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Toward a philanthropic racial equity movement

By David J. Maurrasse, Ph.D.
September 3, 2020

Scene from The Power of Endowment showing a professionally dressed Black woman speaking
Scene from a video of The Prosperity Foundation’s 2017 winter event, “The Power of Endowment.” The Prosperity Foundation operates as a community foundation for Connecticut’s Black communities.

Reprinted from GrantCraft.

This period of racial justice activism in our nation’s history has been building for many years. Perceptions of confederate flags and statues, the renaming of buildings, numerous statements from businesses of all types, police reforms, and all the shifts we have seen in recent weeks are the result of sustained efforts.

Now we are experiencing an acceleration of change and a long-overdue acknowledgement of racial inequities and injustices that have remained present for several generations. Certainly, we have seen moments since the Civil Rights Movement, when it appeared widespread anti-racist action might be upon us. But this time feels different.

Previously, in discussing philanthropy’s response to the racial equity movement, I wondered whether philanthropy itself will experience a sustained movement for racial equity and racial justice. If so, what would be required to make this a reality?

Foundations transforming themselves and helping dismantle systemic racism

Looking ahead, foundations could pursue a few approaches in order to develop a lasting commitment to racial equity. These include sustained commitment in grantmaking to anti-racist advocates and organizers, investing in Black communities and other communities of color more broadly, transforming foundations institutionally, yielding power to communities and enabling community-driven and participatory grantmaking, collaborating across philanthropy, and collaborating across sectors.

Sustaining commitments in grantmaking to racial equity and racial justice

As we have seen in recent weeks, many organizations on the front lines of anti-racist policy and advocacy have received expanded funding. In some cases, this funding is an articulation from within foundations to commitments to racial equity and racial justice. But the challenge is to attain true sustained commitments. Systemic racism will not be eradicated with small, short-term grants. Large grants alone will not do it either. For philanthropy to help advance a racial justice movement, multiple foundations and donors would have to contribute significant and flexible funding that allows organizations to expand the work they have already begun—the work that actually brought us to this historical moment.

Moreover, foundations and donors would have to transcend funding only organizations that are well-known and well-connected. There has to be willingness to engage grassroots communities on the ground and openness to learning about new organizations that might be involved in crucial endeavors without any fanfare. We should also remember that grassroots activism can transcend incorporated nonprofit organizations. Philanthropy will have to be willing to engage informal associations that are not incorporated.

Investing in black communities and other communities of color

In addition to investing in racial justice advocacy and organizing, it is also important for foundations and other donors to commit to strengthening Black communities and other communities of color.  This means supporting Black-led social change organizations as well as investing in capacity building for organizations led by and serving communities of color of all types, including small businesses.

Transforming institutionally

Grantmaking in a vacuum may have a short-term impact. However, a sustained anti-racist commitment in grantmaking or a new funding program require additional support systems. For example, it would be difficult to commit to dramatic increased investments in organizations led by and serving communities of color if foundations do not simultaneously collect demographic grantee data. The Race and Equity in Philanthropy Group (REPG) has been providing a forum for learning exchange among foundation representatives regarding policies and practices on racial equity and various aspects of equity and inclusion.

This historical moment for foundations is intriguing because numerous philanthropic institutions have been civic actors, beyond grantmaking. They have been challenged to reflect on their values, how they communicate, and their willingness to publicly advocate. There are so many dimensions of systems, operations, policies, and practices in foundations, all of which should be interrogated via a racial equity lens, from how they make decisions to how they hire and promote to how they build their boards of directors to how they invest, procure, and beyond. If foundations as whole institutions are transformed to embed a commitment to racial equity fully, grantmaking rests within a more sustainable context.

Community-driven and centered philanthropy

Additionally, it is not enough to leave all decision making about the distribution of resources to donors and their foundation staff. Too often, not only are communities of color not sufficiently represented on boards and in executive-level positions, but the very constituents in the communities most adversely impacted are also not engaged and consulted about the funding ostensibly intended for their benefit. A great deal of work is required to bridge this longstanding gap in philanthropic culture. Philanthropy is seen as the domain of the wealthy and their endowed institutions, and communities of color and all low-income communities as recipients. They are framed as deficits to be fixed rather than engaged as assets to help shape the direction of resources for their communities.

