People gather in Ferguson, Missouri following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown Jr. and the ensuing unrest. Photo: Gino Santa Maria/shutterstock
People gather in Ferguson, Missouri following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown Jr. and the ensuing unrest. Photo: Gino Santa Maria/shutterstock

Creating a brand-new funding initiative from the ground up can be a lot of work. The task becomes even more complicated when the plan is to use a participatory grantmaking model mandating that community members manage virtually the entire process.

In most cases, the work of creating such a fund could take a while—everything from recruiting and training its community-based governing board to creating grant applications and reporting requirements, and, finally, moving the money. Add in the complications of a global pandemic, and that timeframe might stretch even longer.

But the St. Louis Regional Racial Healing + Justice Fund (RHJF) got up and running more quickly. Announced just a month after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the fund moved money to its first round of grantees in March of this year.

The efficiency of Forward Through Ferguson and the initiative’s other funding partners in recruiting the fund’s governing board—and the efficiency of that board itself—are noteworthy. But the fact is, the seeds that allowed this relatively fast-growing effort to take off have been in the ground for a long time.

In Missouri, the creation of the RHJF is part of a process that began in the wake of the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, Jr. RHJF’s success offers a valuable lesson to funders who are serious about putting their money where their mouths are, and about doing the work on themselves necessary to truly, deeply and effectively create change.

Put simply, that lesson is: If you really want to promote equity, just give BIPOC community activists, teachers and healers your money. It’s their job to decide what to do with it.

Funders come together to give others power

Forward Through Ferguson was founded in 2016 to address the racial injustices outlined in a report by the Ferguson Commission, created by Louisiana’s governor after the murder of Michael Brown and the resulting uprisings. According to LadyAshley Gregory, Forward Through Ferguson’s director of community partnerships, the organization came together with the Deaconess Foundation at that time to brainstorm the idea of a fund to address racial healing and justice.

The Ferguson Commission, Gregory said, has set a goal of establishing a 25-year, managed racial equity fund. However, Gregory also told me that “we identified that there were some things that had to be addressed within St. Louis around structure, healing and justice.” RHJF was conceptualized in response, and Gregory is the St. Louis Regional Racial Healing + Justice Fund’s project manager.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was the first national funder to join the team with a grant to match money from both Deaconess and the Missouri Foundation for Health. When RHJF was announced last year, seven other funders joined the three founding backers to announce a total of $1.4 million raised. As of March 2021, the total number of funders had grown to 17, with $1.69 million raised toward an initial $2 million goal.

The pace of that fundraising is impressive, but more striking is that all of the funders have agreed to give up power over their money once their checks are cashed. Or, as Gregory put it, “this fund, this amazing tool” is a very different creation than what the majority of U.S. funders are used to. The point of the fund, she said, is to put power in the hands of Black and brown community members, “which specifically means: Give us your money, we’ll decide what to do with it.”

The St. Louis fund difference

Despite some hopeful signs, participatory grantmaking is still a niche practice in the wider philanthrosphere. Even in more progressive funding spaces, true community-led grantmaking models are still a relative rarity. RHJF challenges that pattern by empowering a community governance board of Black and brown St. Louis residents who are directly impacted by racialized oppression. The community governance board members oversee the fund’s grantmaking and investment practices and develop its funding priorities.

A quick glance at the organizations receiving initial grants demonstrates the breadth of equity and healing work the RHJF’s community governance board wants to support.

A few of the grantees will seem fairly “normal” as far as community-level grantmaking goes. Brownpreneurs, for example, is an organization that provides programs to help Black high school and college students learn how to become entrepreneurs. Its ultimate mission, according to its website, is to train students “to think like employers and not employees.”

Other initial grantees include NLJ Counseling and Coaching Services, which provides treatment for people struggling with societal issues, stress and undiagnosed mental health struggles; a sustainable organic farm that offers programs including a “restorative nature immersion women’s retreat”; and Peace Weaving Wholeness, a retirement community that works with Black senior citizens who are aging in their homes.

The fund’s money, Gregory told me, is being moved to the kinds of services that “many Black and brown folks do not have access to historically.”

“The collective partnership [behind the RHJF] sought to mobilize community members around a shared cause to address and heal the impacts of racialized oppression,” said Kiesha Davis, the Deaconess Foundation’s director of partnership and capacity building. According to Davis, the effort also aims to “create opportunities for community members to identify resources, supports, activities and initiatives that will be able to attend to the impacts of racialized oppression.”

Sharing books instead of handshakes or hugs

Before the initial grantees could receive their checks, the partnership behind the Racial Healing + Justice Fund needed to create, recruit and train the fund’s community governing board—online, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

Pre-COVID, if anyone had told Gregory she would one day recruit and train a community fund’s governing board in a situation “where I couldn’t, like, shake people’s hands and hug them? I would have said ‘What?,’ but we made it happen,” she said.

