There has been an admittedly welcome rush to support Black and brown communities and causes in our national reckoning with systemic racism. Some $5 billion of philanthropic funding has flowed in support of racial equity work in the months since the murder of George Floyd. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently noted, that is more than had been granted in the past 11 years.
This funding has accompanied a surging interest in funding organizations led by Black and brown people. This movement is driven by the recognition that truly knowing the communities you intend to serve, sharing a lived experience with them, is a powerful asset.
This shift in philanthropic attitudes is just in time, but the reality is that these funders must look not only where they put their money to work, but also how they put their money to work. Specifically, when investing in Black and brown led organizations, a failure to recognize the dangers and systemic disadvantage faced by the organizations themselves can undermine the efficacy of new investments.
As we stand on the front lines of the anti-racist fight, threats abound. We live in society that is dangerous for Black and brown people. The president has told white supremacists to “stand by,” that they should seemingly wait for a future call to unleash even more racist violence. The danger in doing anti-racist work only continues to grow.
Beyond this constant threat of violence as we undertake our work, organizations led by people of color face material barriers to mission fulfillment that white led organizations, by and large, do not. These barriers range from more limited access to startup capital to smaller and less-resourced professional networks. These differences have big consequences.
A recent study by Echoing Green and the Bridgespan Group found that early-stage Black-led organizations have on-average 24% lower revenues. As a result, organizations with Black leaders are working with a very different safety net than their white counterparts. What would be a small stumble for white led organizations can be a catastrophic fall for Black and brown led organizations. It can feel like all chutes and no ladders.
But it goes beyond that. I know white colleagues who have received funding for an idea sketched on a napkin. Any Black and brown non-profit leader can tell you of the binders of plans, contingencies and evidence we must show up with just to get in the door. We are constantly required to prove we belong, that we are capable, that we are competent in a way that few white organization leaders must.
Our deep understanding of the communities that we serve is also a double-edged sword. The solutions that we know our communities need, based on personal historical moments living while Black in America, often do not line up neatly with the professionalized theories of change of big philanthropy. The power of an aunt to convince a young child to stay in school, the impact of a rec league coach taking a child to eat after practice — these small touches of humanity can have a profound impact on the trajectory of a young life of struggle. But these are dynamics that do not lend themselves to neat graphs and bar charts. They are hard to distill down to KPIs. And good luck quantifying their ROI or demonstrating their value-add.
Despite that, or perhaps, because of it, Black and brown led organizations are forced to jump through far more compliance hoops. The Echoing Green-Bridgespan Group study also found that Black-led organizations receive less than one third of the “no-strings-attached” funding that their white-led peer organizations enjoy. Black-led organizations serving Black boys, the study found, receive a galling 91% less unrestricted funding. We are less trusted, it would seem, to do the work closest to our lived experience.
Fully embracing the methods and the missions of Black and brown led organizations will require a deconstruction of the confining strictures that so often dictate the flow of funding and support for equity work. If we do that, we can then together re-architect a more just and effective approach to the funding and fulfillment of equity work.
Many funders are beginning to do just that. They are working hard to embrace anti-racism in how they function internally and how they interact with the organizations and causes that they support. That means taking a look at the people who populate their boardrooms and offices. Representation matters, but it is in stunningly short supply: 92% of foundation presidents are white, as are 83% of their full-time staff. Elevating and amplifying Black and brown voices and perspectives within the funding community is just as essential as pushing money out to organizations who are led by them. Not all Black and brown experience is the same, to be sure, but there is no substitute for the perspective and drive that a life lived so proximate to structural racism can bring.
In tandem with greater internal representation, funders can conduct their work in a way that more effectively supports Black and brown leaders. I am a proud member of Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC), an organization committed to supporting Black and brown leaders in the education sector as well as in sectors that intersect with education. EdLoC’s deliberate path of support focuses on building capacity within organizations and developing members and grantees as leaders. As a result, these leaders are able to do their best work, not simply because the funding is there, but because rather than just a safety net, EdLoC provides what Carmita Seeman, a fellow EdLoc member and founder and CEO of the Surge Institute, calls a “trampoline to success.”
We must recognize Douglass’s words as the universal command for all of us — not just for Black and brown folks on the front lines. The funder community must similarly agitate, internally and externally, no matter how new or uncomfortable it may be.
This blog originally was published on Blavity.com.