Dabarti CGI/shutterstock

Dabarti CGI/shutterstock

Many people who work in the philanthropic sector are beginning to grapple with embedded racism in ways that they haven’t before. Organizations and individuals are asking existential questions that relate to power, interpersonal relationships and processes—and more foundations than ever say they are centering race in their reconsiderations of what is fair and just. But is this trend more than rhetorical?

“There has been a noticeable shift in philanthropic sector conversations—more focus on racial equity at conferences, gatherings, meetings,” says Michele Kumi Baer, Philanthropy Project Director at Race Forward, which merged with the Center for Social Inclusion in 2017. “And there have been increases in diversity in programmatic roles, there have been some shifts in practice, some new funds being directed to people-of-color-led organizations, and racial equity statements from foundations. But it is hard to tell from this vantage point how deeply people of different positions of power within philanthropic organizations are really being introspective about race and power in their daily practice.”

Kumi Baer’s assessment is more positive than other more critical observers of race and philanthropy. When it comes to applying a racial equity lens to philanthropic professionals’ work at a variety of levels, many say there is a lot of talk, but not much meaningful action.

Cardozie Jones, the founding principal of True North EDI, which facilitates racial equity workshops, coaches leadership teams, and supports foundations and nonprofit organizations in creating more lasting change, has observed that few foundations seeking out his services are at a place where everyone in the organization is thinking about what they can do in their daily work. “Most organizations are still at the Racial Equity 101 stage,” Jones says. “Maybe 30 percent of the organizations that reach out to me have already begun the process of learning about the history of racial inequality and concepts of power and are ready to advance to deeper ways of grappling with organizational structure, mission realignment or personally applying a racial equity lens to individuals’ work.” 

The author of “Decolonizing Wealth,” Edgar Villanueva, is even less impressed by the efforts of most foundations.  “We indulge those who say that diversity is important by conducting several decades of analyses, hiring consulting groups with absurd price tags. We publish reports. We create a task force and debate mightily over what to call it. We do not actually change, not more than superficially,” Villanueva says.

But a starting point is just that, Jones says. “In racial equity work, I like to make a parallel to recycling: We don’t need a few people doing it perfectly to make progress, we need a ton of people doing it imperfectly.”

Philanthropy’s Long History of Talking About Race

The philanthropic sector has never lacked for discussions of race, and its history of trying to grapple with racial injustice is long. But in the years following the Ford Foundation’s bold 2015 announcement of its intention to center equity in its grantmaking and the 2016 election outcome that shook many in philanthropy, the sector’s new-found intensity of attention on race is reshaping more than just conversation.

The Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE) outlined more than two decades of significant race-focused efforts in its “Timeline of Race, Racism, Resistance and Philanthropy 1992-2014,” in which it details an astounding number of projects aimed at racial equity and “diversity” in the sector. It starts by acknowledging that “though this timeline starts in 1992, it is important to recognize that obviously there was significant pioneering work for many decades around racial justice and philanthropy before this starting point.”

Many of the philanthropic affinity groups that have focused on diversity, equity and inclusion already existed before 1992, but the timeline highlights other major milestones like the 1993 founding of Joint Affinity Groups (now CHANGE Philanthropy); pioneering racial equity and diversity initiatives by funders such as W.K. Kellogg, C.S. Mott, Ford and Annie E. Casey; the founding of new organizations like the Network of Alliances Bridging Race and Ethnicity (NABRE), PRE and the Diversity in Philanthropy Project (which later became the D5 Coalition); and some of the most important sector-influencing reports from organizations like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Public Interest Projects (now NEO Philanthropy), and the Greenlining Institute. The timeline’s authors say it is hardly exhaustive, but it makes abundantly clear that the philanthropic sector has been building up to its strengthened focus and evolved thinking on racial equity over many decades.

One aspect of the sector’s evolution on race becomes clear in this history, and that is its continuous recalibration of how much to focus on diversity within the sector’s ranks or forcing a broader discussion of power and justice that would necessitate a fundamental reorientation of both the sector and the operations of individual foundations. While experts seem to agree that the sector has a very long way to go on increasing diversity, it is the increasing number of foundations’ more holistic realignment of funding priorities and practices around racial equity that is capturing attention. Since Ford Foundation made its influential announcement, other prominent funders such as the Meyer Memorial Trust, Brooklyn Community Foundation, Weingart Foundation, Chicago Community Trust and San Francisco Foundation have declared that they, too, are pursuing equity frameworks across their grantmaking portfolios.

