Endowments and colonization

When a dear friend asked me to sit on a church organization’s investment and endowment committee I balked. This is New York City, the land of Wall Street and astute bankers. What could I possibly add to any discussion, much less decision?

Finally, I agreed but it would take many months before I was captivated. I will never forget the meeting. On Zoom of course because it was pandemic time and before vaccines. We were receiving a presentation on options to invest according to ESG (environment, sustainability, and governance) ratings. It was like a eureka moment and the notes I took in that moment reflected my excitement. We would go on to face many challenges before returning to the philosophical approach to managing an endowment but the movement behind my energy continues to grow. Decolonizing wealth.

Early in the pandemic I had signed up for a session featuring philanthropist and author Edgar Villaneuva. Here is a link to the website on which he writes and offers services related to his book, “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance.” There is a great deal of material in his work but I especially love the thought that we could view money as medicine. He writes, “In indigenous cultures, we understand medicine as anything that can restore balance. Indigenous communities do not wait until sickness presents itself to try to restore balance—rather, we are proactive in maintaining this balance. What if we were to use that same mentality to alleviate the imbalances and inequities of wealth in our country? How can each of us use our money as medicine in this process?”

This mindset strikes me as fundamentally different from the wealth accumulation priorities that dominated my earliest encounters with venture capital. It starts with the notion that an endowment isn’t “ours.” We are but stewards. The meaning of decolonization is more about who and what we deem worthy of such wealth as we may gain. Villaneuva devotes a great deal of time to family foundations, many organizing grants around a “theory of change.” The theory of change being what leadership (or the family behind the foundation) determines is the optimal way to address a need. Villaneuva challenges us to rethink the arrogance or narrow perspectives that may lurk behind many a “theory of change.”

In the case of my committee responsibilities, I think of this as managing the endowment according to how willing we are to hear the voices of the marginalized or under-served potential downstream beneficiaries of the funds. It’s something like mentally reversing the flow of capital to test an investment’s alignment with our code of ethics.

I know of some discussions of decolonization in some of the greatest museum endowments. I hope the movement continues to grow. Meanwhile, I am grateful I signed up for the online meeting with Edgar Villaneuva!

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