The Possible Philanthropic Response to Trayvon Martin

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Initially angered and frustrated by the Zimmerman verdict regarding the killing of young Trayvon Martin, Dr. Robert Ross, President and CEO of The California Endowment, now describes himself as infused with “a sense of strategic resolve.”

“It appears that the Zimmerman jury handed our cause a gift,” Ross writes in the California Endowment blog. “In the arc of social justice, equity, and civil rights, outrage is the fuel for civic action.”

Under the rubric of “Hoodies Up for Trayvon,” Ross describes three elements of his personal strategic resolve: to “unabashedly declare a special brand of love for my sons and brothers: young men of color” who he says are “valued, cherished, appreciated, and embraced”; “to visit the notion of a mutually purposeful social contract”; and to “act—Fathers must be better fathers, men must be better husbands and partners. Mentors are needed. Schools must return as portals of opportunity, and not pipelines towards prison. Prisons and juvenile halls must breathe restoration and rehabilitation, rather than a culture of punitive vengeance and hopelessness.”

Although expressed in purely personal rather than institutional terms, Ross’s post has an underlying resonance for philanthropy, since he heads the fifteenth-largest foundation in the U.S., with assets of over $3.66 billion. What is philanthropy prepared to do—and what should it do—in response to the Zimmerman verdict?

That was the ostensible question behind an online gathering of philanthropists convened Saturday by Occupy Philanthropy (with a mission to “galvanize philanthropy as a whole to be more responsive to the call for social and economic justice so clearly and resonantly articulated by the Occupy moment), the EDGE Funders Alliance (to “increase resources for community well-being and transnational organizing in ways that promote justice and build lasting, meaningful change…addressing the systemic nature of the social, economic and ecological crises threatening the future of our planet”), the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing (“to substantially increase the philanthropic investment in and strengthen the organizational capacities of youth organizing groups across the country”), and others.

Drawing on a little of the Occupy call and other perspectives that have been published online, the contours of a philanthropic response are developing.

Ross’s statement reflects high-level commitment of the California Endowment to the issue of black men and boys. Ross himself took a three-month leave from the foundation to research and create a platform on the challenges of black men and boys, calling for action to redress conditions such as the 84 percent of black boys in urban areas not reading at a third-grade level, the overreliance of suspensions and expulsions for disciplining male black students, and the chronic absenteeism of black pupils. During this past year’s Council on Foundations meeting, the Endowment was instrumental in bringing together a couple of dozen other foundations to pledge “to form an alliance to address the issues, explore promising strategies and research the data to support action…on issues facing black men and boys of color.”

Participating in the Occupy call was Rashid Shabazz, a program officer of the Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement, another nationally visible foundation effort on black men and boys. However, the challenge for foundations is to turn this concern for black men and boys into concrete grantmaking programs built not from national experts’ social engineering, but from the explanations of groups on the ground in local communities as to what is specifically needed from foundations there. While it is not possible to know exactly how these efforts are turning out, foundations are responding. In Pittsburgh, for example, the Heinz Endowments are holding community focus groups and working with a local advisory board to implement its African American Men and Boys Initiative. If it lives up to its mission statement, the program holds promise:

The condition of Pittsburgh’s African American men and boys is a consequence of both historical and current injustices, including enslavement, structural racism and a narrow definition of black manhood. We respect the historical context and scope of the task, as we move to support the African American community in its continuing effort to address the challenges for men and boys. We recognize that the needed change will require active participation and support on the part of a significant number of individuals and institutions in the Pittsburgh region.

Based in Miami, the Knight Foundation offers a Black Male Engagement program with grantmaking in Knight communities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Miami for “engaging black males in what matters to them” (the example cited a $492,000 grant for a e-mentoring program) and “challeng[ing] negative stereotypes of black males by engaging thousands of others in the real life stories and positive community actions led by them.” The Schott Foundation website describes its multi-partner Black Male Donor Collaborative aimed at “identify[ing] successful program interventions and policy levers to address the achievement disparities impacting the most extremely underperforming group in New York—black males.” The focus on identifying and overcoming disparities is apparently—and positively—key to these programs.