More recently, the conversation over racial equity in philanthropy has evolved further, to examine the daily choices, practices and habits of individuals working in our sector through a racial equity lens. Many more people—whether CEOs, donors, directors of human resources, program, communications, evaluation or administration—are facing the imperative to question their exercise of power and demonstrate a commitment to racial equity in their work. It is a trend that began to intensify in recent years, but there are questions about just how deeply it is taking root.

What Does It Mean to “Pass the Mic” in Philanthropy?

In order to make real progress on race—as well as on discrimination and power imbalances related to gender, LGBTQIA, immigration status, disability, rural isolation—racial equity experts say people at all levels in philanthropy will need to continually ask themselves deep and difficult questions about how they do their work.

For the vast majority of leaders in philanthropy who are white, does that mean passing the torch or expanding the circle? For leaders of color in the sector, does it mean being more than a face of diversity, an imperative to force change in an organization that still funds and operates in ways that exclude or perpetuates injustice?

In some philanthropic and nonprofit circles, the phrase “pass the mic” is gaining traction and moving past its original meaning—an exhortation to white people who insist on speaking on behalf of people of color to stop talking and give people who have experienced oppression the opportunity to speak for themselves—to a more general urging of people who hold power in philanthropy to actively help those who have experienced the greatest harms of societal injustice exercise their rightful power in decision-making over resources.

For philanthropists who are becoming more introspective about their own relationships to race and racism in philanthropy, there is a growing recognition that hiring more people of color to positions of power is just one part of the process. According to Villanueva, racism is all too often inextricably bound up in founders’ fortunes and their guiding beliefs about how to “fix” social challenges.

“Almost without exception, funders reinforce the colonial division of us vs. them,” Villanueva says. “Philanthropy is the savior mentality in institutional form, which instead of helping—its ostentatiously proclaimed intent—actually further divides and destabilizes society.”

But even as he presents this damning indictment of the philanthropic sector, Villanueva works for the Schott Foundation and sits on the board of the Andrus Family Fund, which is controlled by a majority of multi-generational uber-wealthy white people. His continuing immersion in the sector demonstrates a faith that philanthropic professionals can create real change, not just reinforce power imbalances.

“Privilege is contextual,” says Ana Oliveira, President and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation. “The question for people working in philanthropy is whether they are willing to move past the need for security and safeness and toward taking on racial equity more intentionally. Philanthropy’s history of exclusionism demands a constant examination of the boundaries, which are many. We need to shift dominance. The imperative that everyone in philanthropy has, no matter where they fit into the philanthropic sector, is to constantly ask themselves what impact are they having. What are the ripples out from your work?”

For those who hold power, especially white people, the question is how (or realistically, whether) to shift some of the power they possess. It is a challenge that is both practical and existential. If they are to “pass the mic,” what does that mean for white people who have made philanthropy their career, and who may believe that they, too, have valid acquired knowledge, life experiences, professional aspirations and a desire to work toward social change?

“Listen, we do need white women who are allies. We need to say to white women with privilege ‘You also have a job to do,’” Oliveira says. “It isn’t just ‘pass the mic,’ but what do we do when we come to the table? For white people to not be present is leaving behind potentially important knowledge and expertise. There is no absolute answer for the question of what white people should do.”

“Yes, ‘pass the mic’ is a useful metaphor, but limited,” Jones says. “Passing the mic doesn’t mean leaving the stage. We need one another to disrupt and rebuild. We don’t want to just replicate the same old traditional hierarchical, nondemocratic, top-down structure. Equity does include a redistribution of power, which inherently means a loss of institutional power for those who historically carry the most privilege, but there is nothing simple about what that looks or sounds like. I do know we need to reimagine and rebuild that world together.”

Not Enough Practical Tools for Specific Job Functions

For philanthropists who want to move beyond history and theory to ask deeper questions about applying a racial equity lens to daily practices, what are the resources available to get started? Even though there is an increasing number of consultants in this space, no one has created a comprehensive set of role-specific tools for CEOs, program directors, HR directors, evaluation staff, communications leaders, board members, major donors, etc.

Kumi Baer, whose Race Forward organization has deep knowledge of the sector and created the Philanthropy Project to advance just this kind of change, says she hasn’t seen role-specific tools. She says a valuable starting point is Deepa Iyer’s work on “solidarity practice” and ally-ship—how white people need to be an “accomplice” or co-conspirator, actually taking on risk. Iyer has received support from Open Society Foundations for her work on Solidarity Is This, a site containing a set of principles and practices that are helpful for anyone working in the sector. Kumi Baer also said that the Johnson Center for Philanthropy is doing some role-specific work on racial equity in philanthropy, but its tools are not widely available to the public.

