For Foundations Fighting for Equity, It’s Time to Move Beyond Talk

Flickr Creative Commons via Jason Hargrove

There is no doubt that our nation is in a sick place.

While that statement seems obvious given the events since the senseless murder of George Floyd, the truth is that it’s been a sick place for at least 400 years. The emergency we are facing now is not new; in fact, it’s been an “emergency” for more years than any of us have been alive.

How philanthropy responds over the weeks, months, and years ahead will determine whether this situation will cease being an emergency, or whether we’ll continue to deal with its consequences for many years to come.

We’re hearing seemingly heartfelt messages from businesses who are using this moment of reckoning — and the Covid-19 pandemic that is wrapped around it — as an opportunity to rethink their models and approaches.

We’re hearing messages of change from politicians who are looking to advance their agendas.

And we’re hearing strong language from philanthropy that now is the time to address inequities and problems that are being laid bare by the pandemic and protests.

Forgive me, however, if I’m more than just a little jaded about our ability to follow through on these promises, because I’ve been hearing some variation of similar pledges for nearly 40 years.

As a Black man who grew up in Western Pennsylvania (Erie, to be precise), this emergency has been my reality since I was a child during the 1980s — a time of massive economic dislocation, particularly for Black folks.

I was born of very modest means, but my family invested generously in my education. I graduated from Stanford University. Twice. First with a BA in political science. The second with an MBA and a certificate in nonprofit management.

My education opened a number of doors for me that I likely would not have been able to unlock otherwise. This became very clear to me when I was running a small foundation and giving circle in San Francisco in the early 2000s. In that role, I quickly realized that the level of diversity in leadership in philanthropy was thin.

I had broken through. But philanthropy remained a very lonely place for someone who looked like me. I knew there were many other qualified people of color who would do great work — if only they were given the opportunity. Yet the opportunities themselves were still much too rare to make a difference.

If we’re going to truly capitalize on this moment, we must do better. And we must do it urgently.

Otherwise, we will repeat many of the same mistakes we’ve been making since the last realigning nationwide crisis — the Great Recession of 2008.

That massive financial meltdown adversely impacted our most vulnerable neighbors, much like Covid-19 is now. And it led to proclamations that the sector would use it as a call to action to inspire the type of changes necessary to address inequities, close the widening income gap, and develop strategies for health-care and climate change.

Now, more than a decade later, we are actually further behind on all of these issues.

Wait, why, exactly?

Because those of us who champion a more progressive mindset became fixated on the wrong things.

We frittered away the better part of the past decade while those who are working against our ideals stayed on message and devoted their energies to consolidating power. They pushed forward regressive tax policies, packed the courts with right-wing appointees, rolled back protections for consumers and the environment in favor of big business, and managed to convince a swath of the country whose lives suffer under their policies that they should stand behind them.

The winners have been the rich and big businesses.

And guess who has been falling farther behind? Minorities, immigrants, the poor, the working and middle classes and the elderly. While I believe racism is the central cancer of our country, all of these groups suffer from its deleterious legacy, and who’s looking after us?

Racial disparities in income today rival those from the pre-civil rights era. The median black household has less than 15 percent of the wealth of the median white household.

This gap has become even more pronounced over the past three months, as the federal government has taken even more steps to protect the interests of the rich and businesses.

It’s worth noting that as the Trump administration championed a surprise drop in the May unemployment rate, the unemployment rate for blacks actually went up and remained a full 4.4 percentage points higher than their white neighbors.

It’s worth noting that the percentage of African-Americans age 16 or older who are in the labor force dropped below 50 percent in April for the first time since 1983.

It’s worth noting that Covid-19 is killing African-Americans at a much higher rate.

In light of all of this, those of us who care about making our society more equitable and just cannot let these crises go to waste.

We cannot afford to simply advocate for reforms to our law enforcement system, declare those reforms a victory, and call it a day until the next crisis emerges.

That has been our pattern for generations. We must break it now.

Our opponents in this fight have managed to stick to their message and their mission for centuries. They have lost some battles along the way. But they remain committed to the cause — and, as a result, they are largely winning.

We must fight back with the same commitment and discipline — we must have the resolve to avoid making the same mistakes that characterized our work throughout the 2010s.

It means investing in the idea of resilience — and being committed to following through, both with our funding and our messaging.

Foundations occupy the enviable position of being able to respond to emergencies, but also to anticipate them and act with foresight. During the Great Recession, with the markets collapsing, we observed foundations rein in the purse strings (and I daresay, clutch their collective pearls). Through fear, foundations neither doubled down on supporting voter and civic engagement and movement building — nor invested to battle voter suppression. And in 2016, the most combative, repressive President took office, with a mere plurality of the popular vote.

We’ve seen what happened when we scaled back. The results have been nothing short of disastrous.

So, now, let’s talk. Let’s talk about what we can actually do right now to start winning the critical battles we so regularly lose.

It starts within — with who we hire and with the cultures we create within our organizations.

I noted earlier my experiences working at the foundation in San Francisco. That experience prompted me to take my career in a new direction — creating an executive recruiting firm that focused on identifying and placing talented and diverse candidates in executive leadership roles at foundations.

During the 16 years that we’ve been doing this work, we’ve found that organizations that commit themselves to equity within are more likely to push the envelope when it comes to their mission. When you have a culture of equity within your foundation and your leaders and staff reflect the communities that your serve, you’re better able to make progress with job creation, with building affordable housing, with creating fair and equitable transportation systems, and with improving education.

I’m proud of the many diverse leaders we have helped place over the past 16 years. They are making real changes to their organizations — inside and out. I am all-too-aware, however, that, collectively, we have barely scratched the surface.

It’s no accident that some of the most meaningful actions in recent weeks — including the pledge by the Libra Foundation to double its giving this year and the recent letter by 64 black CEOs pushing philanthropy to realize its promise on racial justice — are being led by foundations that have already taken the bold step of hiring diverse leaders and dedicating themselves to advancing equity in all aspects of their work.

Philanthropy has been talking a good game for decades on these issues — but it has been getting routed in the game that matters.

It’s time to stop talking and start doing.

Let’s leave this place better than we found it: the time is now.

Vincent Robinson is the founder of The 360 Group, an executive search company that specializes in placing diverse leaders at nonprofits and foundations.

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