Photo provided with permission from A Long Walk Home for G4GC’s Black Girl Freedom Fund | Photographer: Stevie Hart
Photo provided with permission from A Long Walk Home for G4GC’s Black Girl Freedom Fund | Photographer: Stevie Hart

When the Black Girl Freedom Fund made its very first round of grants, the fund relied on the experts: Black girls and Black gender-expansive youth. An advisory committee of seven young people ages 13 to 17 worked with fund staff to select an array of grantee organizations from across the country.

It’s the most recent high-profile example of participatory grantmaking, a funding practice that hands over some level of decision-making power to the community members it aims to serve. The approach has been around for a long time, but has become increasingly popular over the past year as funders have faced increased pressure to yield some of their power and be more responsive to communities in need. As IP has reported, a new book makes the case for participatory grantmaking, and some influential funders are taking the plunge.

Participatory grantmaking is a bold and potentially risky approach for a brand new fund, as it can be a complicated process that places a lot of trust in others. The Black Girl Freedom Fund (BGFF) is an initiative launched last September by Grantmakers for Girls of Color (G4GC), which itself became a standalone organization in just the last year, as IP previously reported. The initiative is part of a campaign to move $1 billion for Black girls and young women over 10 years, which has mobilized $17 million since it started in September.

But G4GC and the Black Girl Freedom Fund staff never considered doing grantmaking any other way, according to Cidra Sebastien, who manages the fund. “Young people are talked about and studied and researched, but they are not asked to say what they know, and not asked to participate in decisions that affect them. At G4GC, engaging young people is part of the work, so not engaging them in this process would be not doing the work. We knew from the top that they would be part of the process, and that we would work alongside them.”

Gap in giving

G4GC was created to target a monumental gap in philanthropic giving for girls and women of color. In 2020, for example, the Ms. Foundation concluded that “total philanthropic giving to women and girls of color is just $5.48 per year for each woman or girl of color in the United States, accounting for just 0.5% of the total $66.9 billion given by foundations.”

G4GC started out as an online platform created by the NoVo Foundation, the Foundation for a Just Society, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the New York Women’s Foundation, and Communities for Just Schools Fund. Last year, the organization became a standalone entity that is fiscally sponsored by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Grantmakers for Girls of Color also brought on its first executive director last year—Monique W. Morris, a scholar and activist who has written widely on the subject of Black girls, including “PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” which was adapted as a documentary. G4GC recently appointed Morris as the fund’s president and CEO.

Like Sebastien, Morris was committed to the idea of involving young people in the grantmaking process from the start. “I always intended this to be part of the work,” she said. “We are working in service to girls and femmes of color, so it is deeply important to engage them in the work, to honor that and bake it into the process.”

Teen time

For its inaugural round of funding, the Black Girl Freedom Fund focused specifically on organizations that address the safety and well-being of Black girls. The BGFF Youth Advisory Committee included seven young people, including cisgender, gender-nonconforming, and trans youth, all of whom identify as Black. The young people, who came from different parts of the country and were all already involved in issues concerning Black girls and gender expansive youth, were compensated for their participation.

The youth advisory committee began meeting at the end of March, 2021; sometimes, they met with BGFF staff; sometimes they met on their own. Sebastien worked closely with the group, along with educator and facilitator Kyndall Clark Osibodu, BGFF’s manager of organizational health and learning. Sebastien and Osibodu started off by helping the young people define for themselves what wellness and safety meant to them. They made sure the young people had all the information they needed about the grantee candidates; staff worked to clarify philanthropic jargon, for example, and to make sure there was a clear understanding of funding parameters.

The youth advisory committee ended up making the final grantee decisions, choosing a mix of local and national organizations. According to the BGFF announcement: “The six grant recipients are organizations that the youth agreed truly center the wellness and safety of Black girls and Black gender-expansive youth.”

Grantees include: The F.I.N.D. Design (Nashville), Pretty Brown Girl (national), Healing the Black Body (national), Get Smart B4U Get Sexy (California), The Hive Community Circle (South Carolina), and 3D Girls (Atlanta). Grant amounts range from $50,000 to $100,000.

There were a few minor bumps in the road, of course. The young people tended to operate on “teen time,” for example, so Sebastien had to build some flexibility into the meeting schedule. For the most part, meetings ran longer than she’d planned, because the young people had what she describes as “really thoughtful questions,” and often requested more information. She believes it was important that she and Osibodu have backgrounds in youth development, because they understand teens and teen issues. A clinical psychologist, who sat in on some of the meetings, was also available for one-on-one sessions with the young people.

But overall, the process went smoothly, and Sebastien still sounds a little giddy when she talks about it. “They inspired us, they inspired each other to go deeper, they were really fully engaged in the process from beginning to end,” she said.

Some of the young people have already told her that they’d like to participate in the next round of grantmaking, which will be initiated later this year.

#1Billion4BlackGirls campaign 

In September 2020, when GFGC launched the Black Girl Freedom Fund, they also unveiled the #1Billion4BlackGirls Campaign, a push to invest $1 billion in Black girls and women over the next 10 years. It’s an ambitious goal, and according to Monique Morris, many in the philanthropy world did a double take when it was first announced.

“I think some people experienced some sticker shock when we proposed a $1 billion investment over 10 years, and wondered why we would make such a significant demand,” she said.

But Morris insists that the amount is not exorbitant, given the dearth of philanthropic funding toward Black women and girls over the years. She points out that philanthropists assume that money directed to racial justice causes will benefit Black girls and women, but that is often not the case. As she wrote for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “In philanthropy, in academe, in the media, and in movement and policy circles, we generally adopt a male-centered approach to the fight for racial justice. If we think about Black girls at all, we tend to think of them as ‘trickle-down’ beneficiaries of our work and investments when it comes to these issues. At a time when philanthropy is giving record levels to racial justice and equity efforts, that has to change if we want Black girls to thrive.”

Since the $1 billion goal was announced last year, a long list of influential Black women have thrown their support behind it, including singer Ciara, actor Rashida Jones, and Valerie Jarrett, an advisor in the Obama White House.

Morris believes other funders can learn from G4GC’s experience. “I would love to see more philanthropies use this participatory approach,” she said. “In our work, for example, while our team identifies as women and femmes of color, we are not girls. We’re inviting others to explore ways they can expand the decision-making process to involve those most connected to an issue. I believe this can have a transformative impact.”