Black communities and other communities of color should be positioned to not only receive but also drive philanthropy. Larger, well-endowed foundations must learn to share power and relinquish control over money to communities of color, including philanthropic initiatives by and for their communities, which have a more intimate understanding of their constituents. Moreover, we should acknowledge the potential of community foundations to create various avenues, such as giving circles, that can focus on highly localized strategies. Racial inequities and injustices, after all, are experienced by people of color largely in places—in the neighborhoods, cities, and regions in which they reside. At this level, we can find many grassroots organizations that may have very little experience with foundations despite their important work.

Some years ago, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven created a Communities of Color Initiative, which spun off numerous new philanthropic initiatives led by and serving communities of color, including The Prosperity Foundation, which operates as a community foundation for Connecticut’s Black communities. The traditional community foundation model is no panacea for the breadth of systemic inequities around us, but it can be creatively leveraged. Community foundations are set up to remain in place in perpetuity, creating a unique relationship with the community as a crucial philanthropic vehicle that's embedded in that community and should, in theory, evolve along with the community and better understand the communities’ needs than regionally and nationally focused funders.

Beyond just community foundations, all foundations can investigate how systemic racism is manifested in local communities, and share decision making with residents and community-based organizations. The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, for example, has focused its work on community-based networks. There is much work to be done to enable greater and more widespread forms of community-driven philanthropy. But it does not feel as if philanthropy can maximize its contribution to dismantling systemic racism without it.

Collaborating among foundations

The journey to becoming a racially equitable foundation is lengthy. It can include various fits and starts. We see foundations change priorities relatively frequently. Often, a commitment to racial equity and racial justice can be quite precariously positioned amidst shifting philanthropic sands. Peer learning and support can help foundations mutually strengthen each other’s commitment to this important work.

Community foundations across the country are working to reduce racial inequities in their communities as part of CFLeads' equity network. The goal of an equity practice is to eliminate the outcome disparities in society—many of which exist due to deep-rooted issues in our systems and institutions. The equity network fosters peer learning and support to help strengthen community foundations’ efforts toward racial equity.

But a single foundation can have only so much impact.

PSOs can play a crucial role organizing groups of foundations around anti-racist agendas. ABFE notably galvanized numerous Black foundation CEOs to pursue joint priorities. Several foundations signed ABFE’s Joint Statement on COVID and Police Shootings highlighting action that the philanthropic sector should take in order to address the immediate needs around COVID-19 and police reform as well as longer-term strategies to address racial inequity and structural racism.

Collaborating across sectors

The philanthropic sector is not in a position to dismantle systemic racism on its own. Philanthropy can provide sustained and flexible support to nonprofit organizations. As previously noted, philanthropy can take responsibility to transform internally and engage externally. But given the pervasiveness and persistence of systemic racism, every sector must transform, and policymakers at all levels of government must institute substantially different regulations in so many aspects of life—housing, policing, education, health, and so on.

At every level—global, national, local—true systemic change will require some form of collaboration and coordination across sectors. This includes institutions transforming themselves and acting together. The Prudential Foundation has been supporting and participating in the Newark Anchor Collaborative (NAC) in Newark, New Jersey. Last year, NAC launched a signature initiative on racial equity in which Newark’s anchor institutions, representing numerous industries (corporations, foundations, universities, hospitals, arts institutions, etc.), have been mutually strengthening their racial equity policies and practices. Housed at the Newark Alliance, which has a close working relationship with the City of Newark, NAC has been aligning the entire city and its surrounding region to strengthen Newark, which is populated mostly by people of color.

Philanthropy as part of the whole

Overall, philanthropic foundations have been responding to and seeking to play a role in an advancing racial justice movement. But, as is always the case when confronted with enormous challenges, philanthropy must consider how to commit to sustained activity. Foundations and donors must have the will to stay focused and not walk away from a dedication to racial equity and racial justice. This is not easy work. Some strategies could fail. However, our current moment calls on us to proceed without the fear and risk aversion that can inhibit so many in philanthropy. Additionally, it is important that philanthropy is not the whole story. It plays a role in a broader ecosystem of partners on the long road to racial equity and racial justice.

Tags: Foundations and grantmaking; Equity