Much of the philanthropic community is earning praise for its response to COVID-19. To date, funders across the country have provided over $10 billion in grants, prompting some to even dub the pandemic as philanthropy’s “shining moment.”
While it is encouraging to see many stepping up, foundations should use this experience to reflect on the strengths and shortfalls of our work, and how we can better wield our power and privilege to support communities in the future. COVID-19 is exacerbating inequities and rapidly harming people of color—especially Black people—who for centuries have been failed by our economic, education, and healthcare systems. As painful as the realities and data are, they are neither new nor shocking. We have seen this play out time and time again in the murder of Black people living in this country. Our systems are not broken; they are merely functioning as they were designed to operate—that is, privileging some while perpetually oppressing many. Racism has been the pandemic that Black people in America have endured for over 400 years.
Philanthropies have a responsibility to respond. We must rethink our approaches to giving and move forward from this crisis in ways that better address not just COVID-19, but anti-Blackness and other forms of injustice.
Doing so requires Sankofa, an examination of the past that prompts us to go back and have a candid conversation about where our philanthropy comes from. The same painful history that built our economy on the backs of Black people gave rise to much of the wealth accumulation that drives philanthropy. Foundations need to reckon with this and consider the harm it has caused underneath the admirable work they might be doing. Because philanthropy was born out of privilege and white supremacy, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable reality where overwhelmingly white organizations make decisions about where grants are distributed. Unsurprisingly, organizations led by and serving people of color are disproportionately left out because they do not meet the expectations of those in control.
Philanthropies should make space in staff and leadership meetings to contemplate these uncomfortable questions about the history of their money. These conversations must extend to board members as well, as they can help foundations consider how to rectify wrongdoing in meaningful and sustained ways.
This work also requires a shift in the systems, structures, and practices that tilt power toward foundations, which are all the more evident from inequities and injustices exacerbated by the pandemic as well as the state sanctioned violence and trauma inflicted on Black and Brown communities daily.
As funders, we tend to endlessly theorize and research to find the perfect match and “return on investment” for grants. We come up with big initiatives that we want communities to solve, without hearing from them about the challenges they face. Philanthropy has overlooked the lived experiences of grantees doing the work and their unique qualifications to design and implement solutions. This certainly rings true for Black communities and Black-led organizations. As philanthropists, we assume that our positions as stewards of resources make us objective experts on decision-making, what “impact” ought to look like, and timelines for results. Foundations, including my own, have not only overlooked organizations led by people of color, but have also dictated how organizations use funds, asking them to compile time-consuming reports after the grant ends.
As a result of all this, the things we ask communities to address in support of our own initiatives are often disconnected from what they say they need. As Will Cordery of Philanthropic Partners LLC so rightly notes, “It did not however take long for philanthropy to begin to shift its priority from funding Black-led movement to funding specific interventions it thought were best for Black communities.” Funders must recognize that it is our duty and privilege to ensure this does not happen again.
The unprecedented consequences of this pandemic caused many foundations to pivot toward a practice grantees have long advised us to adopt: offering more flexible funding to support their very real needs. More than ever, we are seeing examples of good philanthropic practices coming to fruition in response to this crisis.
It would be a disservice if philanthropy only considered this shift as a unique exception to its arcane rules and traditions. Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, we must also explicitly and unapologetically address the pandemic of racism and anti-Blackness that lives in the fabric of our society. Listening, adaptability, community-centeredness, flexibility, trust, and humility must be the new standard for funders. This involves creating community advisory committees that permanently center grantee voices and communities’ experiences into a foundation’s decision-making. It means making reporting requirements less burdensome, giving organizations more authority over how they use their grant money, and fostering more balanced relationships with grantees. Even before COVID-19, funders like the Whitman Institute and the Hyams Foundation made reciprocity part of their regular practice, using their voices to stand behind communities leading the work.
It will take time for philanthropy to break old habits, which is why foundations must be deliberately developmental—purposefully growing toward more equitable and justice-centered grantmaking. This starts with internalizing the belief that the wealth operated and controlled by our foundations is not our money at all. Instead, it is on us to figure out how to return that money to those to whom it belongs. Black people and communities deserve much of that return in the form of investments in their communities and lives.
Foundations should be open to the discomfort that comes with unlearning the old routines that keep us stuck in the same way of doing things. For example, despite research that shows the importance of funders supporting organizations with general operating funds, the percentage of general operating support grants has not increased over the past decade. As many yearn for a “return to normal,” more of us hope to invite thinking and take actions that compel philanthropy to innovate toward a normal that’s radically different and more just. One that, for instance, views significantly increased funding and general operating support grants for organizations serving Black people and all people of color as a widespread practice, rather than an exception.
Philanthropy needs to take what we have learned over the last few months—and frankly over the last several hundred years—and refocus our work to foster more trusting and reciprocal relationships with our grantee partners. This moment requires us to address the urgency of the situation while confronting the underlying injustices that make this emergency so volatile. A global pandemic, coupled with uprisings that call for an end to police brutality and anti-Black racism, is a good enough time to radically interrogate the role of philanthropy and rethink our priorities; to create time and opportunities to ask existential questions about the nature, purpose, and impact of our society’s institutions; and to support radical, permanent shifts in values and practices across our field. Rather than remaining stagnant, investing in small incremental changes, making safe bets, and recycling the tired playbooks that brought us here, let’s commit to a world of philanthropy that helps us build a stronger, more equitable and just future for everyone. Communities of color deserve nothing less. Black lives matter.