Photo by Alvin Balemesa on Unsplash

In a recent article, part of a short report back series from this year’s Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) conference, I wrote about a leadership practice emerging amongst Black leaders, the exploration of Liberatory Leadership. Another concept showcased at the conference was the emergence of Black funds, philanthropic vehicles controlled by Black communities.

In a session titled, “Centering Black Brilliance: How Community Foundations Have Created Impactful Funding Initiatives to Support Black-led and Serving Organizations,” Jonathan Cunningham, Senior Program Officer at the Seattle Foundation, appeared to be on the leading edge of the concept as the principal architect behind the foundation’s new framework, REPAIR—Racially Equitable Philanthropy Aimed at Initiating Reparations—the only known philanthropic fund with the word “reparations” in its name.

The conception of Black funds is critically important to understand and learn from, in a context where, according to ABFE, 1.8 percent of philanthropic dollars go to Black-led organizations.

What is a Black-led organization? For Cunningham, it is an organization that has at least 50 percent Black leadership and board. Black leaders are the “brain trust” of Black funds, the informed, connected, respected (by their communities) leaders that make decisions.

A framework for redressing philanthropic underinvestment in Black organizations and communities, REPAIR is also a foundation-wide commitment to award $25 million to Black-led nonprofits and business contractors over five years, beginning in 2021, to support a Black economic ecosystem in King County, WA. The release of a study by Echoing Green and The Bridgespan Group, which revealed that the assets of Black-led nonprofits were 76 percent smaller than those of their white counterparts, influenced REPAIR’s development. As the Seattle Foundation’s web page states, with this data point, “philanthropy’s historic role in gatekeeping resources from Black-led organizations becomes more clear.” REPAIR is an effort by the foundation to repair the harm caused by such gatekeeping.

Cunningham shared that REPAIR’s first year of development was focused on building deep relationships with the community. His team created a feedback loop with the community that allowed Cunningham’s team to tell the foundation, “This is what Black people said…” His team was also guided by the field; it went on a listening tour of other organizations engaged in similar efforts, like Borealis and the East Bay Community Foundation.

Cunningham said that during this early phase, there was a need to heal past harms and relationships because some Black organizations did not get along and were competing with one another. It also emerged that staff at Black-led organizations—especially smaller, grassroots organizations—were overwhelmed and exhausted. Cunningham said, “they were often one paycheck away from being a client.” In response, the Seattle Foundation created a Black-led Joy and Wellness Fund, providing all the organizations that applied to the fund with up to $20,000. Some organizations used this to provide paid time off.

Cunningham says it took years to develop the framework. The process began with an internal examination of foundation process, with a racial equity lens. The results of this analysis were published in a 2018 report titled, “The Case for Investing in King County’s Black Led Organizations.” It found that:

  1. “BLOs primarily focus on serving Seattle residents, and nearly half serve South King County residents.”
  2. “Most BLOs have limited full-time staff and robust volunteer support.”
  3. “BLOs’ advisory structures are primarily boards of directors with predominantly Black membership.”
  4. “BLOs address a wide range of issues that impact the Black community.”
  5. “BLOs most commonly reported strong missions; skilled leadership, staff, and boards; and longevity as key strengths.”
  6. “Reported budget size varied widely, with BLOs most commonly reporting an operating budget less than $250,000.”
  7. “Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents reported three months or less of operating cash reserves.”
  8. “Funding sources vary widely among BLOs.”
  9. “Insufficient staff capacity was identified as a primary challenge in securing funding.”
  10. “Insufficient funding is a common challenge.”
  11. “BLOs reported dramatic and immediate impacts related to COVID-19 that amplified existing systemic inequities.”
  12. “Trust, clear communication, and desire to collaborate emerged as the most important facilitators of partnership.”

These findings paint a picture of what systemic racism looks like in the nonprofit sector. They also point to what is needed.

In 2019, REPAIR launched a pilot project to build relationships with Black-led organizations in King County by supporting them with general operating grants. This group of organizations developed into the Black-Led Organizations Cohort, or BLOC, which convenes monthly, builds partnerships in the community, and advises the foundation. BLOC developed REPAIR’s framework “to provide catalytic support for Black-led nonprofits in this region through strategic investments.”

Though REPAIR was originally conceived of as a one-year pilot, COVID, the prominent murders of Black people across the country, and the intentional relationships developed with the community led the Seattle Foundation to deepen its commitment to supporting King County in a sustained way. REPAIR uses the targeted universalism approach developed by john a. powell of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley which, by orienting all racial groups towards universal goals, helps create support for its efforts.