In 2017, Jones’s True North EDI worked closely with the entire staff of Philanthropy New York, the regional association of grantmakers, to help each department integrate a racial equity lens and shape new annual goals in its operational plan. Each member of the staff was expected to think of new ways to increase racial equity. For example, the communications department sought to increase the number of POC bloggers and increase the number of POC-led media outlets it sourced in its work. That was in addition to its already established commitment to nurturing the voices of POCs in the department itself. But, says Jones, this type of process where individuals are engaged in rethinking their daily work to take on racial imbalances and broaden power sharing is not happening in a lot of foundations.

“I was brought in by the DEI committee of a family foundation in a situation that was probably more typical,” said Jones “It was really about convincing the president that racial equity work was worth doing at all. What she really wanted was ‘to align with current language,’ not change how the foundation operated. I ended up doing a three-hour session with the DEI committee that led to an internal statement of purpose to pursue staff education on racial equity issues. It was a useful start that led to an all-staff session, but there is a misalignment between leadership and staff that will make the road ahead challenging.”

But there are some wealthy white donors who are thinking more deeply about privilege and sharing power. Jeff Raikes, former Microsoft executive, former Gates Foundation CEO and now leader of his own eponymous foundation, wrote a recent commentary in Forbes, reflecting on Anand Giridharadas’s book “Winners Take All,” professing his commitment to shifting power.

“I often say privilege is invisible to those who possess it. And power is wrapped up in privilege. When you have it—especially when you’ve had it for a long time—you don’t notice the myriad ways your ideas are the first to be heard; that your calls get returned before others; the benefit of the doubt you are given at every turn. You must pay attention to see it,” Raikes wrote. “The people you need to listen to—to both correctly identify the problem you are trying to solve, and to come up with ways to address it—are those with lived experience. In homelessness, that means talking to people who are homeless and who have been homeless. No one else knows the barriers to stability better than they do. It means working alongside the communities you seek to impact and letting them shape and guide the direction of your work.”

Listening to communities isn’t the same as giving up decision-making control, of course. But it does demonstrate a deeper recognition of power dynamics that some philanthropic experts say is a significant change taking place.

“When I think about power in philanthropy, I like to say that we don’t need to ‘cede’ power but ‘seed’ power” says Adam Liebowitz, Community Food Funders Director at North Star Fund, a social justice fund that supports grassroots organizing and communities building power in New York City and the Hudson Valley. North Star Fund has a 40-year history of centering discussions of power and racial equity in its work, and its president, Jennifer Ching, is a frequent critic of the philanthropic sector’s slow progress on racial equity.

“Racial equity work can feel like ‘just one big hug’ until the implications become apparent,” says Cecilia Clarke, President of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, which has been recognized as a leader in advancing racial equity. “Our board was uniformly supportive of racial equity work in theory, but as the exploration got deeper and issues of power came into focus, tensions did arise. But for BCF, the mandate to listen to the community gave staff authority to pursue deeper racial equity work. For private foundations, it is a bit more of a challenge to get started because they are generally are rooted in white male individuals’ money and priorities. Community foundations have a bit more of a built-in imperative to be responsive to community.”

Begin Racial Equity Work, Even Without the Perfect Tools, Leaders Say 

The experts and funders who are in the vanguard of racial equity work say that funders can’t wait for all the conditions to be right and all of the tools to be available for professionals to take responsibility for integrating a racial equity perspective into their daily work.

Jones says, “If you’re looking at a power structure that has a top (donor/board), middle (CEO, VPs, Directors) and lower levels (managers, admin, etc.), ideally you would be working at all levels simultaneously. But in reality, you have to work at whatever levels are available and, regardless of where you sit in the organization, consider the areas that are within your sphere of influence. Each of us is a gatekeeper in some way.”

“Beyond what we can do to improve the unequal systems around us, we must honestly grapple with the privileges our organizations enjoy as their beneficiaries,” Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker said in his annual message in January 2019. “This means interrogating our own unconscious biases, cultivating humility in ourselves and our organizations, and more clearly understanding how others experience the institutions of philanthropy—how remote we can be, how insular, how difficult to navigate.” For most people working in philanthropy, these are introspective processes that are not yet taking place.

This is the first in a planned series of articles examining how philanthropic professionals—especially white people—are pursuing racial equity in the sector. Future pieces in the series will examine specific job functions and how leaders in each area are adapting a racial equity lens to their work. 

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