Three steps foundations should take to address racial equity

By Ben Barge

In the wake of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling’s deaths, foundations across the country released a new wave of public statements brimming with shock and horror. Many talked about solidarity with black communities. Some were honest enough to say they didn’t quite know what to do.

These words are important. They show philanthropy is made up of real people who pay attention when horrible things happen. But words aren’t enough. These tragedies aren’t about a single event, or a single person. They’re about a system of unjust laws and practices that consistently place black communities in greater danger. A statement by itself is a comment, but it’s not an action.

The next Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland can’t afford for philanthropy to hang its hat with a press release. If you’re a foundation trustee or staff member, a donor or donor advisor now is the time for action; not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. Funders can and should respond urgently by taking the following steps to share resources with black-led organizations working to change the complex policies, practices, biases and culture that allow racial injustice to flourish in the first place.

1) Listen to black-led organizations and black organizers confronting these injustices about what they need, and invite them to play a greater role in your grantmaking process.

The best place to start is in your own backyard. If your funding institution doesn’t already fund black community organizers, use this growing interactive map of black-led organizations addressing racial equity. Many of these folks have been doing vital, underfunded work long before #BlackLivesMatter began trending on Twitter.

Go out of your comfort zone to build relationships if you don’t have them already. Ask them what they need and be ready to respond, even if it’s a change from what you normally fund. A funder’s specialty or geographic focus is not an excuse to abstain from racial justice work, but rather a unique opportunity to make a difference.

Funders should also follow the calls to action already issued by Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, the Philanthropic Action for Racial Justice and others in consultation with black organizers on the ground. All highlight the need for philanthropy to assess the biases within their own institutions, support black-led advocacy and organizing, use their bully pulpits to call for change and invest in sustainable ways that build the capacity of this work for the long-term, like leadership development, relationship building and flexible forms of grantmaking. These resources aren’t exhaustive, but they’re a great start.

2) Act decisively and inclusively on what you learn by devoting greater resources to black-led organizing currently operating on shoestring budgets.

As with any course of action, the devil is in the details. To ensure you have institutional buy-in, make the case to your trustees about why funding black-led organizing is crucial to your work. Ask program officers to take tests on implicit bias. Simplify your application procedures to create greater access to your programming and resources. Track who’s receiving your grants, and evaluate whether the leadership you support is as intersectional as the black women, LGBTQ folks, youth and formerly incarcerated people who are primarily leading this movement.

If your foundation hasn’t historically supported such work at significant levels, take a hard look in the mirror and ask why. Is it truly about “fit,” or have you unnecessarily defined your interest area in a way that black-led organizations have a hard time meeting? Is it honestly about staff capacity, or have you prioritized different things? Is it really about grantee capacity, or have you not taken the time to meet chronically underinvested black leaders where they are?

Funders before you like Hill-Snowdon, the Foundation for Louisiana, the Headwaters Foundation for Justice and others have already gone down this path. What’s most important is to take action now, rather than waiting until you feel comfortable later.

3) Be a leader in helping other peer funding institutions overcome their misconceptions, fear, or inertia to take similar steps and open up more resources for racial justice.

Funders have power in addition to the financial resources they provide. You can convene conversations in your local community and invite practitioners working on racial injustice to lead, like the Deaconess Foundation has done in St. Louis. You can talk about race explicitly as it relates to your field, like the Washington Regional Area Grantmakers’ “Putting Racism on the Table” series and the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders’s latest conference. You can invoke the history of philanthropy in past civil rights struggles.

You can remind folks that saying “black lives matter” isn’t an attack against white people, but rather a chance to make this country greater for all of us.

You can even release a public statement. Just don’t stop there.

Ben Barge is a field associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter.

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