Represented on the call, the elite social entrepreneurship organization, Echoing Green, started a program in late 2012 called the Black Male Achievement Fellowship, awarding eight fellowships of $70,000 plus 18 months of technical assistance for black men who are “generating new ideas and best practices in the areas of education, family, and work such as initiatives related to fatherhood, mentoring, college preparatory programs, community-building, supportive wage work opportunities, communications, and philanthropic leadership.” On the Echoing Green website, a video describing the fellowship features OSF’s campaign director, Shawn Dove, explaining the program as well as the OSF campaign. Like Echoing Green historically, there is an elite dimension to its BMA Fellowships, which may be necessary in some way to overcome disparities in leadership.

On the Occupy conference call, Lani Shaw of the General Services Foundation remarked that one of the problems is the lack of black males in foundation program officer positions—or blacks in general in foundation decision-making roles. It’s undeniably important to strengthen the leadership cadre in foundations so more people like Bob Ross can establish philanthropic grantmaking priorities and get foundations to move creatively and forcefully on those issues revealed once again through the death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman.

The specifics behind Shaw’s point are revealed to an extent by the self-reported statistics on foundation staffing in a recent report from the Council on Foundations (with 857 foundations reporting full-time paid positions):

Foundation Position





Chief executive/president





Associate director/executive VP





Vice president (program)





Program director





Senior program officer





Program officer





Program associate





Source: Council on Foundations, 2012 Grantmakers Salary and Benefits Report, Table 2.6


These self-reported statistics on less than 900 foundations tend to emphasize larger institutional funders than the vast array of smaller, family foundations that likely employ less people of color. For blacks, COF doesn’t break out the data in its report with this specificity, but the statistics on blacks in foundation positions reflects a subset of all persons of color in foundation positions:

Foundation Position

Percentage held by blacks (2012 COF report)

Percentage held by blacks (2010 COF report)

All professional positions



Chief executive/president



Program officer



Sources: Council on Foundations, 2012 Grantmakers Salary and Benefits Report, Table 2.8; Council on Foundations, 2010 Grantmakers Salary and Benefits Report, Table 2.10


Black men are particularly underrepresented in professional decision-making capacities in foundations, usually from one-half to one-third the proportion of positions held by black women:



Share of all full-time paid positions (n=841 foundations)

Share of full-time CEO positions (n=799 foundations)

Share of full-time program officer positions (n=325 foundations)

Black women




Black men




Source: Council on Foundations, 2012 Grantmakers Salary and Benefits Report, Tables 0.1, 0.2, and 0.3


It bears out Shaw’s contention to some extent that blacks are not gaining in their representation in key decision-making positions in foundations. Although there is no necessary correlation that increased diversity in foundation leadership automatically leads to more attentive grantmaking for racial/ethnic groups, the relative absence of blacks in senior positions—particularly black men, given the preponderance of women in many foundation staff positions—suggests that top-level resonance with the challenges facing black men and boys might be somewhat attenuated.

One of the speakers on the conference call was Michael Skolnick, identified in the Occupy conference call agenda as a trustee of the Trayvon Martin Foundation, established by young Trayvon’s parents, Sabrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, and as “political director to hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and the co-president of” Skolnick described the foundation’s intended programs, such as supporting advocacy against “stand your ground” laws, sponsoring family retreat workshops for families with victims of gun violence, funding to help families pay for the burials of children killed due to violence, and support for a conflict mediation program that would hopefully lead to the establishment of a Trayvon Martin high school. The foundation has trademarked Trayvon Martin, Skolnick said, to prevent other people from making money from his name, though presumably that allows the foundation to have better control of its own efforts to raise money by selling Trayvon Martin t-shirts. Presumably, the foundation’s program as outlined by Skolnick is still taking shape, as the only program initiative easily visible on the foundation’s website was a plan for a monthly prayer phone call on the first Wednesday of every month following the conclusion of the trial.

