Althea Anderson and Joseph Asunka: Reflections on power, equity and race in international giving

Althea Anderson, a program officer focused on international reproductive health and women’s economic empowerment, and Joseph Asunka, a former program officer on our global transparency team, discuss their work to build equitable partnerships and shift power to African institutions in grantmaking and their experiences as Black funders. This conversation is part of a new series featuring Hewlett Foundation staff discussing race in our work and lives.

Watch the full conversation and read excerpts below. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Althea Anderson and Joe Asunka reflect on power, equity, and race in international giving and their experiences as Black funders.

From Ghana and the arts to private philanthropy

Althea Anderson: I would love to know why you decided to transition your career to private philanthropy.

Joe Asunka: Growing up in Ghana in a small village close to Burkina Faso, government felt very distant and foreign to everybody. Health care services were provided by herbalists and traditional healers, so that’s the only health care systems we knew … Education was not something that we knew would be useful for anybody, because if you went to school, it was because you were poor, and you had nothing else to do … And that disconnect between people and their government was something that was front and center in my thinking through high school to college: How can I help contribute to how we can make governments more available and responsive to people?

But my first priority in college was to pursue a career that will get me out of poverty … I ended up focusing on computer science, but when I started working with a development institution, I could see that politics had a lot of role to play. It’s not a matter of just providing the services, but to be systematic and to bring governments closer to people, you needed to deal with politics. So, I found myself veering off to do political science, because I really wanted to understand politics, and how I can research the best way to influence development.

And from my research, I have focused on: how can we make politics work better for people? … how can I change that in a way that can impact the communities that are similar to what I lived in? My research has always been to improve services for people, make governments listen to people better. But then after my graduate studies, I realized a job in philanthropy might provide me the opportunity to fund research and ideas that can influence the type of change that I wish I had experienced when I was a kid growing up … I would be really curious to hear more from you about your journey from the arts to philanthropy. How did that trajectory go for you?

Althea Anderson: I think who I am, and then what I’ve done have really shaped how I eventually got to private philanthropy. As a woman of African descent that was born and raised in the US, I think it has been a major shaper of the kind of professional decisions that I’ve made. I started my career as an artist, as a dancer, and then moved on to become a researcher and have now started a career as a funder.

And what I’ve found interesting is throughout this trajectory, identity has played a part in leading with a desire for connection, a desire to learn and share and to collaborate.

My first experience working in Africa was as a dancer. I was with a company of people from throughout the African diaspora, and we went to Zim[babwe] and collaborated with a dance company there, and with a mbira player, performing a piece from an Afro-Cuban choreographer. And it was an illuminating experience. That was my early, maybe mid-twenties at the time.

And when I transitioned to be a researcher, it was a very different experience. Actually, I went back to Zambia and Zimbabwe, and what I learned is that the role that you play really does shape how you can experience that type of connection and collaboration with people, and the type of work you need to put into it. So as an artist, it was very organic and natural. As a researcher, it required quite a bit more. And then as a funder, I think being a researcher definitely prepared me around the power and privilege of who you are and who you represent when you’re working across cultures and across nations.

So it really has been quite the experience. I feel like my career has come full circle. As a donor, if the intention really is around partnership and to really try to dismantle some of these hierarchies of benefactor and beneficiary, if you lead with that intention, you will eventually be able to get to the point of that type of desire for connection and collaboration that I think I really began with as an artist. So that has been my experience today.

Rebalancing partnerships between funders and Northern, Southern NGOs

Joe Asunka: I know in my first experience with you at the Hewlett Foundation, one of the things you highlighted, and I have continued to work on, has been these relationships between regranters and the African partners, and how to foster some kind of equity and fairness in relationships. How has that experience been and where do you see it going forward?

Althea Anderson: I think that was very much informed based on my experience working in NGOs, both in the US and in Africa, and seeing the inequities, experiencing it. As a mid-level researcher or a manager, seeing how development worked, looking at budgets, and really trying to understand, “Okay, what is the full envelope?” I’ve worked for African institutions who had no idea sometimes what the full envelope was in terms of what a foundation was giving. How do you negotiate to ensure that your institution is able to be strong and sustainable, while also making sure you’re delivering on the work?

I would say maybe that’s one of the motivations that brought me into private philanthropy as well. Even if it wasn’t the primary motivation, once I entered and started to really understand how our grants were established, who we talk to. Research, for example, I support advocacy and research grantees. And with my research grantees, as a researcher, I’m looking at these budgets and saying, often, African institutions are sub-grantees, they are junior partners, and their institutions are often being starved.

