Our May Salon guest Sharlene Kemler is on a mission to make philanthropy more effective and inclusive.
Through her consultancy SK Philanthropy, Sharlene works with pro-athletes, entertainers, and high net worth individuals to direct their money where it will make the most impact. Now she is working on her most ambitious project yet: Modern Philanthropy Collective, a minority-led social impact fund that is changing the face of philanthropy and creating a new philanthropic system in which generational wealth and sustainable impact can be obtained within minority communities.
We sat down with Sharlene to talk about power, purpose, and how she believes philanthropy needs to change.
PB: What drives your work?
SK: What it really comes down to is my passion for social sustainability. I want the people running non-profits to be able to do the work they’re passionate about, which is program development, instead of spending their time jumping through hoops to get funding. SK Philanthropy and Modern Philanthropy Collective are disrupting the way philanthropy is being done by prioritizing inclusion in every aspect of our model. We believe that in order to achieve sustainable impact we need to close the racial equity gap impacting communities of color nationwide.
PB: How does that sense of purpose play out in each of your projects?
“SK Philanthropy and Modern Philanthropy Collective prioritize inclusion in every aspect of our model.”
SK: With SK Philanthropy, I work with entertainers and athletes to match them with a nonprofit that fits their interests, image, and desired impact. Often when people with high profiles and lots of financial resources want to do good, they think the logical next step is to start their own nonprofit, but partnering with an existing nonprofit is often a far more impactful and efficient use of their money. We highlight the impact they could have giving $150K over five years, as opposed to spending $150K just to launch a nonprofit, before you even get anything done.
Modern Philanthropy Collective is designed to close the equity gap for minorities. There are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the US, and less than 11 percent are led by a person of color. Most grant managers at foundations and heads of giving in private industry are older white men, who give to the same organizations over and over again. There is a real mismatch between the communities receiving the services and the people funding them. Modern Philanthropy Collective addresses that mismatch by bringing together donors to fund projects and organizations led by people of color. We also have a really innovative financing model that’s part traditional philanthropy and part social impact fund.
PB: How did you get into doing this kind of work?
SK: I started my career in cause marketing, working first with Ben & Jerry’s on their global warming tour, and later with Lifebeat on HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness. In both of those roles, I saw first hand the impact celebrities can have when it comes to mobilizing people and passing legislation. If I talk to young people about condoms or how I lost my virginity, it’s like being lectured by your mom. If Snoop Dogg does it, people pay attention. The reach celebrities have is a gift that not everybody gets. So why not use it for good?
Part of my job at Lifebeat was to connect performers with local community groups who could set up stalls at concerts when they were on tour and educate their audiences about the rise of HIV/AIDS amongst youth in America. Some of the managers would come back to me the following year and say, “We love what you did, but we’re working on a different cause now - are there any organizations you can connect us with?” So I’d use my contacts to connect them with new organizations. I’d been wanting to branch out on my own for a while, and my husband pointed out that this work I was doing for free was the beginnings of a business. And that’s how SK Philanthropy was born.
PB: One of the reasons we started Powerbitches is to give entrepreneurs a community to talk about the challenges involved in doing big, ambitious work, often without much of a support structure around you. What have challenges have you faced running SK Philanthropy?
SK: I don’t always take everyone who wants to work with me. And that’s kind of hard, because a lot of celebrities are surrounded by yes people, and it throws them off when I tell them no. At the end of the day, I’m always going to be extra protective of the nonprofits I work with. If something goes wrong, the celebrity will always have their money, but the nonprofit will face backlash that could impact their funding for years to come. So some people who come to me, I have to tell them no. If you’re really passionate, you can donate anonymously, but I’m not going to let you use this nonprofit to help your PR.
“If I talk to young people about condoms, it’s like being lectured by your mom. If Snoop Dogg does it, people pay attention.”
PB: All of your work is grounded in the idea that we need to rethink the way philanthropy operates. How does philanthropy need to change?
SK: The model we have right now is a very old-school model. 501c3s and 501c4s are really restricted in what they’re able to do, in ways that make it really hard to create sustainable impact. For instance, if you’re a 501c3 you’re not allowed to lobby. But one of the main ways groups get policies passed in Congress is because they’re able to hire a really kickass lobbyist. Do you mean to get me a 501c3 on gun violence can’t have someone working for them on the Hill? Most donations from large private institutes have restrictions. Donors need to stop micromanaging their donations and believe in the organization and its efforts. Creating restrictions on funds forces nonprofits to move away from their original mission. The philanthropic sector needs to address the racial equity gap plaguing communities by diversifying their funding model.
PB: How do you hope Modern Philanthropy Collective will change that?
SK: That we’re minority-led matters. It’s important for the communities being served to see people who reflect them both in the organizations doing service provision and advocacy, and in the people doing funding. You understand the issues a bit better, whether it’s maternal death rates for women of color or inequality in education for children of color, because you’ve lived with them yourself. I’m done with the white savior complex. Research has shown that having a fund that mirrors the population it serves is critical for sustainable development. That’s what I’m trying to do with the Collective.
In addition to being minority-led, one of the most important things we’re doing is creating a model that will free both Modern Philanthropy Collective and the organizations we work with from constantly having to chase funding. Instead of just giving a gift and walking away, all of our capital will be split evenly between two initiatives: a more straightforward, traditional grant, and our mission-related investment portfolio. By putting part of our money into VC companies and hedge funds that are minority led and run, in the medium term we’ll be able to use our profits to fund our grant work instead of relying on foundations and corporate funders. It’s a powerful model, and I’m excited to put it into action!
Sharlene Kemler will be in conversation with Powerbitches founder Rachel Hills at our next Salon event, on May 30. Click here for more information and to secure your tickets.