Skolnick’s involvement is interesting in that he identified himself as a full-time employee of Russell Simmons, who just last week was excoriated for posting an offensive “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape.” The fact that so many women were truly appalled at the video and nonplussed by Simmons’s “silly me” apology that accompanied his pulling it down from YouTube constituted a distinctive reminder of what is needed from philanthropy, given Skolnick’s presence.

While the attention to the needs of black men and boys is long overdue, it shouldn’t go without attention to the needs of black women as well. In fact, the issue is addressing not just the disparities affecting black men and boys, but the disparities affecting the entire black community. There are multitudes of huge disparities between whites and blacks:

  • For the 2009-2010 school year, a study of 72,000 public schools found that black students comprised only 18 percent of the students, but 46 percent of students suspended more than once, 39 percent of students expelled, and 36 percent of students arrested on campus.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, the median net worth of white households was $113,149, twenty times more than the $5,677 median net worth of black households. From 2005 to 2009, a period including part of the national recession, the net wealth of black households fell 53 percent compared to only 16 percent for white households.
  • Multiple studies show consistent disparities in the health treatments of whites and blacks in hospitals and by general practitioners concerning pain medication, cesarean deliveries, treatment for pneumonia, kidney transplants, and other issues, all leaving blacks with less adequate treatment than comparable white patients.

The philanthropic answer might be found in a broader conception of addressing racial justice and challenging racial inequities. For example, on the Occupy call, Eric Braxton of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing reminded participants of issues that go beyond gender-specificity. He noted that Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have even been on the streets of Sanford the day Zimmerman killed him had he not been suspended from school. The racial disparities in public school disciplinary actions have gotten attention around the nation, including the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, even prompting civil rights investigations of specific school districts, such as Seattle’s.

Braxton also pointed out the role of Dream Defenders, which maintained a 31-day vigil at the Florida Capitol until just last week. Dream Defenders got the House Speaker, Will Weatherford, to promise to hold a hearing on Florida’s stand-your-ground law, and brought consistent attention to Florida’s policies and practices regarding racial profiling and disproportionate sentencing of blacks. To some degree, the Dream Defenders’ agenda suggests directions for a rounding out of philanthropy’s potential response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the jury decision regarding George Zimmerman. Foundations need to focus on a more comprehensive attack on the disparities affecting the black population of the U.S., but make their focus concrete. The hard but necessary route of action is to fund organizing by people-of-color-led organizations mobilizing for policy changes that address and help reverse the persistent and increasing disparities between whites and blacks in this nation.

Is philanthropy responding? Are the programs of the California Endowment, the Knight Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and the Schott Foundation adding up to a philanthropic movement that gets serious about the disparities that affect not only black men and boys, but the entire black community? Despite some good initiatives, it appears that philanthropy has a long way to go before the commitment of a dozen or so foundations to issues concerning black men and boys turns into broader philanthropic commitment to address persistent social and economic disparities between blacks and whites in this nation. 

  • Rashid Shabazz

    i only wanted to add that there is a complete resource and information on philanthropic investments for black men and boys at

  • Tasasha

    I am in complete agreement with more philanthropic support going towards fighting the structural racism that impedes the life chances of Black boys, for example the criminalization of black boys, school discipline policies that funnel Black boys into the juvenile justice system, police brutality and murder, and criminal laws that target them for arrest and incarceration. But, I am very adamant that Black girls are not be ignored. Black girls are also victims of these same policies, and have their own unique challenges in surviving a society that oppresses them based on both their race and gender. There seems to be a false belief that Black girls do not need as much help or resources as Black boys, but that is not true. Black girls are the fasted growing juvenile prison population, and are disproportionately targeted by zero tolerance school discipline policies. Black girls and women are also victims of police brutality and are ensnared in the prison industrial complex. What I would like to see are movements and support towards addressing the unique needs of both Black boys and girls, and also poor Black communities as a whole. Black boys and girls are victims of violence in our communities, and for girls, additional violence including intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape.

