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Will philanthropy commit to racial equity progress?

Black Lives Matter black and white January 7, 2022 Category: FeatureFeaturedFundingMedium


A version of this story first appeared in the Generocity weekly newsletter. Subscribe here to get insights early on nonprofit and philanthropy trends.

Philanthropy doesn’t have a reputation for radical transformation. Yet the last two years have put on prominent display the need for just such change. 

Progress on racial equity is a challenging case study. Leaders in philanthropy now commonly cite the injustice of race serving as an effective predictor of economic, health and other social outcomes. Following George Floyd’s murder and the demonstrations that followed, racial justice giving soared, It’s popular to discuss centering racial equity across a portfolio of grantees. Yet, since some portion of recent investments have been reactive and superficial, much of the funding created little lasting progress

Is philanthropy ready for radical change? Or is it a passing, superficial change?

Dwayne Wharton cautions that this is a moment for those in philanthropy, nonprofit and other civic roles to consider just how systemically they’re willing to pursue radical change. Wharton is a founding member of the Philadelphia Black Giving Circle and a veteran of nonprofits including Project H.O.M.E. and The Food Trust, Understanding white supremacy means asking people to hold multiple truths, he said, challenging those who do good to understand how they perpetuate racism

“You certainly are further supporting racialized outcomes,” Wharton told me. The people who are “really burdened by that are folks of color and who benefits from that are typically white educated folks.”

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There are clear power imbalances in philanthropy. Nonprofits and other organizations with missions aim to address social ills that a market-based economy can’t, or won’t, and philanthropy is a major way for financing that change. In part, the trust-based philanthropy movement is an effort to respond by giving more agency to grantees. Naturally, though, it remains easier for those working in philanthropy to challenge their grantees on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion — without actually addressing it within their own organizations. 

Perhaps that’s why conversations about white supremacy in philanthropy, so intertwined with the idea of white fragility, remain rare.

“Being able to acknowledge that is just so important, and sit with that discomfort,” Wharton said.

Yet, as  it was put by Rob Reich, the author of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better: “Philanthropy is an exercise in power”

Earlier this year, Sidney Hargro, formerly of Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia and now of the LeadersTrust, argued that philanthropy needs a new endgame. Writing for Generocity, he said it was time to dismantle white supremacy and liberate Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities in America. As he told me in an earlier conversation, racial equity is about more than grantmaking. “It’s about your organizational culture, it’s how you operate, how you use your platforms, how your endowment is invested, how you’re involved and/or, at minimum, aware and involved in policy that actually affects the people that you’re trying to serve,” Hargro said.

Any philanthropic organization attempting to make a steadfast commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion first needs to understand and accept the power dynamics baked into the system. Nonprofits in need of funding stand at the mercy of those with money. According to Wharton, donors are responsible for understanding and listening to the communities in which they work and must avoid acting in a paternalistic way. 

According to Wharton, an absolute commitment to progress comes from action and not words. “Was it a separate statement, or did you take the next step and actually shift your organizational mission and values to reflect that you have this commitment to racial equity,” Wharton said. “Putting out a statement can and certainly could serve as an impetus to help guide your work, but your mission is what really is your North Star.”

In addition, Wharton notes, giving organizations need to go beyond surface gestures with a board and a leadership structure that includes diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. Many of the people in your organization should consist of those from the communities you serve, as they remain central to your conversation and primary to your commitment. Philanthropy should always be ready and willing to give up power to the next generation, as Wharton did at the Philadelphia Black Giving Circle when he paved the way for three talented Black women, Monique Curry-Mims, Chelsea Hicks, and Shanell Ransom.

Don’t lose sight of the central goal: more representative outcomes. It will take serious focus and a true range of partners with long term thinking. As design strategist Michael O’Bryan put it earlier this year: “Equity is not a destination. It is a process.”  

“There’s no shortage of opportunities to learn about this work,” Wharton said. “I think now it’s just a matter of having the will.”

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