The Social Sector Is Being Called Upon

The pandemic has had a profound impact on businesses — and also on organizations that rely on grants to do work. We caught up with a key expert of the citizen sector: Anne Marie Burgoyne. She is the Managing Director for Emerson Collective, the social change organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs that uses philanthropy, impact investing, advocacy, and community engagement as tools to spur change. Anne Marie has decades of experience in philanthropy and shares her observations and recommendations — for grant givers and nonprofits alike. 

Anne Marie, from your bird’s eye view of the citizen sector, what are you seeing is happening now?

There’s a dark side and a bright side. There is so much sadness and hardship and struggle in so many different places — I know I’m not saying anything that most of us aren’t seeing and experiencing, too: the racial bias in our core systems being held to account, the incredible public health crisis, the struggle of the education sector, the immigration system in total crisis, the fact that 50% more Americans are food insecure than six months ago. So much upheaval that affects individuals and their ability to move forward and to feel safe. But I also have to say, I see bright spots. Some of those bright spots are hard to watch, like the struggle of people standing up for racial justice. But it is a bright spot, because it’s people showing their heroism and their belief that something needs to be different and that their standing up matters.

And structurally, who else would know better how to innovate or show the way to a better society?

That’s right. The social sector has never been adequately funded or appreciated, but still, its actors stand up and respond. You see teachers being heroic every single day, our health workers, farm workers, people who deliver our food, people who fight and work for racial equity. Organizations and people are leaning in and building bright spots because they care deeply for their community. And they have the skills and knowledge to make a difference for the people around them.

Allocating resources will be important. As an expert in philanthropy, do you see any reactions already that indicate some shifts are happening? 

Yes. The social sector has been chronically underfunded. But now, I’m seeing institutional philanthropists — who’ve historically shown little flexibility on how much they fund in a given year — going through their governance processes to release more dollars. That is in the grand scheme of things quite unusual, and very important. Second, even institutions with complicated decision making, both in terms of criteria and process — they are beginning to allocate dollars in more equitable ways. The picture started to move with Covid and accelerated after the murder of George Floyd. We are seeing racial and equity decision-making being put more strongly front and center and more dollars being placed there. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s a permanent change. Large institutions have complex processes: there’s a team that does the work, there’s a leadership team that manages and leads the work, and there’s a board that makes decisions. That set of players will need to continue to align around a set of values. 

What about individual philanthropists?

There are some interesting changes there too. I am seeing lots more individuals make strong choices to take substantial amounts of money, and put it toward pandemic relief and community-based social and racial justice work, led by people of color. They are saying publicly “This is where I’m choosing to invest.” That’s very powerful, it’s substantial. I’m also hearing from a number of individuals who are putting more dollars into voter registration and Get Out the Vote, food access, or the media in new ways, like ProPublica or Mother Jones. I sense that those in a position to give are doing more and they are being very thoughtful and deliberate in their decisions. I applaud that.

Giving in times of crisis especially brings purpose — and possibly changes the lens through which a philanthropist sees the world? 

Yes, I think it does. There’s always that interesting piece around selection bias. Once you notice something, you cannot un-notice it, and once you’ve identified with it, it becomes a deeper part of you. Giving brings purpose and a heightened sense of awareness — it builds proximity, empathy and care. It also shows that almost everyone can be a philanthropist — we can volunteer and contribute small amounts that matter.

How else are you supporting your grantees at Emerson Collective? 

We have been on an interesting journey to get to what we call frictionless philanthropy. Which means we offer to the hundreds of organizations we fund every year a menu of additional kinds of supports, beyond the grant — regardless of an organization’s size or type of work or location. That’s why it’s frictionless. There’s management support, legal support, fund development support, storytelling support, and technology training. In the current climate, webinars are popular on governance, on fund development, on communications, on budgeting in times of crisis, on wellness. We try to be relevant, and it’s a journey we are on to continue co-creating opportunities that are consistently useful to many. We’re also piloting a project with Bridgespan called the Nonprofit Resilience Initiative. 50 organizations are working with coaches and as a cohort on building a playbook on when and how to pivot their work in different environments. That has taken on a whole new relevance during the pandemic! 

From your perspective as a grant giver — what are you seeing are the factors that contribute to an organization’s success in the current climate, beyond funding? 