As a donor, you could shine a light on these inequities. They’re so ingrained in the way that we work that people don’t even think to question them. And as a donor, you have the privilege and the power to actually bring those inequities to light, have conversations with all actors, and say, “Let’s think about a way of operating differently. How can I as a donor fund in a way that allows for more equity in these partnerships?” Would love to hear what your experience has been in five years around this partnership.

Joe Asunka: I think that’s also been one thing I’ve focused on when I first came in. I inherited this portfolio where more than 90% of the grantees were all global and international NGOs working in parts of Africa. My first instinct was, “Oh, wow. I’m working here to try to influence change and government responsiveness in a continent that is led only by organizations based here in the US or Europe or elsewhere.”

The first thing I thought was I do need to figure out ways that I can shift some resources, more resources to institutions on the continent. Because I’ve always believed that the people on the ground should be the ones leading the work and defining the agendas. And even though I’m Black, I’m Ghanaian, I can’t claim to know everything about Ghana, let alone about Africa.

If I’m going to work in Uganda, there’s no way I can think that I know Uganda more than my Ugandan grantees. And so, I did two things. First, to shift resources so that instead of giving all the money to the international NGO to then re-grant to these institutions in Africa, I made separate grants, one grant to an international NGO based here or somewhere in the Global North, and then a separate grant to an institution in the continent.

And now what I do is to say, “Okay, you are in the continent, you know what needs to be done, lead the agenda, craft the agenda. And when you think that there’s a space where the Global North partner would add the most value, put that in the proposal and then bring them in. Because I’m providing them funding as well to do similar work.”

And in that way at least we’re able to harness the strength of both partners that lead the agenda and bring in their partners to compliment the work they do. So that’s one piece of it.

The second piece, when I looked at reports in the initial stages of my time at the Hewlett Foundation, I realized several of these northern NGOs will take credit for an outcome in say, Kenya or Uganda, without any mention of the contribution of their local partners. And that’s one thing I also highlighted. I would always ask them three questions: “Who are your local partners? What contribution did they make to this program? And how do you actually recognize them in the process?”

And this consistent engagement over time, I’ve seen several of my northern [regranter] grantees highlight the work of their grantees, but also they make sure that they put their work out there in their publications. And that is how some of the Africa-based organizations actually secure additional funding, because their work has been highlighted at that level, at a global level.

And so at least in some ways, trying to balance that power dynamic, it is all about resource control, because if you control the resources, you have the power. And I think as funders who can make that move to shift their resources and the power … it is not just the organizations themselves, they may control the resources, but they don’t have absolute control to the extent that they can do whatever they like with their resources, because it still depends on funding restrictions. And so, if we [funders] give the signals that this is the direction we want to go, it’s something that they [northern grantees] would usually go along with, which is helpful.

Capacity “strengthening” over capacity “building”

Althea Anderson: Joe, something that you said about contribution I think is so important. I think often we frame who we fund and who we continue to fund over time around who is contributing to the ultimate outcomes. And then the other side of it is the capacity building. So, I think the contribution part is so important—who gets credit for the impact of the work that is done, and who should be compensated for those contributions?

The other part I think in the grantmaking that has really been something that I spend a lot of time on and I’ve evolved my thinking is this notion of capacity building and where knowledge sits. Often the assumption is in the Global North, and who is forever in need of capacity, which is often, in our grantmaking, African institutions.

And I have a portfolio of work that was very much centered on these Global North / African institution relationships that were around capacity building. And I tried to evolve my thinking of saying, “African institutions doing advocacy work, what is the capacity building need there?” They’re advocates, they’ve been doing this. So the need is not necessarily that they need to know how to be advocates. The capacity building really is, they need the resources to be able to do their work and they need those resources to be flexible.

And so I changed the language to capacity strengthening. But even then there’s this assumption of a relationship that will go to the end of time where you are constantly in this state of dependency because you will never have the capacity to get direct funding from a donor like the Hewlett Foundation. And so it really has forced me to interrogate, to the extent that we continue regranting through Global North intermediaries, to be clear about what is the purpose of that relationship.

If we have an understanding from the beginning that African institutions have the capacity to do the work, and we are building strong institutions, then it really shifts how we think about contribution— who is producing knowledge, who is producing outcomes—and we’re not stuck in this hierarchal relationship of who has the skills and the knowledge and who needs forever to the end of time, skills and knowledge.

Joe Asunka: Absolutely. And I think you’re right in terms of always thinking about capacity building as though it is something that is perpetually a way to strengthen institutions on the continent, and not as though these are new people who have no experience in the work that they do, which is a completely flawed assumption.

Racism in global development and the experience of being a Black funder

Althea Anderson: I’d love to hear, Joe, what kind of expectations you had coming into philanthropy about how racism might show up. I’m in my mid-forties now, and some things at my age, I’ve just taken as a given. Like this is the way the game is played, and I don’t even question it. And racism is so ingrained in global development, there are certain things that I probably didn’t even challenge in the first few years that I think the global reckoning with racism has allowed some windows of opportunity for me to show up differently in who I am and in my role as a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation. So, there has definitely been some learning and evolution there. Would love to hear your thoughts on that as well.

