Justice Funder’s Co-Director Dana Kawaoka-Chen on the Habit Shifting Takeaways From the Transitions Labs

Originally published on December 12, 2014.

We need new habits — philanthropic habits, that is. We need new habits that reflect the state of our country as it is now: a first world nation where young Black men are 21 times more likely than their White peers to be killed by police, where one third of the workforce is comprised of contingent workers, and where our country’s carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to what will likely be the warmest year ever recorded on the planet.

Habits are recurrent, unconscious patterns of behavior that are acquired through frequent repetition. Earlier this year, Staci Haines of Generative Somatics introduced me to the concept of 300/3,000: the idea that it takes a person 300 repetitions of a behavior before that behavior can be a conscious action you choose, then 3,000 repetitions of that behavior before it becomes an automatic response — think of a professional golfer changing her swing, or a baseball pitcher changing the release of a pitch.

While these are very physical examples, I think they apply in a philanthropic context.

What of our current grantmaking habits actually constrain movement? What of these habits are actually based on a dated analysis of the world? What new habits will get us a different outcome? How can grantmakers play a different role with community groups and thereby change the rules of the game?

Jen Sokolove of the Compton Foundation recently wrote on the What is a Justice Funder? blog: “funding only the kind of work with which we’re comfortable is precisely what limits innovation.”

To Compton’s credit, they are very transparently trying to develop new philanthropic habits to “build alignment across real divisions.” Another grantmaker to change their habits very publicly to “increase the net grant” is the Unitarian Universalist Veatch program at Shelter Rock who recently did away with asking for the “fake funder budget?

In my work with the Bay Area Justice Funders Network, I have observed that changes in strategy at philanthropic institutions aren’t always accompanied by a change in the grantmaking practices to carry out the new strategy, or vice versa. The results are challenging for the funder and their grantee partners. And when multiplied across multiple institutions, what is the cumulative effect on our ability to transform systems at the scale we need? What philanthropic habits get us closer to transformation?

Recently, I had the opportunity to reflect on habits from a very unique perspective. The Movement Strategy Center hosted a two day Transitions Lab where two dozen social justice leaders and funders gathered and, among other things, found ourselves passing a ball around in a circle. What this playful exercise surfaced for me was how rote our individual and group behavior can be unless we are intentionally trying to be different. It didn’t matter whether the prompt was for us to share the ball “abundantly” or “competitively,” we all have life experiences to draw from that allowed us to play together when bound by these rules. But this exercise made me think about how we play when we know that the current rules aren’t the ones we want to operate under anymore. Then what? How do we develop a new schema to work from?

”I am clear that we in philanthropy need new habits to support new ways of intersectional organizing, as well as new habits to radically transform the very systems that allow and perpetuate state violence without accountability.”

I am clear that we in philanthropy need new habits to support new ways of intersectional organizing, as well as new habits to radically transform the very systems that allow and perpetuate state violence without accountability. We need new habits because the very definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over, yet expect different results.

While I may not yet have the answers to these questions, our group exercise of throwing the ball reinforced my belief that we need to intentionally choose what habits are moving us closer to what we want and what new habits we need to develop.

So, let’s talk … What habits need to go?

What new habits are folks trying on?

Who is interested in practicing some new ones together?

Dana Kawaoka-Chen is the Network Director for the Bay Area Justice Funders Network. She can be reached at [email protected], and on Twitter @justicefunders.