From Charity to Changemaker: An Equity Imperative

by sakura March 25, 2022

“Philanthropy is commendable but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 


Five years ago, Rotary Charities began a journey to shift our focus from charity to changemaking in an effort to better help our region tackle our most complex problems and create community assets for all. We began by asking new questions of ourselves and our community. One of the first questions was inspired by author and consultant, David Peter Stroh: 
“Why, despite the collective best efforts of foundations and changemakers in our region, are we not making more progress on our toughest problems?” 

The answers we began to uncover set us on a path we are more deeply committed to each day. We found that most of our collective work was spent addressing the consequences ─ the visible symptoms ─ of complex problems like food insecurity, health disparities and climate change. And that the causes of these problems were less visible and deeply embedded within the inequitable systems we were all a part of. To transform the results we were seeing, it seemed imperative that as a community we needed to work differently, and work on different things. 

We first turned to what we had the most control over ─ our own policies, practices and approaches to our work ─ and looked at how these may be unintentionally contributing to the problems we sought to solve. We increased our transparency, flexibility and patience. We began to listen more deeply through surveys, convenings and deeper relationships with changemakers. 

We began to co-design our new strategies with changemakers, positioning ourselves as co-learners and partners exploring new ways of working together. A significant milestone in this journey came in 2018 when we refreshed our mission and vision statements, created new grant categories and unveiled six new guiding principles, a lens through which we would design new learning opportunities and evaluate grant applications and our own work. 

In the three years since introducing these new grant categories and criteria, we have supported initiatives aiming at greater equity including those that target youth homelessness, address health disparities in rural communities, support the inclusion of neurodiverse people into the workforce, seed Native American food sovereignty and build the capacity of organizations engaged in racial justice work.


An Equity Imperative

In June 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and in the midst of the civil unrest that followed, Rotary Charities staff began discussing what a deeper focus on equity might mean for our organization and those we serve in rural communities. While equity was an implied value in our new vision and systemic approach, it had not been an explicit focus of our internal work or strategy. 

As a staff, we spent time learning and reflecting together, understanding that learning does not take time away from our work, but that weaving learning into the everyday is the work. We had new conversations about history, organizational culture, relationship building with changemaking partners and how our work contributes to the disruption of systemic oppression. 

We recognized that change would be necessary on three nested levels – individual, organizational and community. This meant that it would be our responsibility as staff to do the personal work needed to continue evolving our hearts and minds to become more effective changemakers ourselves. Organizationally, we made the intention to embed equity into our policies, practices and culture. At the community level, we committed to aligning with and supporting other organizations as we work together toward building an equitable and just community. 

In June 2021, piggybacking off of our CEO transition, the board made the explicit choice to commit the organization to deepen our work by creating a goal in our strategic plan, “Embed equity into our culture, operations and strategy.” The board also committed to embark on its own learning journey around equity this year. 

We have much work ahead. Together the board and staff will continue to build upon the foundational work started in 2018: a vision for a region where all people are thriving, an approach that is committed to re-structuring systems that do not work for all, and an explicit equity imperative calling for clear and specific actions and success metrics. We look forward to continuing our listening and learning out loud while simultaneously interrogating and adapting our internal policies and practices, experimenting with new approaches and building deeper partnerships with others championing this work.


This piece was originally published by invitation in the Council of Michigan Foundations' The Download on October 11, 2021, and was featured in their annual report, Equity, Together on the Journey in March of 2022.

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