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focal point/shutterstock

With global racial justice uprisings at a scale not seen since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the US, and anti-apartheid movements around the world in the late 20th century, our country has been called upon to confront the structures and practices that form a system of oppression. Monuments honoring the oppressors are falling, police actions are being publicly questioned. From electoral politics to popular culture, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are demanding change.

Philanthropy has not been immune to the call. Over the past months, some in the sector made a promise: to place racial justice and equity at the heart of their work moving forward. While the rhetoric has been commendable, moving from words to action has been complicated.

While we can all applaud the intentions, we must continue to think critically about how our systems and practices in philanthropy perpetuate racial injustice even as they explicitly seek to end inequity. Unless we can hold ourselves and our peers accountable for practices that we continue to use, despite how they undermine our goals for justice and equity, we will never see progress as a sector.

In the past several months, major donors have announced huge commitments to racial equity, and that is certainly necessary for progress. But unfortunately, some of these initiatives replicate the very systems they seek to dismantle. For example, while the Kellogg Foundation’s $90 million commitment is laudable, the structure of their Racial Equity 2030 initiative is problematic in presumably unintended ways.

(Editor’s Note: For more on Racial Equity 2030, including Kellogg’s responses to the author’s critique, read IP’s recent coverage here.)

In philanthropy, our power lies in our control of resources. How we make those available often dictates who can gain access, and too often we rely on practices and constructs that exclude those closest to the issues we seek to impact. Our selection processes often draw directly from a white supremacist culture that is founded on questionable ideas—the idea of an “objective meritocracy,” or the assertion that knowledge creation is the purview of elite venues such as academia, rather than in the lived experiences of communities.

In designing the Racial Equity 2030 initiative, Kellogg has made choices in how grantees will be selected, a number of which hinder racial equity from the outset. First, the submission process is explicitly a competition. This notion of supposedly meritocratic decision-making derives from market approaches and perpetuates the fantasy that there is some objective “best” in social change. It is divisive and undermines the ability to build the collective analysis and power that can lead to real, sustainable change. By comparison, a movement approach would work to ameliorate the realities of a system that relies on competition for resources, not exacerbate them.

And second, while it calls for projects to be inclusive of communities affected, it is unclear whether the scoring rubric actively privileges initiatives actually led by and centered on those most affected. Further, all organizations must be able to submit and review proposals in English. They acknowledge that this excludes some applicants, but have made the choice not to incorporate the translation capacity that would make it accessible to all.

As we all know, any application will take time, energy, and resources from the applicants. In philanthropy, it is our responsibility to lighten that burden wherever possible if our goal is true inclusion. Sometimes that means streamlining the process by simplifying applications and being flexible to the capacities of the organizations. In this instance, the registration and application process requires submission through online portals that require significant time and expertise to navigate and applicants will be required to conduct up to five peer reviews of other applications, but there is no mention of compensation or assistance offered to applicants. Since we know that organizations led by people of color are more likely to be under resourced, it will mean many are not in a position to apply.

We also need to consider how we can ensure that we do not encourage organizations and communities to put in the work of imagining new solutions to persistent problems, only to pull the rug out from under them. Here, 10 organizations will get a $1 million planning grant and then three to five of them will receive implementation grants. If there are intentions to help the five to seven projects that do not move on to the second phase of funding to raise the implementation money from other sources, that should be made clear from the outset. Without such assurances, some groups may be wary of participating in a competition that appears to be “winner take all.”

It is important to note that in one aspect, Kellogg has been exemplary: transparency. While much of philanthropy remains obscure and our decision making closely guarded, Kellogg has made a very different choice. The information offered on the website is extensive and offers far more specifics than are generally available. In fact, it is that transparency that has made it possible to form this critique. 

I write this knowing that it is not in the culture of our sector to publicly criticize another foundation. Certainly not one with the reputation, resources, and power of Kellogg. Yet if we do not speak out, who will? It is critical to hold ourselves and our peers accountable for practices that undermine our goals for justice and equity. We certainly cannot expect prospective grantees to challenge us given the power dynamics of the relationship, and so the burden must fall on our colleagues and allies to speak up in order to build toward a sector that fully embraces the values we espouse.

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