Joe Asunka: Well, I think the same here. That learning has been very steep for me. Coming into this space, being Black, African, Ghanaian, to be specific, it’s that sense of, am I an imposter here? And I think it is something that has stuck with me ever since I started a role at the Hewlett Foundation.

I started off with much of my interest in research, and so ending up in philanthropy in a position to make decisions about how to spend somebody else’s money, it felt so jarring in the first year. I just couldn’t imagine it. I couldn’t make new grants in the first year because I felt like, this is not right for me to do this. But, of course, over time I think now the culture within the Hewlett Foundation has allowed me to begin to grow out of that. I don’t think I’ve gotten fully out of it, but that sense of managing a portfolio of resources and making decisions about them as a Black Ghanaian, it just felt a little too much for me.

Joe Asunka: I know that in some ways, your experience as a Black woman, and myself, of course, I’m Black I’m wondering how that has influenced your life in the foundation and also how it affects your grantmaking?

Althea Anderson: I think, at least in most of my professional career as both a researcher and a donor, based on lived experience, it was completely unacceptable to say that you were explicitly… your identity was impacting the decisions that you made. That was definitely seen as inappropriate, unethical. So I think in my experience as a Black woman, you had to downplay that your identity was shaping that, definitely never explicitly saying that that was the case.

Once we have a very public conversation about what I already understand to be the very structural nature of racism in our field, then it allows for you to say, “Okay, now I can actually authentically bring voice to how and why my identity also is important in this decision-making process,” instead of downplaying it and making it silent and overcoming all these stereotypes people have. People assume you come in here with an agenda because of your identity and instead of constantly negotiating and doing all this extra work around that, you can actually have an honest conversation. One, about the structures, the ideals, and ideologies that influence how we fund. Then also bring voice to the fact that you bring something unique to this given who you are.

So the last three years have been definitely like a roller coaster, because I think, also at this point in my life, I am used to a certain pace of change because of what I’ve experienced over the last 20 years. I think very different from millennials that have a different pace that they’re seeing. And it requires—even though I’m a Black woman, but I’m a middle-aged Black woman at this point— the ability to shift and seize the opportunities that are available now at a different pace than what I’ve experienced previously. There are some other things that I’ve experienced as well, but very interested to hear what your experience has been over five years in philanthropy.

Joe Asunka: Yeah. Both at the foundation, but philanthropy in general, I do think when you are Black in this space, sometimes it’s so easy to stand out in whatever space you find yourself. When I first joined the foundation the population of people of my color was not as much as it is now—[and that change] has been hugely appreciated by me because it does make you feel like you can bring yourself fully to work knowing that you have people who look like you. I think it’s an important thing to consider when you’re working within an institution.

I think the climax of it, of course, was when we did the collaborative grantmaking for the racial equity programming. I was like, “Okay, now I’m in this group with all these folks who look like me. We’re making decisions.” I think that was one of the points when I felt more comfortable in making decisions about somebody’s money, how to spend somebody’s money. Before then, I used to make the grants within my team, which was certainly cross-collaborative and we talk about these grants and who to fund and the like, but just having people of your race sitting together and having to make these decisions reinforces that sense of me being comfortable really making these decisions because I was hired for the fact that I had expertise to make decisions about these grants, and I shouldn’t let my race get in the way.

Secondly, yes, as you rightly pointed out, is there a sense that I’m coming in here with an agenda? Because if my emphasis has been to increase more funding to African institutions, should I be explicit about that? I think in the initial stages, I just couldn’t be explicit about it. It felt … I’m not even sure what word to use… self-serving to say that I want to increase funding to African institutions. Why do I want to do that?

So in some ways, even though initially there was a lot of support … Ruth [Levine, former Global Development Program Director] was very supportive of my grantmaking decisions, which made it much easier to just go for it and say, “You know what? I’m going to increase more funding to African institutions,” without that level of hesitation. But without that, it’s really difficult to just come out explicitly to say, “This is what I want to do, because, well, this is aligned with the strategy, and if that is aligned with the strategy, why not pursue it?”

So, yeah, identity matters a lot. Even when I visit Africa with my colleagues, there’s always a different dynamic. If we’re in Ghana, everybody sees me as a Ghanaian and nobody sees me as a funder or grantmaker. The power rests with my colleagues who are white and I am viewed, in many ways, as just a follower, as somebody who’s accompanied them or as somebody who knows them and has come with them, and not necessarily being in a position of a grantmaker.

