The uprisings for racial justice in 2020 forced many in our society to reckon with the role they play in perpetuating the violent, destructive forces of racism and anti-Blackness.
As a Black woman who grew up in South Africa under the ravages of apartheid and who now works as a senior leader within a large, US-based, global philanthropic organization, I—Nicolette—had a moment of reckoning where I had to ask whether and in what ways my institutional role perpetuates anti-Blackness and a colonial mindset in relation to Black and Brown communities in Africa.
As a white, female executive director of a grantmaking organization that has only ever funded community organizations in Southern and Eastern Africa, I—Nina—wished that it hadn’t taken George Floyd’s murder to have my fellow funders and philanthropists wake up. I was also reminded again that the system of Global North philanthropy favors people who look like me. The very fact I was chosen for this role—having never lived on the African continent—was perpetuating neocolonialism, white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
Still, we were tentatively hopeful about philanthropy’s swift public response to calls for racial justice and the promises made by many organizations to do better through more funding, intentional reflection, and policy change.
Two years later, however, on the eve of Juneteenth 2022, with evidence that philanthropic pledges have largely been superficial and not matched with dollars, it remains to be seen whether philanthropy will meaningfully introspect on the role that colonialism, white saviorism, and paternalism—aspects of white supremacy—play in our work and how we spend our dollars.
This Juneteenth, Global North philanthropy needs to reflect on the legacies of imperialism and colonialism that allowed it to make and sequester wealth. It must also reflect on how this wealth is given away. We must not fool ourselves—philanthropy has its roots in colonial power dynamics; not just in terms of how wealth has been and continues to be acquired but also in the assumptions inherent in money being “given” by people who think they know what is best to “save” poor Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples across Sub-Saharan Africa, the US, and elsewhere.
In its crudest form—and regardless of any good intentions—this type of philanthropy is white saviorism. It follows frighteningly similar extractive models and the principles of white supremacy, which is characterized by the same white dominance and power dynamics of slavery, apartheid, and the exploitation of peoples and territories.
For decades, problems and solutions have been defined and determined by those with a limited understanding of the community in question. For a long time, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) community organizations have had to adopt ways of thinking about and framing their work to conform to how white funders characterize a problem and import a solution to obtain access to resources. And every five years, when the funder does a “strategy review,” these community organizations must reimagine themselves in the image of a new problem analysis to continue to receive funding.
This Juneteenth, we must interrogate how our histories continue to shape the present. We need to reckon with how past harmful practices continue to persist today—often masked by conversations around “strategic impact” and “results”—and the very real harm this does to communities around the world.
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We’ve heard about how philanthropy is ready to meaningfully address white saviorism and colonial models of funding. We have even seen admirable and bold, large investments. However, we need to do more. We must change how these big, bold investments are structured and who they benefit if we are to build more equitable partnerships. Philanthropy needs to grapple with this holistically, but it’s especially important for those of us who explicitly frame our work in social justice. While we are increasingly updating our lexicon to include movement-aligned language and expanding who we fund to include more social justice oriented organizations, those of us who are truly interested in justice must also examine and interrogate our own power and histories, and how we move from performative statements and rhetoric to meaningful change. We must decenter ourselves and our theories of how to solve problems and center those we claim to want to serve by adopting their language and their theories of change.
At its core, a radical change in philanthropy means this: We need to cede power to people and get out of their way. We need to move towards connection, relationships, and trust our central operating principles. Our approaches need to be focused on justice, solidarity, and ultimately, economic redistribution. We need to do more than shifting money or coming up with “big, bold bets” that do little more than create seats at the colonial master’s table on the master’s terms. It’s time for us to step aside and support others to build a fundamentally different table.
So how can we do this? By confronting the underlying white supremacy that we (and our institutions) may espouse. We can start by asking—and answering—the following questions:
- Where did the money that we “give” come from?
- How do we understand our relationship to wealth, power, and whiteness?
- Why do we continue to privilege the experience, knowledge, and understanding of those (often white development workers, academics, and white-led nonprofits) who are far removed from the issues we say we want to solve?
- Why do we mistrust the capacity, strategies, and actions of BIPOC communities that we say we want to support, “amplify,” and “empower”?
- Do we ask those we fund what they want or are we the ones defining problems, opportunities, and measures of scale and impact? And who within our organizations really get to decide?
- What makes us think that our capacity, strategies, and actions are more likely to succeed than those of people who live the reality every day?
- Why do we trust some organizations over others, just because they are bigger, have more resources, or use English as their first language for operations and knowledge production?
- Are our strategies for greater localization reimagining agency and power, or are they reproducing unequal power dynamics in different ways?
- Are we moving substantial resources to BIPOC-led organizations and movements and enabling their freedom to use those resources as they see fit, or are we requiring them to follow our terms and mimic or mirror Global North models of capacity, scale, and impact?
- Are our funding processes infused with the same values and justice-orientation we see in our public communications? Do we appropriate the work of our grantees and their communities for our own aims or definitions of success?
Once we have taken the time to answer these questions, we need to do something about them. It’s not enough to say to BIPOC-led organizations and communities, “We see you.” Philanthropy must move beyond navel-gazing and simply recognizing the systems and structures that have created and maintained the conditions of instability and scarcity experienced by many around the world, but especially in the Global South. We need to act. We need to:
- Treat BIPOC communities and BIPOC-led organizations with respect for their own agency and expertise, not as vehicles to carry out our own predetermined agendas. Support them to decide what success might look like and how best to measure it.
- Listen to communities, treat their perspectives as evidence, and center their decision making to actually change the way we work, in the same way we do with “evidence” generated in Ivy League universities and other academic institutions. Not all evidence is academic. Not all experts are white or from the Global North. “Best practices” does not only come from a small proportion of the world.
- Think long-term and systemically, sticking with organizations or an issue for the decades will require us to unpick and dismantle systems of oppression. Resist the temptation to support short-term fixes focused on symptoms just because they’re on-trend, quick to show results, or fit neatly into our funding cycle.
- Critically examine how our grantmaking practices perpetuate white supremacy and re-imagine and rebuild our systems and approaches so they are deeply rooted in trust, mutual accountability, and a sense of the redistributive power of our money.
- Know that trusting communities and shifting power is not the opposite of impact. Impact means centering the power of those we serve to create change within and among themselves.
And for those who don’t fund organizations rooted in community, it is time for us to ask our grantees the same critical questions we asked ourselves earlier—and in response, potentially rethink not only how but who we fund.
None of us set out to be harmful. Many of us in philanthropy inherited unjust and unequal systems and institutional structures that we did not build. But we need to be honest that these systems and structures continue to privilege those of us who are born in the Global North and especially those who are white.
This Juneteenth, our message to you is that we in philanthropy are not trapped: We have the power of money and can—and must—free ourselves from the systemic barriers that hinder our imaginations and contributions to meaningful impact and change. If you fund community organizations, it’s time to free them as well—so that they may truly realize their own visions and goals—by stepping out of the way and being more deliberate about working together to build a more just, collective, and participatory system of partnership.
We have the will and learning from others to fuel such radically transformative change, but we must remember: good intentions are not a substitute for justice.