Racial Justice

The Nonprofit Quarterly and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) are pleased to present the fourth in a series of articles based on insights and lessons from Philamplify, NCRP’s new initiative that combines expert assessments with stakeholder feedback to help improve the effectiveness and impact of the country’s foundations.


A recent Washington Post series on black homeownership contained startling national statistics: The net worth of the typical African American family declined by one-third between 2010 and 2013, significantly more than white or Hispanic families in the same period. It also noted that the “top half of African American families” has been left with less than half the wealth they possessed in 2007, compared to the 14 percent decline experienced by white families. Ultimately, the series reported, “the typical African American family was left with about eight cents for every dollar of wealth held by whites.”

In the midst of frequent reports like this one and an increasingly vocal movement for racial justice, it’s an opportune time to reflect on how we define progress toward racial equity and, in light of those various definitions, assess foundation responses to systemic inequities. NCRP’s Philamplify initiative has been a great tool for learning more about philanthropic approaches to equity issues. We are discovering how important it is for funders and their grantees, and researchers and those providing feedback, to have a common understandings of terms like “racial equity.” Lack of a common frame can make it difficult for foundations to assess their effectiveness in this area.

One of our assessment criteria examines the extent to which a foundation’s grantmaking and operational strategies demonstrate its commitment to underserved communities by addressing sources of inequity. We defined inequity as disparate outcomes, impacts, access, treatment, or opportunity for underserved communities based on race, ethnicity, income, gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, or other disadvantaged populations.” To measure this criterion, we review a foundation’s mission, goals, strategies, grant guidelines, and recent grants; interviews with staff (if the foundation cooperates), grantees, peers and other knowledgeable stakeholders; and grantee survey questions. We look at strategy as well as impact: Does the foundation say it’s trying to achieve greater equity, and is there tangible evidence that it’s doing so?

Results from the first round of assessments, released in May 2014, demonstrate why we need to seek out multiple sources of information to gain an understanding of a foundation’s approach to equity issues. The contrasts between each foundation’s own language around equity, grantees’ perceptions, and what other stakeholders say are instructive.

Since foundations may not always frame their work using the words “equity” or “justice,” what are other indications that they seek to address these issues? Because the roots of inequity are systemic, and those suffering inequities are populations that are traditionally marginalized (for their race, income, ethnicity, gender, LGBT status, disability, incarceration record, etc.), we look for evidence that a foundation seeks fundamental change that benefits specific marginalized communities. If a foundation is funding direct services for marginalized groups but is not also trying to change systems, can it be said to be advancing equity? I would argue that it is not.

Services may mitigate inequity, but alone they do not address its causes. In their racial justice grantmaking assessment, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE) and Race Forward (formerly Applied Research Center) asserts: “Racial justice work specifically targets institutional and structural racism through a continuum of activities that can include research, education, organizing, advocacy and movement building.” Conversely, if a foundation seeks systemic reforms without targeting specific populations to benefit from those reforms, is it advancing equity? Not necessarily, because reforming systems without attending to which populations are experiencing disparate outcomes and why may not solve the inequity.

To help us understand intent and strategy, we reviewed materials from the first five foundations we “Philamplified.” Some foundations were very explicit about equity or showed a commitment to systems change benefiting specific disenfranchised communities. As Table A shows, Lumina Foundation for Education and The California Endowment (TCE) each used explicit equity language in framing the problems of unequal higher education and health outcomes, respectively. They each identified specific populations intended to benefit from closing the equity gap, and both were explicit about using strategies that would change the policies, structures and systems perpetuating these inequities. The William Penn Foundation (WPF) also addressed equity issues, specifically in K-12 education, and identified public funding formulas as one systemic solution. WPF did not go as far as the other two in specifying race as a dimension of inequity, preferring to keep the focus on income (although the public school population in Philadelphia is over half African American and 85 percent non-white). And it did not explicitly address equity in its other program areas, watershed protection and arts and culture.

Table A: Review of 2013-14 Foundation Materials