Protest for racial justice in Boston in June. Maverick Pictures/shutterstock
Protest for racial justice in Boston in June. Maverick Pictures/shutterstock

Orlando Watkins, Guest Contributor

COVID-19 was, in some ways, a perfect crisis for a philanthropic response.

This past spring, philanthropy had no choice but to establish emergency funding programs for community-based organizations to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. It was obvious. It was immediate. Who would we be if foundations ignored this extraordinary cry for help? It also played to philanthropy’s strength. We could define it. There were real, immediate, evident impacts. And those evident impacts could be ameliorated by our greatest asset. Money.

That’s not to say philanthropy “solved” anything, or that we should pat ourselves too hard on the back. But philanthropy was able to use its dollars to make a difference.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 and the resulting economic hardship haven’t gone away, and they now stand side by side with a longstanding, equally life-threatening and much more difficult to treat virus—systemic racism.

Are we ready to acknowledge and address our shortfalls in tackling the unfinished business of racial equity? Will we evolve and lead with a much-needed racial equity lens in our ongoing philanthropic initiatives? Or will we disregard the profound racial inequities we see across the social and economic landscape and revert to our traditional practices? The Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC)-led nonprofit organizations funded in the early days of COVID, and the communities they represent, hope for the former. They fear the latter.

As fall sets in with no sign of an end to these crises, they inspire deep reflection. As I write this, we do not yet know the results of the 2020 presidential election, but regardless of the outcome, this reckoning underway in our sector will certainly continue, and likely intensify.

There is a lot of talk in philanthropy that we must now abandon long-held beliefs and practices, reset the power dynamic in this changing world, listen and learn from those with the greatest proximity to the work and enhance initiatives that promote systemic equity. BIPOC-led nonprofits are burdened by institutional racism and discrimination and the misplaced expectation that people of color must find their own solutions. It is time for philanthropy to change the frame to become partners rather than overseers in advancing structural change.

This is a much longer fight—but it is one in which philanthropy, and especially community foundations, have some assets to bring to bear.

For one thing, many of us have used a racial justice and equity lens in our COVID relief work. The Boston Foundation used a racial equity lens when we established the COVID-19 Response Fund in early March to immediately support Greater Boston nonprofits providing critical relief to those most affected by the pandemic. To date, we have distributed more than $8 million to over 250 nonprofits, thanks to the generosity of foundations, individuals, donor-advised funds, businesses and the Massachusetts COVID-19 Relief Fund. We have awarded more than 60% of the grants to BIPOC-led organizations, and 30% to immigrant-serving nonprofits. This is no accident. It is an early step in the fulfillment of our commitment to check some of our implicit and systemic biases.

Like many of our peers, we also have a history of supporting social justice movements. The Boston Foundation is inspired by the legacy of philanthropy’s critical role in fueling the civil rights movement in the 1960s and Black Lives Matter in this decade. But we must honestly appraise our past work, recognize its successes and shortcomings, and acknowledge both in this current time. We must understand the limitations of our knowledge and seek out the most effective tools for promoting sustained equity among grantees. We continue to push ourselves toward more participatory grantmaking while applying best practices for racial equity to our community investment to assure enduring institutional change.

If we stop now, we’ve done little beyond talk. Many of us have made statements and launched standalone “equity” portfolios, but a closer examination of grantmaking decisions—who receives funding, how much, and for how long—reveals a striking absence of equity. It is time for philanthropic leaders and donors to adopt policies that will advance fiscal health for BIPOC-led nonprofits and display a willingness to identify the racial inequity inherent in our foundations’ relationships, ventures, and staffing.

According to recent national research by Echoing Green and the Bridgespan Group, “63% of leaders of color reported their lack of access to individual donors compared to 49% of white leaders and 51% of leaders of color lack access to foundations versus 41% of white leaders.” Connections, access, and trust are the cornerstones of nonprofit sustainability, and benefits typically reserved for the 80% white-led nonprofits in this country.

More recently, a National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report highlighted the shortcomings of community foundations in supporting Black communities. It triggered a backlash over the report methodology, but while we can debate specifics of the data, we cannot dispute the consistent conclusion:  philanthropy is falling short in its effort to support BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving organizations.

Even before COVID, the Boston Foundation, like many other foundations, was seeking to address that imbalance. We launched the Business Equity Fund with $5 million that is singularly focused on growing Black and Latinx businesses. Our signature arts program, Live Arts Boston, awarded 75% of its funding to BIPOC artists in 2020. But we know we must all go deeper. Here are five paths we see as fronts in the long struggle for racial justice.

1. We must sharpen our equity lens and look across our entire grantmaking portfolio. 

Rather than a program centered on equity, we are looking more closely at our overall discretionary grantmaking with a racial equity lens. In FY2020, for what is likely the first time in foundation history, a majority of our discretionary grants were awarded to BIPOC-led organizations. But we still have much to do. And like any organization with donor-advised funds, we must extend that lens and educate our fund advisors to hold themselves more accountable for equity.

2. We must lean into uncomfortable conversations and raise uncomfortable questions.

This past spring, we shifted our “civic leadership” work to focus more squarely on issues of equity in housing, the arts, education, health and more. Our reports and research, convenings and forums need to continue this dialogue —and put historically silenced voices front and center in the conversation, even if those voices call out our own failings.

3. We must look inward.

We cannot truly lead on diversity, equity and inclusion until we address those issues in our own field, and our own organizations. Research from the Building Movement Project and others shows that when it comes to supporting and promoting BIPOC leaders, philanthropy and nonprofits have significant work to do. At the Boston Foundation, our work is progressing but uneven. Our current board leadership is 45% BIPOC , and our staff is 35% BIPOC—but only about 15% of our director-level and higher employees are. This reflects the current reality at many funders, and we all can do better.

4. We must look beyond our own grantmaking.

While our grantmaking is our most visible tool, it is not our only one. Look at your contractors. Your vendors. Where do you as a business spend your money, and how does it align with your values? Just three years ago, TBF decided to prioritize women- and minority-led businesses among our events and operations contracts. That decision sparked the foundation to triple its percentage spend with women and minority businesses around our events, and raised awareness of these remarkable businesses with all nonprofit partners. That’s thousands of dollars a month—no grant proposals or RFPs required. The opportunities are there. Use them!

5. We must own where we are. And share it.

I look at the above stats, and I feel a mix of emotions as I consider our progress. But my overall feeling is pride. I am proud of the work of this foundation and all that we have supported and led over its history, but now is the time for us to be even bolder on racial equity. Know the data and set goals to improve. Counting and tracking progress matters if we are going to hold ourselves accountable to real change.

The COVID crisis and protests across the country are catalytic leadership events. They cannot be ignored. This historic time should be used to recognize where our own work has failed to meet its promise, to abandon outdated approaches to finding, supporting and evaluating nonprofit partners, and to learn from those nonprofit leaders who best understand community-building. The pandemic and protests have shown that our fates are intertwined, and underinvestment in communities of color is ultimately disinvestment in the overall public good.

Philanthropy should be a champion for and executor of humanity, as well as an economic engine. COVID and protesters have shown that philanthropy must demonstrate the benevolence that is our sector’s mandate, and put into effect the lessons of these crises. That work will take time, it will be hard, and it will challenge all of us long after this election.

But it’s our work to do—today, tomorrow and for decades to come.

Orlando Watkins is vice president of programs for the Boston Foundation.

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