Racism in Philanthropy: Effective Practices for Grantmakers

“Now more than ever before, philanthropy must apply a racial justice lens to its grantmaking and other community engagement efforts. And we must look inside our own walls to be sure we’re practicing what we preach,” said Edgar Villanueva, Schott Foundation vice-president of programs and advocacy.

“We must also be honest and come to terms with the power dynamics that exist between philanthropy and community-based nonprofits that can contribute to barriers to authentic engagement.”

So began a brave and open conversation during our April 21 webinar, “Racism in Philanthropy: Effective Practices for Grantmakers,” which brought together

  • Chris Cardona, program officer, philanthropy at the Ford Foundation
  • Carly Hare, national director and coalition catalyst of Change Philanthropy
  • Michael McAfee, president of PolicyLink

The hour sought to begin a broader dialogue challenging philanthropies to examine themselves as they encourage communities and organizations to achieve racial equity. Foundation staff and board members are overwhelmingly white, and the origins of philanthropy in the United States involve wealth creation at the expense of and to the detriment of people of color. In addition, internal practices at foundations often perpetuate inequities.

“We are 100 years into organized philanthropic institutional giving,” Hare instructed. “And that legacy was built in a time frame that did not consider racial justice, social justice, community engagement as a high priority.”

“So we’re navigating that system and there are many of us in the field working as change agents to shift conversations, opportunity, dialogue and really have some opportunities to speak truth to power.”

Cardona offered that grantmakers need to be mindful of our contribution to the problem while using these problems as motivation to improve: “We need to recognize that the very institutions in which we work are part of the problem,” he said. But rather than be paralyzed by anxiety and guilt, recognition of philanthropy’s power and privilege, “should be a motor to propel this work forward.”

McAfee encouraged foundations to not conflate charity and transformation. The former means giving without regard to driving change, and he noted that many philanthropies operate from a charitable perspective but get frustrated because they’ve not been intentional about wanting to see systemic changes in the communities they fund. He also said foundations needed to be transparent about not always knowing what is required to move equity work forward and they need to embrace the fact that sometimes our constituents will not be happy with the tough decisions that must be made. But above all, “Our leadership voice has to be able to put race, class, gender and all of these intersections at the center in the work.”

Each speaker highlighted the importance of addressing biases and inequities of our internal operations. Cardona, for example, pointed out that there is a lack of understanding of the role of implicit bias in hiring and grantmaking. Hare echoed this idea, recommending that philanthropists do an internal analysis of policies around hiring, participation, grantmaking, and community engagement. She said there is a discomfort in addressing the topics of white supremacy, privilege, and access in philanthropy.

There is clearly a need for more discussion about race and ethnicity in philanthropy, but more than just talk is required to produce change. We need action. McAfee explained that language and frames have become the end product instead of the accelerant, but “people in Flint are still afraid to drink the water… Let’s stop being intoxicated by the frame and move results to scale.”

Hare suggested being honest about what our own organizations can, cannot and simply will not do. She said organizations have the power to set these boundaries. When it comes to the lack of diversity within our institutions, Cardona said we “need a mix of perspectives and lived experiences to make wise decisions.” McAfee’s call to action was a reminder of the transformation we can create, if we challenge ourselves, look at internal flaws, and constantly improve. “Philanthropy must own its power to set civic agendas,” he said.

What do you think? Share your thoughts about race and philanthropy on Twitter using #GrassrootsEd. Click here to tweet about this webinar.


Like what you've read?

Then don't miss a thing. Join the thousands of students, parents, educators, and activists who already receive our latest updates and resources!