So it has influenced what you do, but more importantly, it can limit you until you get an environment that allows you to be that expressive, that you can say things that touches on your identity and then make decisions in ways that reflect your identity, as opposed to holding back on anything. That only happens when you are in the right environment.

Althea Anderson: Joe, I’d love to speak on both of those things, because we have talked about these things before. I think, one, in terms of the collaborative grantmaking we did around trying to address systemic racism in the US and the grants that we made together as Black colleagues last year, one of the things that it brought out for me was to have an institution support that lived experience is a form of expertise. That it is completely acceptable and appropriate for people with lived experience to make decisions about grants that are going to impact their communities. It is not how we have always operated as a foundation or how private philanthropy operates. And I think that that in addition to having leaders who say, “Even though others may perceive this as you having an agenda or being self-serving, this is important for how we see change.” And so then you don’t feel that hesitancy or frustration of other people, because it’s not like other people don’t continue to see you necessarily having agenda. And so you’re making grants and you’re feeling necessary to kind of justify these decisions.

I think the experience of traveling with colleagues … one of the frustrations that I still continue to have, not surprising, but still frustrating is that often our white colleagues don’t see when sometimes our expertise is undermined—even I would say by other Africans, because again, how racism is practiced in global development is so systemic.

I have experienced where even, and this was I think before I went to private philanthropy, but I might be taking public transportation with other colleagues who were white and even a taxi driver will put a white colleague in the front seat because that’s where white people are supposed to ride and then you have to sit in the back seat. Or they assume you’re more junior person on the team. And I can see it even when African colleagues realize that that’s not the case and how you even have to face how racism is internalized—of who we think has knowledge, has power within these relationships. It’s really difficult. It’s a ton of work. It’s work for us. It’s work for African colleagues to re-shift thinking and have to come to terms with how racism has come into these interpersonal relationships. And often our white colleagues don’t see all that extra work that is happening and that people take home with them.

Joe Asunka: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the one thing that you have to be able to come out to say it before people can really recognize what role you’re playing. I know that there are several instances where we will meet with grantees and are talking and the emphasis is on wanting to focus the attention on my white colleagues. It’s only when they realize, okay, I am the one who is making the decisions about this grant that they then tend to talk to me about a particular grant. And it’s always interesting those dynamics, it takes a lot of effort to really overcome that. And that sense of white power and white control over resources is so overpowering that it takes conscious effort to [get others to] even acknowledge the fact that this [Black] person is a program officer to be able to do that.

Otherwise yes, grantees on the continent, if we have meetings, the sense is that there’s somebody else who controls the resources, and maybe you are not the real one making the decisions behind these grants that come to them. And it’s a difficult hill to climb. I know that over time we’ll climb it, but it can be tough. For those of us who have experienced philanthropy and for me going back to this space and then working on the frontlines, I have a level of experience that is much easier for me to interact with funders in a different way.

And I think overall that is probably one of the biggest things I take away from here, that my interactions with funders as I work in an institution that will be a grant seeker will be completely different. The two things I think about are that, one, grantees can contribute to this issue of decolonizing development, because you are in this space and giving that I’ve had this experience as a funder and thinking about how I’ve interacted with grantees, my interactions with funders is going to shift for sure. And so it’s not just philanthropists and other funders who should be the ones changing the field. I think grantees are in a position to change the field as well and make it work better for everybody. And I am convinced that I’ve taken enough with me that I can play a role even outside of philanthropy to try to influence it from the outside.

Althea Anderson: Respect, Joe, I sure hope that you do, because you’re right. Both sides of the partnership have to push for different ways of thinking and operating. It can’t just be on this side because there are so few of us here and we are term limited and we decide to make decisions about transitioning our careers. So I think that there are certain ways that we have operated that [the Hewlett Foundation] has supported, but we’ve also changed the institution. And so I think there is the hope that the institution, if we’re here or not here, will continue to show up consistently around how to operate in a more inclusive and equitable way. And that’s what I really hope that my tenure at the foundation will allow is institutionalizing more equitable transformative practices. So even when we’re gone, whoever comes after us, this is a new way of operating in partnership with grantees in Africa and across the world.

Joe Asunka:

… [Another] key thing I take away from the Hewlett Foundation is the shift between the time I joined in 2016 and now. It has been massive in terms of how we think about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Those principles are so core to everything we do, whether it is philanthropy or governance and the like, it’s just so central to what we do as human beings. And I feel like the institutional shift has been very positive and that is one thing I’m really taking away with me … in my new role, that is going to be the core principle we want to build on because inclusion— really recognizing that everybody has a role to play—is important. Of course, being open and transparent about how you operate as an institution in the continent is important. So for me, the values and principles of the Hewlett Foundation are going to follow me wherever I go.

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