Many nonprofit organizations rely on philanthropic funding to develop and deliver initiatives that address the needs of the communities they serve. However, if their community is not represented in the funder’s staff, board, or strategies, the disconnect may cause more harm than help. Mobilizing Resources to Power Black Communities, a recent webinar in Resilia’s #AskUsAnything series, explored how intentional philanthropic endeavors rooted in antiracism can help Black communities, and all communities, thrive.
Currently, there is a large gap between the number of philanthropy funds being disbursed each year and the number of communities of color that are receiving funds – a “philanthropic justice issue” as described by Edgar Villanueva, author of the book Decolonizing Wealth. To correct this issue, white funding entities must consider the unique challenges BIPOC funders face while navigating philanthropic spaces, the needs of BIPOC communities, and approach philanthropy with intention to make sure dollars – and other resources – go where they are most needed.
REACH Healthcare Foundation is a charitable foundation dedicated to improving health coverage and access to quality, affordable health care for uninsured and medically underserved people. In an effort to better center racial equity in their philanthropy, REACH recently piloted a two-year program called Centering Black Voices which helped them to build strong relationships with the communities they serve.
REACH’s approach falls in line with a currently popular movement of trust-based philanthropy, where charitable foundations and funders are working to serve communities through a more intentional and equitable lens. For Gibson, REACH focuses on taking more of a reparative approach for Black communities that is strategic and years in the making.
“Trust-based philanthropy is a buzzword right now in my sector,” said Carla Gibson, REACH’s vice president of programs. “I believe it’s about building relationships with underserved, under-resourced communities so that funds can ultimately be invested in those communities. The relationship is one where philanthropy is trying to remove barriers.”
The Need for Black Philanthropists
Tahira Christmon, vice president of external affairs at the Association of Black Funding Executives (ABFE) began the webinar conversation with the history of ABFE in addressing the lack of diversity in the philanthropy space. In 1971, the Council on Foundations presented and voted on an all-white and predominantly male board, immediately after Black foundation leaders had presented their recommendations for Black philanthropists more than qualified to serve. In response, seven of these leaders left in protest and founded ABFE.
“Many people forget that big, big decision making happens at the board level, and those who are in those board meetings are predominantly trustees,” Christmon said. “Trustees are predominantly, right now, white and male. So how do we push the envelope in getting more people of color into the trustee seat?”
ABFE has a well-established history of supporting Black philanthropists in all roles and celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2022. Since its founding, the organization has considered how Black foundation leaders, many of whom are the only Black person in their foundation, are navigating the workplace and making an impact on the communities from which they came.
Program initiatives to address this include recognizing leaders committed to addressing systemic racism, intentionally supporting Black leaders about what it means to be a Black leader, helping Black philanthropists overcome challenges in the workplace, and encouraging a pipeline of Black philanthropists beginning in college and grad school.
“ABFE is the place where we, as Black people, recognized that we can create our own tables and we can create our own organizations to meet the needs that we see and not always have to ask permission from others who don’t want us to be there,” Christmon said. “It’s okay for us to be in solidarity with each other. It’s wonderful when we are included, but it’s also okay for us to create spaces, create organizations, and create systems that work for us.”
Gibson believes that with the current rise of trust-based philanthropy, now is the time for Black-led and serving nonprofits to seek partnerships with funders and advises organizations to capitalize on this momentum. Organizations should be fearless in reaching out to foundations to connect and introduce themselves and their work to funders who may not be aware.
For Gibson, it’s especially important that Black-led and serving nonprofits remain authentic when seeking funding relationships, even if this means walking away as necessary. “Don’t try to be something you’re not because you think a funder wants that,” she said. “If they can’t accept you for who you are, then you don’t need to have that funding relationship with them, and it’s not going to work.”
However, this authenticity also means showing warts and all. According to Gibson, organizations are often tempted to not be entirely honest regarding their challenges or needs, but this information is crucial as these things may be able to be helped or may highlight a need for additional partnerships.
