GNOFN members attend a pre-COVID convening.
GNOFN members attend a pre-COVID convening.

The Greater New Orleans Funders Network (GNOFN) was founded on August 29, 2015, following the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the recognition that despite over $1 billion in philanthropic investment, disparities had only deepened in New Orleans across every spectrum, including education, economic development, healthcare and housing—particularly within Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian communities, and compared to counterpart white communities.

Key regional and national funders launched GNOFN to center the values of equity and justice through a platform for philanthropic partners to increase resources and build power for communities of color in Greater New Orleans. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, GNOFN members recognized that, similar to Hurricane Katrina, communities of color would again be most negatively impacted by the virus itself as well as its compounding effects on employment, housing and education, to name a few.

As a direct response to the pandemic, GNOFN’s Action Tables mobilized over $2.2 million via pooled and aligned funding to support BIPOC-led organizations here in the New Orleans community. Further, GNOFN challenged its members to radically reimagine the field of philanthropy through the adoption of a restorative justice framework.

Following Hurricane Katrina, we witnessed $1 billion pour into our city during the recovery, and while much good work took place, we missed the opportunity to create long-term structural change. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with yet another opportunity to reimagine our philanthropic investments and truly invest in our communities, which have been deeply impacted by this health crisis. Given our city’s dependence on a tourist-driven economy and history of persistent racial disparities across all indicators of well-being, what are we going to do about it?

To move forward, we must ensure that we not only center our efforts on those most affected by these disparities—BIPOC communities—but also address the systems that create inequities. While there are no easy fixes, we must be committed to improving the quality of life for our most impacted populations and finding equitable and sustainable solutions that shift power to BIPOC communities in New Orleans. For philanthropy, this begins with supporting nonprofit leaders of color.

Research conducted by Echoing Green and Bridgespan lays bare the racial disparity in today’s funding environment and argues that population-level impact cannot happen without funding more leaders of color. The report notes that two of the most significant factors holding back philanthropy’s efforts to help advance social change are rooted in race. That is, a lack of understanding around the role of race in the problems philanthropists are trying to solve, and around the significance of race in how philanthropists identify leaders and find solutions.

As BIPOC organizations experience increased demand for services as well as disproportionate personal impact from COVID, their leaders face daunting odds as they seek to meet the needs of their respective communities.

Funding leaders of color is a critical aspect of philanthropy because those leaders can offer insight into the shared experiences of their communities. The point is further articulated in a highly anticipated report from GNOFN and the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF), “The State of Nonprofits in Southeast Louisiana 2021: Spotlight on Racial Equity & Resilience.”

To be released in October 2021, the study examines Louisiana’s nonprofit sector through two lenses: (1) The sector’s resilience since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, which threatened the financial sustainability of nonprofits; and (2) Racial equity within our sector’s leadership, with implications for resilience outcomes and the capacity to deliver culturally competent services to diverse communities in a time of need. The results of this study offer a great deal of hope, but also underscore a sense of urgency around the significant work left to do to enhance resilience and racial equity in our region’s nonprofits and in the communities they serve.

Additionally, the report found that BIPOC-led nonprofits experienced more significant impacts from the pandemic in terms of increased demand for services and loss of funding, and were more personally impacted by the pandemic. BIPOC organizations in our study had significantly less financial reserves compared to white-led organizations, and were more severely affected by the loss of anticipated revenues. The contributions of leaders of color are vital to fueling long-term growth and economic sustainability for communities of color, which has been an oft-ignored social issue.

According to principles of equity, philanthropic resources should focus on the restoration of and investment in historically marginalized communities. We must reflect and address the negative reinforcement of existing inequitable philanthropy. Altruistic investments must be long-term, substantive and responsive to change.

Prolific philanthropic author and leader Edgar Villanueva states in his book “Decolonizing Wealth” that colonial, white supremacist organizational practices seem inevitable because they were so universally adopted over past centuries, and they still govern the great majority of our institutions. But they were design choices. He even challenges us to think about how philanthropy would be different if it were based on principles like integration and interdependence, reciprocity and relationship.

It is our own institutional biases and prejudices that have indoctrinated us to overwhelmingly support white-led nonprofits. Color-blind grantmaking, even when grounded in a well-meaning attempt at equity, is the crux of the problem. Strategic philanthropy through a restorative justice lens recognizes the source and the cost of this accumulation of wealth and radically shifts wealth and power to the communities most impacted by extractive capitalism and white supremacy.

As the nation continues to grapple with the racial reckoning of the past year, coupled with the pandemic, the unpacking of white supremacy’s impact within the philanthropic sector has also accelerated. GNOFN’s restorative justice framework follows from that, seeking to dismantle the systems of oppression that affect communities, allowing the voiceless to seek resolutions, and providing resources by building power through collective action.

GNOFN recognizes the need for more strategic philanthropic investments that radically shift wealth redistribution in New Orleans and beyond. We must change how power is wielded by re-examining the use of power and authority in philanthropic systems and organizational hierarchies, and aim toward power with others rather than power over others.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 will be the most significant factor widening the equity gap in recent history. Whether it’s education, healthcare, homeownership or generational wealth, BIPOC communities will be impacted the most.

Since 2017, GNOFN’s Action Tables have invested approximately $8.4 million in the Greater New Orleans region to support systems change in urban and coastal water management, criminal justice, equitable development, and youth and education. We need this level of investment from our philanthropic partners to ensure we have equitable communities. Frankly, philanthropy needs to put its money where its mouth is.

We must dismantle systemic racism within every system in this country, and that includes philanthropy. We must empower and provide resources to BIPOC leaders and build a foundation for communities of color to thrive.

Takema Robinson is executive director of the Greater New Orleans Funders Network and CEO of Converge Consulting.