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How the philanthropy world should use this moment to actually help Black people

“Increasing diversity can be understood as getting more Black people in the room, where they can bear witness. Transformational change is only created by getting the woefully underrepresented a seat at the table, where they can make decisions.”

How the philanthropy world should use this moment to actually help Black people
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There’s much conversation happening at the moment—across industries and throughout sectors of society—about how to dismantle long-standing systems of inequality in America.

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These conversations are also happening, of course, in the world of philanthropy. In philanthropy, such discussions are commonplace—combating inequality being a goal we pay lip service to, but often make little progress towards. Foundation executives delay action by searching for better equity frameworks and tools, but avoid asking vulnerable communities what they believe will actually uplift their lives.

What’s remarkable now is the urgency with which these conversations are happening, and the undeniable manner in which they are finally translating into action. Over the past few months, corporations and major donors have committed huge amounts of money to organizations fighting specifically for racial justice. This has contributed at least in part to a larger reckoning. For the first time in my life, for example, municipal governments are defunding their police.

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For those of us who work in (or with) philanthropy, all this energy, money, and momentum is unequivocally a good thing. With momentum and funding comes new opportunity. In our context, especially, the change we can affect has the potential to be holistic in scope. I’ve been working with underrepresented nonprofit founders for almost a decade, and I’ve never felt the potential for progress in solving the problems we care most about to be so tangible.

For all the enthusiasm and capital we’ve generated in the past few months, however, we’re still falling short of creating meaningful change in the philanthropy world. We need to have a hard conversation about why.

Still missing in our work is a discussion of power—namely, shifting power from those who have it, and have for centuries held onto it, to those who don’t, and for whom it has been systematically denied. Nonprofit executive teams and boardrooms will still be exceedingly white, and the people who benefit from our beneficence will be, too. This will always be true, and until we ensure the voices represented at those tables are diverse, the systemic inequality from which we suffer will remain. Philanthropy has long lagged when it comes to investing in power-shifting policies. We talk a lot in our circles about diversity, for example, and we release statements affirming the fact that we’re talking about diversity, but that’s just not enough. Increasing diversity can be understood as getting more Black people in the room, where they can bear witness. Transformational change is only created by getting the woefully underrepresented a seat at the table, where they can make decisions.

[Image: StudioM1/iStock]
The question before us, then, to put it bluntly, is this: How do we shift decision-making power in philanthropy to Black people?

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From what I’ve seen in my work, it starts with self-interrogation. Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, explained this well in an op-ed for the New York Times Walker writes: “Inequality in America was not born of the market’s invisible hand…It was created by the hands and sustained effort of people who engineered benefits for themselves, to the detriment of everyone else.” He goes on:

“In recent weeks, I have been invited to join dozens of conversations with many well-intentioned chief executives and generous philanthropists to talk about what they should be doing during an upheaval that feels like 1918, 1932 and 1968 all at once. The irony is not lost on me: Many of those who are eagerly extending Zoom invitations are complicit in a system that desperately needs changing.”

In other words, if you’re a part of this system currently, you’re likely in some sense complicit. From fundraisers to philanthropy leadership teams, then, to effect change, we have to start by asking ourselves the following questions: Inside our organizations, what systems and structures do we perhaps have in place that are precluding Black people from getting a fair shot at reaching the table? (Are we allowing Black people a foot in the door, but not making available any seats?) Bigger organizations, especially, often harbor processes that have been in place for a long time and which both inculcate and continue supremacist ideals. Required referrals or “warm intros,” for example, may seem innocuous, but they also sustain homogeneous environments where unseemly behavior can be ignored. Organizations also often rely on the brainpower of people of color, but don’t fairly compensate them for their intellectual contributions. Most every organization is likewise also guilty of neglecting to explore root causes perpetuating injustice internally—of not taking the time to understand the real sources of the harm we’re even unintentionally doing. Instead, we favor quick fixes.

Similarly—certainly just as crucially—we have to take a hard look at what we’re doing with our money: who we’re giving it to and how. Much like our internal policies, often the mechanisms by which we make these decisions are unconsciously biased. But there are concrete strategies we can employ to ensure this is not the case and that our money is itself working to fuel lasting change. Here are just a few I’ve seen to be most effective in my work.

  • Participatory grant-making. Grantees decide who gets the money. Ideally, grantees are closest to the problems at hand and know most intimately what’s needed to effectively solve them. When such decisions are left to people already sitting at the table, their implicit and learned biases often perpetuate the very problems we’re trying to fix.
  • Trust-based philanthropy. We stop making grantees jump through lots of hoops and begin actually trusting them with money.
  • Transparency. Simple. Invest in greater transparency inside our organizations. Everyone involved in the philanthropic process should know where money goes, and how.
  • Scout programs. This idea doesn’t come from the world of philanthropy—it’s a product of Silicon Valley—but there is much about it that’s transferable. In the tech world, VC firms ask founders in their portfolio to help them find new promising people to invest in. The best of these programs are explicitly designed to help VCs diversify who they partner with. Philanthropic leaders should adopt similar programs to fill their pipelines with Black founders they might otherwise never be introduced to.

We also must begin to more purposely elevate Black people to leadership positions internally. This makes sense beyond matters of equality. One’s lived experience doubles as an untrainable qualification. Black and brown people bring to the table traits, abilities, perspectives, and a level of empathy for the students and educators we serve that other folks simply don’t.

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Though philanthropy as a whole has lagged in these areas, there are examples of organizations and people whom we can follow to change the tide. 4.0 Schools, with whom I’ve worked for several years, is developing a program specifically for Black aspiring philanthropists. It’s called The Angel Syndicate, “a six-month program and giving circle for Black leaders looking to build our skills, relationships, identities, and collective power as education philanthropists,” as CEO, Hassan Hassan, wrote in a post on LinkedIn. The goal, high level, is to actively help Black leaders—who may otherwise be unlikely philanthropists—flip oppressive philanthropic conventions on their face and not only obtain a seat at the table, but learn how to navigate the conversations that take place there.

When it comes to transparency, meanwhile, Jack Dorsey, through his charitable project, Start Small, exemplifies the kind of simple approach to it that would exact wide-ranging impact were it adopted more universally: disclosing each gift in real time, publicly on a Google Sheet.

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The bottom line for those working in philanthropy is this: to transform the momentum of this moment into true, lasting, meaningful change requires uncomfortable interrogation—of the systems of power-inheritance and fairness inside your organization; of the way your organization exerts and bestows influence and power externally; and, on a personal level, of whether you’re pushing yourself to do as much as you can to be an accomplice in this fight.

White supremacy and systemic inequality are difficult problems to solve. Difficult problems are hardly ever solved with easy, painless solutions. This is especially true of problems that’ve been entrenched for centuries. Our solutions must be holistic in scope, founded in honesty, and endeavor above all to affirm our collective humanity.


Nicole Jarbo is the founder of the Goodbets Group, a social impact consultancy.

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