5 Mistakes Mainstream Philanthropy Makes When Investing in Communities of Color

Johane Alexis-Phanor
4 min readApr 20, 2018
Photo by Luc van Loon on Unsplash

Mainstream philanthropy overwhelmingly does not represent the communities it serves. An article from the Nonprofit Quarterly puts it best when it states, “Lack of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in philanthropy enlarges the understanding gap between philanthropy and the communities meant to be final beneficiaries. And assumptive errors that flow from a vastly different experience of the world… are worsened by the philanthropists’ own positions of power in the grantee/grantor relationship.” In this post, I explore 5 assumptive errors mainstream philanthropy makes when investing in communities of color and what it can do to remedy these mistakes.

1) Mainstream Philanthropy Prioritizes the Built Environment Over People

Mainstream philanthropy has recently become enamored with building green and sustainable environments while oftentimes overlooking the people living within those same communities. Funders love to see sustainability buzzwords like rain barrels, green roofs, LEED-ND, zero net energy, and community shared solar. While achieving environmental justice is a worthy cause, sustainability HAS to be linked to greater economic opportunity and better health outcomes in communities of color. We cannot limit the impact of our work to how many trees are to be built on a greenway or how many homes are to receive deep energy retrofits. Green and sustainable practices must have a meaningful effect on the financial wellbeing of people of color and on the rates of asthma and other chronic illness in our communities.

2) Mainstream Philanthropy Favors Deficit-Based Giving

As far as mainstream philanthropy is concerned, the more “at risk”, “underserved”, “underrepresented”, “disadvantaged”, “80% of the AMI”, “unemployed”, “underemployed”, “under-resourced” a community and its members are, the better. Proposals and projects with this deficit-based approach are the ones that receive funding. Program after program aims to address disparities in communities of color while failing to recognize the strengths and unique opportunities that can flourish within those communities with the right investments.

3) Mainstream Philanthropy Caters to Self-Centric Giving

While I believe that presenting a value proposition to a funder is important, sometimes the benefit to the donor is prioritized over the benefit to the community. I’ve been to events where the majority of the time was spent discussing special donor privileges like being able to meet local celebrities and attend exclusive events with little to no mention of social impact. In our field, we often advise each other to make donor centered appeals. Smaller organizations that aren’t as well connected but are getting the work done cannot compete in this environment. Ultimately, benefit to the community needs to outweigh benefit to the donor.

4) Mainstream Philanthropy Loves Bikes and Believes Bikes Can Solve all Social Problems

Mainstream philanthropy loves bike shops, biking, bike rolls, bike lanes, sharrows, bike sharing, and bikeability projects. Somehow, the answer to ending obesity, addressing the lack of healthy food in a neighborhood, and ending poverty all rely on biking. However, increased physical activity in communities of color is more often an outcome of many other measures than it is a primary strategy for social change. Biking cannot be a good method for fixing anything in a community where traffic and public safety are major issues. Whether it’s a lack of infrastructure or a lack of safety that causes people to be inactive, we need to get to the root of the problem first before we tell communities of color that all they need to do is bike more.

5) Mainstream Philanthropy Thinks it Can “Save” Communities of Color

I once attended a donor/volunteer event where the call action was preceded with a story about a young girl named Tameko (they made sure her name was ethnic lest you mistake this young woman for anyone other than a person of color). Tameko was a poor, homeless, single mother, who was also pregnant with a second child. She lived in a one room shelter at the top of a hill. The room had no windows. Her son could not attend daycare. Winter was approaching and Tameko and her son had no warm clothing. The story kept getting progressively more heart-wrenching and more ridiculous. I looked around the room and people were captivated. Tameko’s story ended with members of the organization coming together to bring Tameko food, clothing, and finding her a new place to live. People in the room cried while I rolled my eyes at the savior complex of this organization. No one cared to acknowledge Tameko’s intelligence, agency, and her hopes and dreams. Contrary to popular belief, people of color do not need heroes to swoop down into their neighborhoods to save them. Funders must see the communities they serve as their equals. The most transformative work happens when communities of color are seen as philanthropic partners.

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Johane Alexis-Phanor

I write about racial & gender equity, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, faith, and mental health to empower Black communities | Fundraising Consultant