    Over the last year of reading article after article about increase philanthropic support for Black boys and men, my one overriding thought was what about black girls? I want to see more assistance and support for all people in our communities.

  • Susan Taylor Batten

    I applaud the philanthropic leaders who are moving the work around Black male achievement. It is important work being led by (mostly) Black foundation staff. That is why having Black leaders in the ranks matters greatly. But more Black leadership and/or leadership of color alone will nott facilitate a broader “philanthropic committment” to address racial and economic disparities. Responsive grantmaking to and for Black communities requires talking about race and racism; yet we live in a country where philanthropic and federal leaders…both Black and white…do not see the connection! I’ve been amazed how many times since the Zimmerman verdict I have heard someone say, “we need action but talking about race is not the answer…that doesn’t work.” That in and of itself says a lot about the lack of sophistication in this area! The road ahead includes building competency in this country about the legacy of historical racism and the continuing effects of contemporary bias and inequity. Foundations must have intentional conversations about the implications of race on their investments; both how they invest their grant dollars AND how they invest their endowments. Foundations need to be clear that diversity (which is the focus of much of the field) is about PEOPLE but equity (there is less focus here) is about RESULTS. I worry that the Zimmerman verdict will lead to another “Katrina moment” where foundations are driven by “disaster” and/or “flash” funding yet the resources leave when the issue leaves the front pages. But I don’t doubt that the fearless leaders who have been fighting this fight for Black people generally and Black males specifically long before the verdict will continue and they have organized a strong base for their work. Perhaps that base can influence mainstream foundations in some way.

  • Robert Lewis

    Great article! You should also be aware of another groundbreaking philanthropic initiative called BLOOM. It’s housed at the California Community Foundation in Los Angeles. It’s focused on Black male youth (ages 14 – 18) living in South L.A. who have been exposed to the county probation system to redirect them toward improved educational and employment opportunities. It is the only philanthropic initiative in the country specifically focused on Black male youth who have been involved with the juvenile delinquency system. Please go to the following website for details:

  • Jerry

    Whitewash and Band-aids?

    While the societal facts conjure little argument, I would like to open the possibility that we are focused on placing band-aids on the wounds and possibly whitewashing the bigger picture.

    Are we as people who give to causes perpetuating the very cause we attempt to repair?

    For example: We say we want to eliminate racism/segregation, yet we create foundations to help a specific racial, gender or sexual preference group instead of addressing society as a more complete organism.

    Are we missing the bigger picture?

    We create programs to address the needs of teen boys and girls, or young men and women, but have we considered how to stop (or reduce) the flow of people getting into these situations? Of course, we presuppose that our efforts would self-perpetuate back into the community, but is it really happening at a level to make an impact?

    – Do we need to break the chain of dependence that often cripples families for multiple generations?
    – Should we place more effort on the items that prevent the growth of or hinder self-worth?
    – Could we place our finances and energies on base-lining family units on hard work and communal care so they can regain the lost art of community?

    As once was so wisely stated…

    “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
    – “I Have a Dream”, August 28, 1963

    Are we creating an open and inviting environment (table of brotherhood) or fueling additional segregation? With the appropriate funding and collaboration, many experiments could be done to make a lasting difference.

    Respectfully submitted.

  • Bob Ross

    Thanks to Rick Cohen for simultaneously offering a pat on the back to those philanthropic institutions who are stepping up to address the crisis of young men of color, as well as a “kick in the rear” to the broader field. My concern is that the Trayvon Martin events offer a window of opportunity for action — but windows, by definition, both open and close. To the thoughtful comments regarding “what about black girls?”, our foundation believes in a systems approach in advocacy; as such, efforts to advance restorative justice, mentoring, youth employment, or school-based mental health supports — which would clearly benefit young black males — would demonstrably benefit all at-risk young people. Black males reside at the extreme end of inequitable practices, but are not alone. They are the canaries in the coal mine of vulnerable children.

    Bob Ross
    California Endowment