The Community Foundation of Richmond, Virginia, also has a Black fund called the Amandla Fund for Economic and Racial Justice. Stephanie Glenn, Vice President of Diversity and Engagement, leads it. Like Cunningham, Glenn highlights that the foundation could not be the decision maker, so it partnered with SisterFund and Ujima Legacy Fund, two Black giving circles. Green shared that 95 percent of the work went into creating the fund, and data was important. So, the Community Foundation also started with a report, which took two years to complete and identified two initial focus areas that are critical to Black economic mobility:

  1. Increasing Black homeownership
  2. Expanding Black leadership

Within the foundation, the team working on the fund is cross-functional, comprised of five staff lent to the project. Their focus was engaging Black leaders within their legacy of giving. The team found that Black people don’t give like traditional philanthropists. Like emerging, Black-led funds, Black donors are not focused on bridging gaps, but on removing systemic barriers. Glenn said, “Bridging the gap is imperative for surviving, but now is the time to deal with systemic, racist barriers to wealth.”

Amandla focuses on Black voice, and it values both expertise and lived experience. No report is due at the end of each year. In fact, Glenn said, “There are not a lot of metrics because we’re not talking about deficits but assets.” The fund has a goal of raising and awarding $10 million by 2025. It is currently at $2.5 million. Glenn shared, “We weren’t ready when we started. The process developed through the work, implementing and adjusting. So just start.” 

A third Black fund featured in the ABFE conference session was the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, also in Virginia. Vivian M. Oden, Vice President for Equity and Inclusion, shared that the foundation also began with a report, this one titled, “Missing Voices in Philanthropy” and published in 2019. The report was necessary because when it came to thinking about Black-led, Black-serving organizations, the foundation “didn’t even know who these were.” Through the exploration process it found 150 such organizations, 50 percent of which had never engaged with the foundation. “Even Black board members didn’t know about these Black organizations,” she said.

Oden led an equity assessment, created a board/staff committee, and “put community leaders in front of the board.” As a result, the foundation created a Black giving circle and endowed it with $500,000. In 2021, Oden led the development of another report, “Giving Black: Hampton Roads/The Genesis of American Black Philanthropy,” which explored Black giving in Hampton Roads, “the oldest continuous Black community in the United States” and “the site of one of the first free Black communities that created economic systems based on traditions from their homeland.”

The findings of the Giving Black report include:

  1. The top-ranking issue for Black donors is economic stability/wealth building, with racial and social justice ranked second.
  2. Black donors tend to see their fate as linked to the Black community as a whole.
  3. According to survey respondents, the majority of Black donors are “well-educated, mid- to upper-income Black women who are employed full-time and married or in domestic partnerships.”
  4. The top ranked organizations receiving money from Black donors are Black churches.
  5. Seven out of 10 Black donors rely on social media for information on giving.

Not surprisingly, a key recommendation was to “develop a regional strategy of economic stability and wealth building to strengthen bonds between different Black donors and communities of Hampton Roads.” Oden said, “the Giving Black report was data for the foundation and the community.”

Finally, LaDawn Sullivan, Director of the BRIC (Black Resilience in Colorado) Fund at The Denver Foundation, said about setting up a Black fund, “It’s hard work. There are roadblocks. White staff don’t understand.” So, in doing this work, you have to “protect your peace.”

BRIC is a grants program that addresses systemic racism across the seven-county Metro Denver region. The fund awards general operating grants and allows a community-led advisory committee to identify funding priorities. Grants typically range from $5,000 to $25,000.

Glenn agreed that this is hard work. She added, “You have to show up as your best self, as hard as that is. Sometimes it feels like we’re in a battle, infiltrated all the time. I take a rest when I can’t indulge in a meeting or conversation.”

These leaders shared that they have to be very careful when developing these funds. Sullivan said, “You have to understand internal dynamics. You’re challenging traditional philanthropic hierarchy.”

Glenn adds, “The process is how the work gets done.””

Oden said, “It’s a journey; code switching, conforming. You will hear my voice, my true self, but I will pick my battles. I have to bring my colleagues along.”

These leaders have had to create the conditions that honor Black leadership in their foundations. They agreed that COVID and the Black social justice movement contributed to the development of these funds. There was also a general desire to move out of a scarcity mindset into one of abundance, of understanding that Black communities have unique assets. They are opening up space for Black leaders to be real, share expertise, and not have to fit into nonprofit boxes.

What’s next for Black funds?

  1. Moving into policy space, advancing bills that appropriate money for intermediaries to mobilize resources for Black communities
  2. Becoming endowed, free standing, community-owned and supported
  3. Maintaining and elevating Black funds nationally (national funders to support local efforts)
  4. Giving larger grants
  5. Creating a Black funds network