offerings. It must be noted that, although there were often well-meaning intentions behind those offerings mostly coordinated by white women in America, they were often shaped by pushing belief systems, an intention to increase authority, and reliance on continued disenfranchisement (Moniz). Even though desire to help consistently motivated benevolence and financial generosity, other motivations like self-gain or reinforcing social dynamics existed alongside wanting to help those less fortunate.

The earliest nonprofit organizations popped up in the 1700s and 1800s; it was not long before the first family foundation was formed. The Russell Sage Foundation was created in 1907 to study and share information about “social problems,” setting the stage for how wealthy families and individuals contributed funds to address ills and problems affecting American communities. In Thomas J. Billitteri’s “Donors Big and Small Propelled Philanthropy in the 20th Century,” he described the influence of steel baron Andrew Carnegie and his attitudes towards wealth and authority. “[Carnegie] told wealthy people that they would be disgraced if they died without having donated their surplus money to social causes. Just as important, he said, the wealthy should carefully choose the causes they supported, demonstrating the financial elite’s ‘superior wisdom, experience, and ability’ ” (Billitteri). This is a comment on worthiness and who should be making decisions for the greater good. Billiteri goes on to explain the evolution; “By the early years of the century, a spirit of cooperation and mutual aid had swept much of America. It was driven by a host of economic and cultural factors, including a desire in some circles to change long-entrenched social patterns, the influence of science in dealing with social problems, and the desire of young professional people to form new business alliances during a period of rapid urban growth” (Billitteri).

In the first half of the 20th century, advancements like legislation around charitable work and tax laws created new opportunities that accompanied financial contributions to causes, changing how those in positions to give could benefit from donating funds to charities. While yes, for many there is an inherent desire to contribute to the greater good, there are always individual views, motivations, and biases among those that possess the resources to be contributed. How we view causes, how we determine what is worthy, how we decide who is deserving - these positions are all shaped by our experiences, our perception, and our own gain. While those factors can never be completely eliminated, trust-based philanthropy acknowledges this reality and takes an important step to dismantle the authority dynamic while fostering more efficient community-driven work.

The Path of Civic Engagement

Taking into account the origins of the philanthropic sector and its current state of affairs, we can glean that there is a substantial history of giving in our country, those in positions to further philanthropy are motivated by a variety of reasons including furthering their own agenda and/beliefs, and that the more one can contribute, the more potential influence one could exert. It is essential to keep in mind that the individual circumstances of any giving vary significantly and those decisions are most often made to achieve a variety of outcomes.

To better understand what motivates benevolence from charitable foundations, it is important to understand what motivates giving responses from institutions that are “poised somewhere between public and private - private in its operations, yet public in its regard” (Kass 102). In “Toward a Fourth Philanthropic Response: American Philanthropy and Its Public,” Elizabeth Lynn and D. Susan Wisely described the primary instigator behind giving as “central to the history of philanthropy in the United States is a vision of human connectedness.” They explore “three traditional reasons for giving: relief of personal suffering, improvement of individuals, and reform society” and “advance a newly burgeoning ‘tradition’ on the philanthropic landscape, the promotion of civic engagement” as a fourth response (Kass 102).

While each response plays an important role in modern foundation giving, they each have distinct strengths and weaknesses. As described by Lynn and Wisely, philanthropy as relief works from the principle of compassion and seeks to alleviate human suffering. Relief meets crucial needs, but does not necessarily address the root cause or circumstance. It is a treatment, not a cure. Philanthropy as improvement seeks to maximize human potential, investing in innovation and possibilities, but this investment often caters to those “deserving” of that potential, resulting in issues regarding equity and access. Philanthropy of social reform is dedicated to social change. While social change can be good and necessary, there is potential danger because of the pay-to-play aspect of who has the authority to determine the route to reform.

It is the fourth response, philanthropy as civic engagement, that closely aligns with the principles of a healthy democracy and takes some of the best parts of the other three responses and invests in strengthening the relationships and the communication between involved community members about important, affecting topics and societal needs and opportunities. As described in the Lynn and Wisely essay, this is the path to “more reflective and resourceful local communities,” which acknowledges advancement together through mutual understanding, empathetic exchange, and informed perspectives (Kass 108).

This response moves away from externally-identified problems and solutions, many times by those in outsider roles, and identifies the experiences and perspectives of those directly involved and affected as key to unlocking intentional and authentic forward movement. This concept is summarized as “rather than trying to force a specific vision of the future…we can create the conditions for conversation, in the hope that the new vision and fresh action will eventually emerge.” (Kass 110) The fourth response acknowledges the existing dynamic of fundees and funders and proposes a viable approach that avoids some of the challenges associated with the other responses. How does the philanthropic community invest in the pursuit of philanthropy through civic engagement? They invest in the opportunities to convene communities and trust in the process, even though it’s hard, takes substantial effort, moves slow, and often produces outcomes that differ from the results of the other three responses.

Trust-based philanthropy and philanthropic civic engagement responses are current best practices for some members of the philanthropic community and the nonprofit sector, but it is not a typical approach. It requires relinquishing some control and open and honest dialogue, which demands trust, equitable collaboration, and willingness to change. Combined, though, these approaches to charitable giving could be the framework needed to achieve meaningful connectedness and progress.

An Ideal Cause

We are in a moment of unprecedented transition when it comes to cannabis. A unique, ancient plant with a complex and fascinating history, it’s been used by humans for thousands of years for an array of purposes. When we consider how it arrived at market, we know that there has never been another product that has followed this particular route, or even any path remotely comparable. The continuing tension between federal prohibition and the ongoing work-around state-by-state legalization approach, the historical accounts of cannabis persecution and prosecution to target specific demographics and the resulting problematic stigma that has subsequently been reinforced for decades, the inaccurate assessments that stem from a lack of verifiable science-based evidence in constant comparison to anecdotal evidence – these factors (and many more) contribute to the controversial topic of cannabis and how it is viewed and valued.

As the industry expands and triggers outcomes beyond the simple sale of cannabis - the rippling economic effects, the overdue impact of addressing issues involving social justice, the collective snowball effect of healthier communities, and other beneficial outcomes associated with legalization - cannabis will eventually directly or indirectly touch the lives of Americans, whether they are consumers or not.