JPMorgan Chase pledged around $30 billion, including investments, by far the highest total. Katherine Welles/shutterstock
JPMorgan Chase pledged around $30 billion, including investments, by far the highest total. Katherine Welles/shutterstock

Looking back at 2020’s summer of discontent, it’s hard to forget just how, well, revolutionary that moment felt. The street protests were one thing, but even at the level of mainstream institutions there was a tangible sense that, at long last, some decades-old dam had broken and American society’s pent-up hunger for racial justice had come spilling out.

A year later, and hindsight has put a check on some of those hopes, as has the inevitable backlash against any gains civil rights advocates ever manage to eke out in this country. But even so, the extent to which society as a whole embraced that moment of racial reckoning was, and is, historic.

That brings us to a particular set of participants in that moment, one whose pledges garnered a great deal of media attention at the time: major corporations.

The post-George Floyd commitments of America’s 50 largest companies and their foundations were the subject of an impressive bit of data analysis by the Washington Post this week. In a piece titled “Corporate America’s $50 Billion Promise,” Tracy Jan, Jena McGregor and Meghan Hoyer provided some much-needed journalistic accountability for a massive $49.5 billion in commitments from those 50 biggest firms to address racial inequality since the murder of George Floyd.

While that total well exceeds private philanthropy’s commitments and “appears unequaled in sheer scale,” as the authors put it, it’s also somewhat deceptive. “Looking deeper, more than 90 percent of that amount—$45.2 billion—is allocated as loans or investments [companies] could stand to profit from, more than half in the form of mortgages,” the authors wrote. JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America were by far the largest players in that space.

According to WaPo’s analysis, only $4.2 billion of the total comes in the form of grants, and only a relatively minuscule $70 million made it to criminal justice reform organizations. The bulk of philanthropic donations went to more typical recipients of corporate largesse, including groups focused on economic equity, health and education. In addition to providing a useful chart of known commitments from the 50 most valuable companies, the authors dove deeper into four destinations for corporate support—homeownership, Black banks, criminal justice and education.

“So far, 37 companies have confirmed disbursing at least $1.7 billion of the $49.5 billion pledged,” they wrote. “Seven of the companies that provided data on their racial justice commitments refused to outline how much they had already spent.”

Not too surprising

What are we to make of this? The Post’s findings are an important reality check, but not all that surprising. Corporate philanthropy is a cautious beast, given to robust commitments during moments of crisis—in this case a crisis of national conscience—but guarded in its overall stance.

With few exceptions, companies tend to deploy their giving along uncontroversial lines. And that does little to counteract common assumptions about corporate philanthropy—that it’s all about brand management, intended to court public good will while papering over harms committed in the name of profit.

Corporations’ recent racial justice giving also plays into a trend we’ve been seeing over the past decade or so. That is, big firms have embraced more strategic approaches to philanthropy, better integrating it into their overall business models and making use of assets like data, employees and physical locations.

Take JPMorgan Chase. After CEO Jamie Dimon took a knee alongside employees last June, the nation’s largest bank pledged no less than $30 billion over five years to advance racial equity, a sum that by itself accounts for most of the top 50 companies’ $49.5 billion total. The vast majority of that comes in the form of loans and mortgages targeted to Black and Latino communities, including a goal of 40,000 new mortgages ($8 billion); 20,000 refinancing loans (up to $4 billion); and financing for “an additional 100,000 affordable rental units” ($14 billion).

Back in 2017, we examined JPMorgan Chase’s path to a more cohesive, strategic philanthropic practice in detail. A willingness to bring its business assets to bear on its social responsibility commitments, especially by extending credit to communities previously denied that opportunity, has been one hallmark of its approach. So is backing workforce development in urban communities of color. And if those efforts end up expanding the bank’s customer base and fostering an expanded hiring pool for banking jobs, all the better.

JPMorgan Chase was by no means the only top-50 company to pursue racial equity goals in its philanthropy before George Floyd’s death. Though the bank stands out in terms of sheer dollars, similar things can be said about a number of firms on the top 50 list.

Rather than reflecting any root-level changes to how firms go about that work, WaPo’s analysis paints a picture of companies simply assigning higher dollar amounts to business-friendly avenues many of them were already pursuing. And it’s unclear whether those investment-heavy strategies can do much to counter racial wealth disparities that make even $30 billion look paltry.

A sign of the times

Instead of expecting them to take the lead on issues of social progress, it might be better to think of corporations and their philanthropy as a sort of barometer for mainstream American society’s comfort with political and social changes.

The movement for LGBTQ+ rights is a good case in point. Prior to the recent and rapid shift in overall public sentiment in favor of LGBTQ+ people, a mainstream corporate presence was a rarity at public events like pride parades. Now, corporate floats are near-ubiquitous, to the chagrin of many activists. While the ground hasn’t shifted quite so quickly on racial equity, last year’s events are a clear reminder that embracing activists’ rhetoric, if not their demands, can be the path of least resistance for corporations these days.

Of course, words are cheaper than actions. Next to the breakneck speed of their commitments last summer, the sluggish movement of actual dollars—$1.7 billion of nearly $50 billion according to the Post’s analysis—may confirm some advocates’ suspicion that rhetoric was all it ever was. At the same time, words do have a certain force of momentum. Any message has staying power if it’s said often enough, and by people with loud megaphones. Just ask our last president.

The business of human good

Uninspired as much of its actual funding may be, corporate philanthropy is an interesting space because it sits at the crossroads of two sectors. Its practitioners must forever navigate between the revenue-seeking goals of private enterprise and civil society’s more eclectic aspirations for human betterment.

But if human good is the sole business of philanthropy, surely we’d expect nonprofit grantmakers to far outdo corporations on the racial equity front, right?

It’s hard to know, given the sector’s lackadaisical reporting requirements, but as of right now, the prognosis doesn’t look so great for private philanthropy, either. A July report from PolicyLink and Bridgespan estimated that of about $11.9 billion in philanthropic capital pledged for racial equity in 2020, only about $1.5 billion can be tracked to recipients so far. And as we saw back around the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death, racial justice advocates in philanthropy are not at all certain that last year’s momentum will continue.

I’m not all that fond of characterizing philanthropy as society’s risk capital. For the most part, foundations and individual donors are actually a pretty risk-averse lot. But tackling racial injustice will involve some discomfort, some risk. And we cannot in reality expect a private sector driven by profit to incur those risks.

On the other hand, a sector whose name literally means the love of humankind—that should be a different story.