What we started noticing early on — as early as March — was that leaders who were able to weather the crisis were leaders who were strong at communication. First, they were able to convey to their team that they cared about them as people first. The specificity of care varied — depending on how many staff members were caring for family members, and so on. But successful leaders were really doubling down on the people within their organization. And because they cared deeply, almost by definition, we knew they were going to turn around and care for the people they serve. Second, these leaders, these organizations were continuing to communicate well with external stakeholders — funders being the most obvious, but also peer non-profit leaders, their landlords, public officials. And third, communication style and transparency mattered — being willing to iterate and acknowledge that what we’re doing right now, maybe it’ll work for a while, maybe it even won’t work tomorrow, but we’re going to be conscious. We’re going to make choices. We’re going to watch and listen. We’re going to pivot if we need to. That style of working, collaborating and communicating, helped quite a lot. 

What correlation are you seeing between doing well and the degree to which an organization embraces internal technology tools?

As one could expect, there is a correlation in that organizations with virtual communication tools and functional hardware were able to send people home safely and they could continue to work. But it goes beyond that. We are finding that organizations with a repository of knowledge management tools and data system – to use for things like decision making, tracking, allocating tasks — had an easier time adapting to the new reality. They didn’t have to shout back and forth across an office to be successful — they already had a repository of knowledge that allowed them to continue to do their work from anywhere. Also, organizations that have strong technology tended to fare well, because they have fewer operating costs for which to fundraise. So the technology backbone ended up being really interesting to watch. Importantly, tech tool and data systems are usually paid for with general operating grants, since program grants rarely cover infrastructure — another great reason to make unrestricted gifts that help non-profits to have the working capital they need to sustain their day-to-day operations!!

There is an argument in the philanthropic space that pits direct service, which is the direct distribution of goods and services to a client, against systems change — work to address society’s systemic failures. What is your personal take here?

There needs to be a place for both, especially in times of crisis. Take food insecurity. Feeding America shared a McKinsey report with us: it’s likely that we’re going to have a shortage in the next year of billions of pounds of food. Thus, it is strikingly obvious that yes, there is a long-term systems problem there that we need to tackle: how food is distributed, how it’s allocated, how it’s paid for. But there’s also a short-term challenge where we need to think about buying food and getting that food to people who need it, fast. There are other examples in the pandemic right now — like getting access to PPEs, or access to healthcare — where I think if we dicker around direct service versus systems, we’re missing why we choose to be philanthropic: because there are people who are suffering. If someone needs a band aid, you can’t just respond: I’m going to fix the system first. And at the same time, you can’t expect that by putting on band aids you’ll solve a problem long term.

Anne Marie, a personal question to wrap things up: I know you’re a cabaret singer — that must be something you’re missing now during the pandemic?

Funny you ask that. Yes, I’m a cabaret singer. I sing at a small club called Martuni’s, the last piano bar in San Francisco. A couple of times a year I do a one-woman show and 50 or 60 people come and they listen. That always seemed like such a simple thing but now singing in public is not safe, particularly for the audience. So, I’m working on a virtual show. It takes a long time because of the back and forth with the pianist to pre-record the tracks — they have to be at the right pacing for the voice over. It’s its own kind of journey! But I hope that in a few months, I will be able to take the tracks, go to Martuni’s, stand next to the piano, play the tracks, and sing for the people who come onto Zoom to watch the show.


Anne Marie Burgoyne is the Managing Director, Social Innovation at Emerson Collective where she leads the organization’s philanthropic investment process across a wide array of sectors, including education, immigration, environmental justice, and health equity.  She also works with the diverse team at Emerson to assure that partner organizations access EC’s capacity building, communications, convening and advocacy supports.  Throughout her career, Anne Marie has served on the boards of over 30 nonprofits and is currently on the board of Stand for Children, The Management Center, and Hope Credit Union. Before joining EC, Anne Marie was a Managing Director at the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation where she made early-stage grants to high-growth, high-impact non-profits. She was also a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a nonprofit Executive Director, an investment banker, and an executive leader of a technology services company. Anne Marie received her MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and holds a BA in English and a BS in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania and its Wharton School, respectively. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two terrific girls and enjoys walking, yoga, cooking and cabaret singing.

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