I recently read – better say devoured – a memoir that brings together in a very personal way so many issues central to our national conversation in 2021: race, income inequality, technology and the role of philanthropy to name a few.
Inspired by the experience of reading his story, I had the pleasure of communicating with Brandolon Barnett and asking him these questions.
Q: How would you describe yourself?
I am an innovator, author and entrepreneur who helps create and lead products, initiatives and partnerships that bring together technological and social impact to get resources to the people who need them. I am currently the head of Corporate Social Responsibility Industry Solutions at Salesforce.orgPhilanthropy Cloud and leader of the Democratize Ventures investment and advisory initiative.
Q: Why did you write this book?
I wrote Deferred dreams for two reasons. First of all, I wanted to inspire. The book chronicles my struggles before, during and just after the 2008 recession. I agreed to work for an NGO that believed in me and trusted me enough to send me all over the world to assess and create volunteer programs. Yet with that nonprofit salary, I struggled to pay student loans, housing, food, while helping my mom pay rent and other expenses. At one point, I had sent out hundreds of applications for positions with foundations large and small, nonprofits, and federal agencies. I took and passed the foreign service exams and after an excruciating year of waiting I was told I had too much student loan debt. During my graduate studies in London to try to revitalize my prospects and dreams, my mother fell ill and passed away.
Although it is not always easy, I wanted to be very honest about this trip in the hope that, especially after last year when so many people suffered loss, loneliness, despair, it might inspire others to keep moving forward and find some hope for their future.
The second reason I wrote the book is that through all of this struggle, I had a dream that I just couldn’t give up. Inspired by my love of sci-fi literature and the futures represented in things like Star Trek, I wanted to be a part of the work that makes our world a better place – more like the worlds many of us are inspired by in these works. This inspiration and my personal struggles motivated me to write the book and be part of a choir of voices that includes leaders like Edgar Villanueva asking why it is so difficult for people without means, especially people of color, to be part of the work in that space. – work in foundations, large non-profit organizations, agencies like USAID or places like where I ended up in tech companies that have strong CSR and create products for social good.
Q: As you point out in Dreams Deferred, the ranks of the nonprofit, CSR and philanthropy sectors are predominantly white and the quality of work produced by the social good sector suffers from this lack of diversity. What measures do you think could help accelerate the diversification of voices?
I’ve been asked this in a lot of interviews and radio conversations and other conversations and I like to start by setting the table and explaining why this diversity is even important. And my post was: social impact organizations (foundations, nonprofits, etc.) and technology (including us here at Salesforce.org) are industries that uniquely and proudly say they want to change our world for the better.
I ask people to think about it. Imagine an institution coming to your home or community and saying they want to change it for the better. Imagine there was no one from your community on the board of this organization, or in decision-making positions, or even as advisers. We don’t believe in any other framework that we can build something better without listening to. I can’t create better products without listening to customers. You cannot make effective policies without listening to the experts and the voters. Likewise, this world belongs to all of us, and if we engage in work that we believe will make it better, all kinds of people – not just the rich, not just in cities, not just a demographic. – should have a voice and a seat at this table to shape the world we all live in into something that most of us feel is better.
To accelerate this change, philanthropy and social impact must be reconciled in a few steps. First, transparency. Even knowledge of working in the sector is compartmentalized. We need to talk about corporate responsibility, philanthropy, impact measurement, B Corps, in rooms that aren’t full of the usual suspects. In doing so, we can inspire a pipeline of people of all ages who understand the work that so many people get involved in and want to get involved in.
Second, we must remove the obstacles to their involvement. These barriers include unpaid internships in large, unaffordable cities. I myself start the book by recounting an unpaid “comeback” I made to San Francisco that certainly helped expose me to CSR but at one point left me wandering the streets in San Francisco. finding a place to sleep for the night. This, in particular, could be greatly facilitated by switching to work from anywhere, which could enable people, especially young people, residents of rural communities or those who have just completed their higher education, to securing opportunities that help them create the kind of network and experience that helps them be successful.
Third, philanthropy and funders really need to tackle all the consequences of embracing the overhead myth. Low wages and limited benefits are all too often hallmarks of working in nonprofits, even though the work is incredibly difficult, complex, and important. The end result is that even if someone was inspired to join this work and could more easily network and gain experience in an accessible and affordable way, it remains difficult for people without existing means, in especially for communities of color where we know there are wealth inequalities that have many structural origins, to access careers in philanthropy and charity – to do good work while taking care of families and creating wealth in their communities.
Finally, we all need to embrace a broad definition of what even âphilanthropyâ and impact are. It goes beyond foundations, nonprofits and public sector institutions. It now includes B Corps, sustainable product design, environmental science driving carbon accounting, sustainability professionals, employee engagement professionals, people who strive for diversity. , equity and inclusion or well-being, and people like me who build technology for good more easily. shifting resources to those who need them (funding, volunteer hours, expertise, etc.) This kind of broad definition of philanthropy would go a long way in opening up new roles, in new organizations, and therefore new opportunities for new pools of candidates.
Q: Your book was recently officially launched. What responses to your message did you find meaningful?
Sharing this story definitely made me nervous. I was afraid that people would find me on social media to tell me that I am a loser, that we should not even talk about race, etc. But in truth, I’ve been so encouraged to hear from people reporting that my story really resonates with them.
What really stood out to me was a message I received on Twitter following my appearance on THINK, a national NPR program. The individual said he was kicked out of his dream career in the military because he was LGBTQ. He was devastated but shared that my story gave him hope and inspiration to not give up and think about why he wanted this career, the impact he wanted to have and the other ways. which he might have. Hearing that from him and others has been worth it. I’ve also heard from people working in our field who just didn’t know how difficult it can be to access jobs and careers in these industries. I’m glad to see some reflecting on these questions and what a story like mine means for the barriers we face for true inclusion in our industry.
Q: You describe a lot of personal difficulties in the book, and collectively we are going through very difficult times politically, economically, societally and environmentally. What phenomena help you keep your energy and hope that progress can be made?
What gives me the most hope has to do with my comments on broadening our definition of philanthropy. From my time on the Foundation Board and later as head of Growfund at Global Impact, I have believed so strongly that âphilanthropyâ is not and should not be just for the rich. It belongs to all of us.
See conversations about new technologies like our Philanthropy Cloud which facilitates participation, increased recognition of giving circles and support groups and how essential they have been to improving lives and communities. Really reflect on the importance of making an impact by supporting entrepreneurs of color who have big dreams and great products but who receive so little VC and angel funding to help them in their quest for creation new philanthropies and wealth in desperately needed communities (something I was inspired to be part of the change with others like the Berkley Black Venture Institute Fellowship I just completed).
All of these things, as well as the growing centrality of ‘impact’ through the daily well-being that I have seen in our communities and in our workplace, but also in designing the initial vision for the Travail.com The Salesforce wellness product will launch later this year. All of this gives me hope for progress because it all means that the idea of ââ”impact” is no longer the exclusive domain of some who have the privilege of doing work that improves the world. Instead, these changes represent the infusion of “impact” over time into all we do, every product we create, every job, every leadership role. It’s starting to sound like science fiction, like Star Trek. But it’s real and I’m so honored to be a part of this job.