The very essence of philanthropy is to not accept the world as it is, but to demand and work toward the world as it should be. Too often, though, philanthropy fails to achieve this goal and ends up as a mirror of what is happening in society rather than as a prism previewing a better future. Our society currently upholds a system of white supremacy that harms BIPOC people—and the philanthropic world plays no exception.
We know corporate America has fallen short on its promises to deliver financial support to organizations working toward racial justice. Relatedly, federal pandemic relief money went to businesses in neighborhoods with the highest number of white residents at about twice the rate as they did to businesses with the lowest number of white residents.
In a similar show of racial disparities in the nonprofit world, recent research from Echoing Green’s applicant pool found the revenues of Black-led organizations were 24 percent smaller than the revenues of their white-led counterparts, and the unrestricted net assets of Black-led organizations were 76 percent smaller than white-led organizations. This is similar to the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity’s research, which found more than a third of the top 20 racial equity grant recipients from 2015 through 2018 are organizations driven by white business leaders advancing their theories of change for Black and Brown communities.
No matter what the vehicle, the story is the same: white leaders and communities continue to reap benefits due to their privilege and outsized power. Wealth continues to beget wealth and power dynamics remain intact.
As those committed to the world as it should be and not as it is, philanthropists should hold themselves to far higher standards than the institutionalized racism of the status quo and instead work to challenge norms by aggressively improving not just their giving, but the full funding system, for organizations led by people of color.
As leaders of a nonprofit focused on the intersection of economic, racial, and gender justice, we stand in solidarity with others who have demanded change. We are tired of our expertise being requested by philanthropists looking to expand or diversify their portfolios with no compensation. We take these meetings seriously and spend several hours preparing our presentations and tailoring our research and narrative work to the particular topic at hand. In return, we are rarely compensated. More often, we receive “philanthropic swag.” In a sector where billions of tax-exempt dollars are meant to better the world, it is shameful to pay women of color in a branded t-shirt or scarf covered in a funder logo.
Beyond the lack of compensation, there is the issue of a lack of respect. We were recently promised a sizable grant by a program officer (who is white) and told to begin planning on how we’d like to spend it. Over the last three months, we carefully planned out this work and budgeted this grant into our projected revenue for the next year. When we checked back in with the funder for what we anticipated would be the process of initiating the grant agreement, she unceremoniously told us via email that she had decided to award the grant to a different organization working in racial justice, despite the fact that our work is materially different. Losing out on this funding is not a matter of sour grapes, it is about the wasted time and resources over several months that we were asked to put into this project, which could have gone toward meaningful work furthering our mission of racial justice. And this situation is not an outlier—it has happened several times, and most often at the hands of white-led organizations and program officers.
To better understand how our own experience matched up with others in the space, we conducted a survey of 13 nonprofit leaders and development professionals of color. We kept the questionnaire anonymous to encourage candor and not jeopardize any future funding prospects for our colleagues. Of the eight respondents who had observed a racial pattern in who most often failed to follow through on introductions to funders—the primary way nonprofits secure their funding in a space that prioritizes social capital—75 percent said it was most often when their white colleagues promised introductions to prospective funders that the support never materialized. The pattern of failing to follow through on these crucial connections starves organizations helmed by BIPOC leaders of funding and leaves them at the mercy of white-led organizations who often do not have the same expertise.
Unfortunately, our experience and that of our 13 colleagues of color suggest that philanthropy is on a similar course as big business and the federal government to underdeliver on its promises of promoting racial justice, held back by the institutionalized power dynamics that reinforce white privilege. For example, nearly every respondent said they had been unable to apply for a grant from a funder who matched their work but did not accept unsolicited proposals.
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An Asian woman who works in development at a large nonprofit said:
I feel funders should devise a mechanism that allows them to learn from and engage with all groups who reach out to them, as enforcing a policy of only engaging with groups the funder knows about only reinforces inequitable dynamics. All in all, funders need to do a better job of reaching beyond their networks to learn about and fund organizations who are led by people who do not look like their leadership.
One Black female leader of a small nonprofit remarked on the advantages she has observed for white-led nonprofits: “They have connections and as a result have access to power and resources. I find white people are more likely to hoard resources and give POC orgs crumbs from funds they get on equity that they actually can’t perform without POC organizations and their equity work.”
The lack of accessibility in the philanthropy space echoed by multiple leaders of color shows that this is not an individual experience, but rather a collective one. The results of this lack of investment mean that impact is kept at the margins—POC-led nonprofits cannot maximize their impact if they are constantly chasing after a tiny grant for a few dollars here and there to cobble together the next year’s budget.
Leaders of color repeatedly reference the difficulty of receiving one-year grants as opposed to ongoing operational support. “It’s easier for white led organizations to convince funders to make big bets and multi-year commitment to support their leadership and vision,” said one respondent. When asked how funders could increase equity for BIPOC-led orgs, her answer was direct: “Be a partner and not a grader.”
Other solutions are similarly straightforward. If you are asking nonprofit professionals to educate your staff or provide context to inform your portfolios, compensate them. Build in a race-conscious sliding scale to account for disparities either in your own institution’s giving, or to offset the national racial pay gap. Be intentional about your charge to increase equity rather than treating it as a diversity box to be checked. This can be done by offering more unrestricted funding to BIPOC-led nonprofits so that they can spend less time chasing dollars and more time creating change. Additionally, since these organizations are less likely to have the resources to afford support staff, do not impose cumbersome grant reports that rarely offer more intel than an actual conversation. Funders such as the San Francisco Foundation have already incorporated such equity-building initiatives.
Another key barrier noted in our survey is the rejection of unsolicited proposals. While it may add a new role to your staff, devise a plan to filter and allow proposals from outside of your social and professional networks. A good example of this is the Meyer Memorial Trust, which allows proposals from any nonprofit as long as it aligns with one of their core priorities.
While the task of building equity into a system that has historically lacked it can seem like a monumental undertaking, it is remarkably simple. As a Black woman who leads a mid-sized nonprofit stated, “fund POC-led organizations.” If philanthropists truly strive to create an anti-racist world, the best first step is by interrogating their own contributions to systems that uphold white supremacy and continually disenfranchise BIPOC nonprofit leaders. Only by listening to those harmed by the status quo and naming the inequities within these structures can we move toward solving them.