Gregory and the recruitment team made it happen in the innovative ways everyone used to get by during the pandemic’s lockdown phase, including by recruiting community members with a social media audience to spread the word. From June through September of 2020, the recruiting team did phone banking and held online convenings and focus groups. Their aim was to reach healing practitioners, resident stakeholders and community organizers to let them know that applications were open to join the board.

They also used something truly unique: a #Don’tRush Social Media Share and Book Challenge, which offered a prize to encourage people to post videos of themselves with books that helped them on their racial healing journeys.

The applications for community governance board positions were also decidedly nontraditional. The selection committee accepted manifestos, voice recordings, resumes, even poetry.

When it came time to interview applicants, meeting online wasn’t the only innovation. Gregory told me she created a whole new process that uplifted community involvement. “When you do most interviews, they want you to focus on how you were the superhero,” she said. Instead, community governance board applicants were encouraged to talk about “how we help each other.”

Once the board’s members were chosen, they formed two work groups. The grants and allocations work group decides where to move money. The community voice and learning work group “really helps to create a learning process around how things are evolving with the fund, [and] refinements along the way to make sure community needs and interests are still being responded to,” Deaconess’ Davis said. “And then, collectively, the group… moves forward to, again, make sure that the vision of the fund is advanced.” The full community governance board votes to determine which organizations are ultimately funded.

Altogether, Gregory said, the board participated in four orientations and undergoes “continual learning” in everything from participatory grantmaking and budgeting to raising awareness of the ways that “racist, white supremacist systems show up in their lives, and affect” board members, all of whom are Black.

“Unlearning philanthropy” alongside new ways to measure success

Given the RHJF’s unique leadership model, it isn’t surprising that its process for evaluating how grantees have spent the funds is also different from the norm: “We ask,” Gregory said.

Specifically, in the grant application process itself, applicants were asked how they’ll define the success of their funded projects. A good answer “may not be a number, it may be storytelling,” Gregory said. The Racial Healing Fund’s team is “really looking at focusing on some of the nontraditional ways to gather data.”

This can include numbers, including the demographics of those served. “But we’re also going to ask… how it felt to provide these services and what it felt like for the people who received the services, and how they were able to heal, and what that healing looks and feels like for them.”

If most or all of the above sounds like a marked departure from the usual practice in philanthropy, that’s because it is.

“I had to unlearn philanthropy to do this,” Gregory said. “I had to write a new granting philosophy that was not rooted in the Rockefellers and a charity complex for this fund to even work in the ways that it needs to work.”

Gregory isn’t the only nonprofit professional involved in RHJF who has had to “unlearn philanthropy,” or at the very least, learn how to make philanthropy work in new ways. Many of the funders are on a learning curve, as well.

Kathleen Holmes RN, MPH, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Missouri Foundation for Health, told me that she believes many of the grantmakers backing RHJF decided to participate in part to learn more about participatory grantmaking and how to support vital work they may currently be overlooking, including work by individuals or small groups without 501(c)(3) status—and who may be doing service or advocacy work on top of full-time jobs.

Holmes, who works at a foundation that has engaged in participatory grantmaking before, admits that the process “does require a lot on the part of community members, and I think that’s somewhat challenging.”

“[Participatory grantmaking] takes good facilitation,” she said. “It takes different types of processes than what may be traditional” in the field.

The process also requires funders to shift their attitudes. Holmes said it’s important that the funders realize their job is “not doing for, but working for, community.”

The funders behind RHJF may have given up their power, but they still want to know how the funds are being spent and why. To that end, Deaconess’ Davis said that RHJF’s managing partners have engaged in “regular communications” with contributors over the past year to let the funders know how the process is unfolding. At the same time, she said, many of the funders behind the Racial Healing + Justice Fund “have really been eager to see how well community members have been able to determine their own destiny and what kind of supports would be important for them.”

A lesson for other funders

The Racial Healing + Justice Fund may still be refining its work, but it’s not too early to say that the organization’s efforts have lessons for any foundation that wants to put its money where its mouth is on racial equity issues in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

After Floyd’s death, Davis said, “many folks came out with statements articulating a commitment to racial justice, [but] where are we a year later in actually making that happen?” Or, as my colleague Philip Rojc pointed out in May, funders as a whole still have a lot of work to do.

But Davis said that in Missouri, the fact that the RHJF is “a response to the desires and aspirations of community members” is a point of pride.

“[We] would hope that others who have resources would really look for ways to be restorative in supporting communities, especially communities that have been historically marginalized, and [put] their resources, funding and the like toward those kinds of restorative practices.”