MacArthur aims to help people with disabilities find work

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This undated photo provided by Patrick Snook shows Adam Fishbein. Fishbein has an entry-level job at Borealis Philanthropy, where he helps track payments the organization makes through its pooled funds. Fishbein, who has Tourette Syndrome and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, hopes that his presence on the staff at Borealis helps influence grant-making decisions. (Patrick Snook via AP)

As a temporary program associate at Borealis Philanthropy, Adam Fishbein helps track payments the organization makes through its pooled funds. He uses transcription software to identify keywords and themes that are repeated in Zoom calls and other communications with grantees so Borealis can try to respond to their needs.

The entry-level job, which Fishbein landed after serving as a fellow in 2019 at RespectAbility, a disability advocacy and leadership development nonprofit, puts Fishbein at the center of some of the most significant social-justice philanthropy in the nation. Over the past year, Borealis Philanthropy’s Black-led Movement and Communities Transforming Policing funds have attracted millions of dollars.

Fishbein, who has Tourette Syndrome and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, hopes that his presence on the staff at Borealis helps influence grant-making decisions. He wants to ensure that future grants are made for efforts that recognize that people with disabilities are a big share of Americans who live in poverty, struggle to transition into society after incarceration, or move out of foster care.

“I’m not the one making decisions on grants, but I have their ear,” he says.

Although philanthropy has taken steps to increase the flow of grant dollars to people with disabilities in recent years, disability advocates say the broad push among foundations to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion in their work has largely left people with disabilities out, both in terms of grants and representation on foundation boards and staff.

RespectAbility is using a new $75,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to nudge foundations to hire people with disabilities and make any accommodations needed so they can perform to the best of their ability. The philanthropy fellowship, which will use the MacArthur grant to provide a $15 an hour wage, is an added component of its existing fellows program, which for nine years has trained people in communications and policy jobs.

Fishbein’s fellowship placed him at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy before he landed his current job. Many of the group’s other fellows have worked outside of philanthropy, with a large number getting placements with Hollywood studios on efforts to advance disability inclusion in film and television.

After a training period on skills like time management and how to read foundation Internal Revenue Service filings, this fall the fellows will each apply to work at a grant maker. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, RespectAbility’s founder, says she is in discussions with a several foundations about participating.

The foundations, Mizrahi says, should be prepared for some star talent.

“Every one of these fellows essentially is becoming a Jackie Robinson, because in almost every case, they will be the first person with a disability hired by that organization,” she says, invoking the name of the baseball player who broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues. “As a result, they’re going to have to be really super performers because when you break a glass ceiling, you really need to do better so that you can pave the way for other people to come behind you.”

Mizrahi hopes that the fellows can help persuade grant makers to devote more money to organizations that are led by and serve people with disabilities. And she hopes more foundations incorporate policies and technologies that accommodate people with disabilities. The increased focus on racial equity and racial justice over the past year has not included a new interest in disability issues, she says.

“There is a very heightened interest in funding BIPOC groups and initiatives to assist BIPOC communities, “she says. “But we have not seen people who focus on equity get on board in the area of accessibility.”

A survey 804 grant makers conducted by the Council on Foundations before the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police found that less than 1 percent of foundation staff members had a disability. More than 10 percent of the grant makers in the survey skipped a question on the subject.

In some grant-making areas, foundation support for people with disabilities is slipping. A study of global human-rights grants by Candid and the Human Rights Funders Network found that grants to disability-rights groups declined by $9 million, or 14 percent, from 2017 to 2018.

There are some indications that foundations are taking disability more seriously.

Led by the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Richard Besser, a group of 17 foundation leaders have gathered the President’s Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy to push foundations to hire more people with disabilities and make more grants to organizations and projects that serve people with disabilities.

The group secured commitments from members of $12.5 million over four years for the Disability Inclusion Fund. Managed by Borealis Philanthropy, the fund works to strengthen disability-rights movement groups and link them to other social-justice organizations.

That’s reason to cheer, says Diana Samarasan, executive director of another effort, called the Disability Rights Fund, but it doesn’t go a long way toward fixing the problem.

“Even though philanthropy in recent years has really tried to start to look at itself internally in terms of diversity, equity, inclusion, that has really been focused on gender and race,” she says.“Disability has not even come to the table in most cases. Philanthropy is pretty slow changing system.”

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Alex Daniels is a senior reporter at the Chronicle. Email: alex.daniels@philanthropy.com. The AP and the Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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