Giving in Love
For many, the word “philanthropy” strictly means dollars and cents. However, throughout history and across languages, “philanthropy” has meant a love for humanity and expressing this love through charitable, but not necessarily financial, efforts. Beyond just money, philanthropy can mean giving time, service, material donations, technology, and more.
“I think so many communities don’t consider themselves philanthropists even though their actions are what philanthropy is,” Christmon said. “Philanthropy means giving in love. Whether that means money, your time, your talents, that is philanthropy.”
As Christmon pointed out, many Black communities are centered in church, and generally, individuals give to their church, whether through donating money, providing food for drives or events, or giving time to volunteer, attend services, and socialize with their community. Through this definition, individuals who send money, technology, food, clothes, and other items to family members in other states or home countries, simply because they love and care about them, are philanthropists as well.
“I’m even thinking about my 97-year-old grandmother who lives alone, but every few weeks cooks an entirely too-much amount of food. She cooks that way because she wants to give plates out – that is philanthropy,” Christmon said.
In her role, she has been focusing on being intentional in thinking about philanthropy this way, as well as turning it back on its head to rethink Black wealth and wealth philanthropy. This looks like amplifying the Black family foundations and other Black-led funders who are often overlooked, as well as getting curious about what intentional funding can achieve.
“What if Black-led nonprofits were supported by Black foundations, what would that look like?” Christmon asked. What would change if Black-led and serving nonprofits didn’t have to explain the challenges and disparities their communities face, because the funders already know, and if they could focus instead on their vision, potential impact, and Black futurism?
Mobilizing resources to power Black communities goes beyond giving dollars and cents, it’s recognizing the opportunity to strategically serve Black communities by bringing these communities to the table – from the mission to the programs to the board room. It’s listening to Black communities regarding their needs, identifying how those needs can be met, and working with staff, partners, and trustees to deliver. Above all, it’s reimagining what is possible.
As part of REACH’s Centering Black Voices pilot program to remove barriers for Black-led nonprofits, the foundation developed an advisory committee featuring board members who are also Black leaders in their community. This committee, along with the organizations that underwent the pilot program, serve as ongoing advisors to REACH. “I’m a firm believer in doing with them and not for them,” Gibson said. “What we’re doing is directly from what we’ve learned from them.”
According to Gibson, having community leaders and organizations helping inform grantmaking processes moves the needle beyond buzzwords into action, increasing investments as well as building trust, allies, and authentic, transparent partnerships. “It’s all the words we always throw out, but it’s actually living that,” she said. “If you don’t do it that way, it’s not authentic. You can’t continue to hold the power, you have to share the power with the people that you’re trying to get your money out to. We need the community, we need these organizations.”
Building Intentional Collaborations
“There’s so many innovations happening in philanthropy which is really exciting to see,” Christmon said. In the past few years, she has seen more and more organizations collaborating with foundations to combine dollars and create an aligned funding strategy. “Me alone, I might make a dent, but all of us together could really coalesce to do something amazing and have a deeper impact in this work.”
For REACH, addressing equity at an organizational level meant undertaking a year of learning with their board, eventually culminating in developing a racial equity narrative. Though Gibson acknowledges there is room to grow regarding expanding representation among the board, the overhauling of processes and intensive ongoing training centered on equity are a necessary start.
“I think foundations have to do the hard work on themselves,” she said. “If you’re just giving unrestricted grants to Black-led organizations to be trust-based, and you feel good about that, that is not sustainable. What is sustainable is if you work on yourself internally as an organization and change your practices internally from the board on down.”
