Few moments of natural beauty can rival the glory of spring, the buds of lilac, cherry, and tulip breaking forth to greet the world with so much sweetness. The bleeding heart in my garden leaves me feeling dumbstruck. A relic of the previous owner, its reemergence each spring from winter’s seemingly barren soil finds me breathless. This time of year, even the entrenched skeptic can’t help but lean towards optimism and hope.
Our culture of hyper-individualism is remarkably good at persuading us to see our achievements as personal, undeniably self-derived. Yet as I have committed to working in a more collaborative and deeply connected way, I have come to see that the accomplishments of the collective cannot be so easily attributed to any one individual or even one individual action. Instead, they emerge, like the blooms of spring, drawn forth by the concert of sun, rain, wind, bees, and of course, attentive gardening that creates an ecosystem that enables flourishing.
This month, I am filled with prideful joy to see new shoots of pluralism popping up in the gardens of democracy. Though I am only one of many gardeners who have dutifully tended this small patch of earth, I cannot keep from smiling at the blooms preparing to burst forth, including New Pluralists, a new funder collaborative seeking to support the growing field of pluralism in America. With the aim of investing $100 million in this broad and diverse field over the next 10 years, we have joined together with 10 peer funders and 40 field leaders to address America’s crisis of division, distrust, dehumanization, and disconnection.
It has been a long and winding road, a journey that deserves its own story.
For the past several years, I have been obsessed with the challenge of shifting philanthropy from a distant and, at times, dysfunctional revenue stream into a more deliberate and deeply engaged partner. In our first decade, with our funding focused squarely on “helping people get along better,” we certainly didn’t get everything right, but we were avidly committed to building healthy, trusting relationships with our grantee partners forged by mutuality and respect. We took extra effort to ensure everyone we worked with and supported felt seen, heard, and valued in our shared work together.
Then came the 2016 election. Amidst so much vitriol and divisiveness, we couldn’t help but wonder: how well were our “getting along” efforts doing? In the days after the election, I received dozens of phone calls from peers and grantee partners, and even people who tangentially knew of our work: they wanted to know what the "empathy funder" (how many informally referred to us) was going to do in this moment of profound fracture. My first response was paralysis, unclear what to do next, but through deep connection and reflection in each of those conversations, those who knew us best helped me realize that we also had the capacity to do some good.
In January 2017, we opened a response fund to help heal and bridge divides in America. While this diverged from the large, multi-year grantmaking we had historically done, the moment called for something drastically different, and fast. We put out a call for nominations and ideas from a broad network and quickly made grants to promising efforts that were helping people of different beliefs and backgrounds come together, talk to and listen to one another, and build positive relationships that foster empathy, trust, connection, and community.
From civic gatherings and potluck dinners to interfaith social action projects, story exchanges, and community listening trainings, people from every corner of this country emerged with innovative and well-tested ideas to bring people together in ways that help open both hearts and minds, in community and with each other. These efforts helped increase people’s openness to those who they had previously seen as “other,” forging authentic relationships that, at the outset, they wouldn’t have thought were possible. Over the course of nine months, we supported 37 organizations with a total of $6 million.
Around the same time, we launched a strategic review of our past decade to refine our grantmaking strategy. More than getting along, we came to see our work as curbing the crisis of connection, in which more and more Americans were living in isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and fear—eroding faith in our institutions and each other. Fostering a more relational and pluralist culture would become a key pillar of our new approach.
We also uncovered that both what we do and how we do it are intentionally and inextricably linked, every action guided by the principles and practice of collaboration and mutuality. If we want to help others build stronger relationships, embrace our differences, and rediscover our shared humanity, as a foundation, we also needed to find ways to listen to and embrace the views and perspectives of a wider range of actors.