Abundance, located in the Chicago area, includes three major funders committed to this work who use the theme of abundance to think strategically about what it would look like if Black and Brown people had the abundance that is due to them. Consumer Health Foundation, located in DC, was recently renamed and rebranded as if, A Foundation for Radical Possibility, as a nod to the possibilities if people had autonomy over their communities, if people had the resources they needed to succeed, if policy and philanthropy worked together.
if’s new branding didn’t begin with the name change. According to Christmon, their Black CEO and predominantly Black board recognized that their actions weren’t making the impact they wanted to see in the Black communities they served. They got curious about their process, one question led to another, and they returned to the roots of the organization, rebuilding a new plan thoughtfully and intentionally.
Part of these changes included selecting two new co-CEOs, which is happening in many nonprofit spaces and philanthropies as organizations rethink what leadership looks like and what is needed to achieve impact. This curiosity and restructuring allow room for innovation and encourage every person and every dollar to be utilized to its full potential.
“If you think and imagine first, then you can go back and figure out how you fund it,” Christmon said. Think about what the future could be. Describe it, illustrate it, then go back to the drawing board and figure out what it would look like to get there through funding. Identify where partners fit in, ensure the community is playing an active role in decision making, and adjust as necessary.
Reparations and Repair
One glaring philanthropic problem affecting Black communities is the inconsistent, ingenuine wave of public promises following Black trauma in the media. According to Christmon, several banks made public commitments to financially support Black communities following the tragic and widely broadcasted murder of George Floyd in 2020. However, these “contributions” were actually loans, meaning these communities now owe the money they were supposedly gifted.
Gibson, who has worked in philanthropy for 17 years, fears that this new wave of trust-based philanthropy will follow historic patterns where large sums of money are thrown without intention and without the proper infrastructure and support for success, resulting in the funding not being sustainable.
“I think what’s happening right now is very reactive,” she said. In the past, these short-lived waves of support do more harm than help and either the organization fails or the funding stops flowing. “Unfortunately, with philanthropy, the shiny object goes to another thing – we have one shiny object and then eventually we move on to another one.”
Though this moment in time in the philanthropy space can be advantageous for Black-led and serving nonprofits, sustainable and equitable endeavors will require funders to be held accountable by both themselves and others.
“Hold funders’ feet to the fire with this trust-based philanthropy,” Gibson said. “Make sure you get everything you deserve. Make sure you as a community hold funders accountable. I feel very strongly that this is long overdue and I’m sorry that it had to take something horrible for philanthropy to take notice. We have the power, we have the money, we have to ensure that it is invested wisely and that we set them up for success and not failure.”
Holding people in the philanthropy space accountable, whether an individual, organization, foundation, or partner, is necessary. Right now, many funding entities are having conversations surrounding reparations and repair and the potential to use funding to right historical wrongs and set the foundation for change moving forward.
“If you think about institutional philanthropy and how some of our major historical foundations were created. . .If people understand it was all created because someone had this great idea to build something, but didn’t have to pay people to build the thing, but could still save money to have a foundation, then you would understand that the only way of repair is to think about Black communities,” Christmon said. “Because if you address issues of systemic racism, and you start with anti-Black racism, it helps to solve the problems for all other ‘isms’ as it relates to race.”
Non-Black philanthropists have a vital dual role to play: being consistent with supporting Black communities, rather than waiting for trauma and tragedy to drive the want to give, and thinking about what it means to be an ally, versus a spectator or co-conspirator. Spectators may be physically in a community but don’t necessarily engage with or support it. Allies listen and learn and use their privilege to speak on behalf of other people. Co-conspirators take action to tangibly work alongside communities to meet their needs however they can.
According to Christmon, intention is the driving force behind using philanthropy to power Black communities: with funding, with resources, and with love. “It’s one thing for a Black organization to give money to a Black community or to a Black-led nonprofit,” she said. “It’s a different intentionality when there are systems and frameworks within that foundation that addresses how they give, for how long they give, for how much they give, and what is the impact that they are trying to see.”
“My hope is that we think about repair, and if we think about repair, we think about having space: making space for new ideas, making space for new people, making space for grantmaking in a way that is restorative.”