Community foundations deny funding to Black communities, a report says. Could that be true?

Marc Gunther
Sep 8, 2020 · 6 min read
Image for post
Image for post
The Obamas volunteered at Martha’s Table on Thanksgiving in 2010 (White House photo)

Martha’s Table, a widely-respected charity in Washington, D.C., provides healthy food to families and operates preschool and after-school programs for kids. It serves all comers, but many, if not most, are Black people. After all, more than 60% of Washington, D.C.’s poor people are Black people.

Yet a new report from the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) does not consider donations to groups like Martha’s Table to be investments in Black communities. The report is thus able to make a startling claim: That just 3.3% of the grants made by the Greater Washington Community Foundation between 2016 and 2018 went to Black communities, in a region where 27 percent of the population is Black.

Other community foundations fared even worse, according to the NCRP, a watchdog group. Its report, headlined BLACK FUNDING DENIED, analyzed 25 community foundations across the US and found that “only 1% of grant-making by some of the largest local community foundations goes to Black communities.” The NCRP says the foundations gave “13 times more for non-Black communities than they have for Black communities.”

That would be distressing, if true. It’s not.

As it happens, the Greater Washington Community Foundation made its single biggest grant in 2018 to Martha’s Table. That single contribution of $9.7m represented more than 10% of the foundation’s donations that year. That’s serving the Black community, isn’t it?

Or, consider the Community Foundation for Mississippi, which, according to the NCRP, made 0 percent of its grants — yes, 0 percent — to Black communities, in a state where 49% of the population is Black. How could that be? Have we returned to the era of Jim Crow?

Hardly. By email, Jane Alexander, the president and CEO of the Mississippi foundation, which is based in Jackson, tells me: “Living in a city with an 82% Black population, it is statistically impossible for us to have granted zero percent of our dollars to support Black communities.”

A wildly inaccurate picture

The report, she added, “paints a wildly inaccurate picture of our roles in our respective communities.”

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the largest community foundation in the US, also takes issue with the NCRP study. It’s “an oversimplification that does not give a nuanced portrayal of the many ways that community foundations fulfill the needs of their communities,” the foundation says.

So what’s going on here?

To its credit, NCRP is upfront about its methodology. In a series of FAQs, its researchers say that they relied on data from Candid, which classifies foundations grants using codes drawn from descriptions provided by the foundations. NCRP counted grants coded with “people of African descent” as the beneficiaries as investments in Black communities, but it did not count grants coded as “education,” “health,” or “human services.”

The FAQ explains:

Just because funding reaches individuals members of a community doesn’t mean that it is specifically designed to benefit that community. Nor is this data report meant to capture that type of “incidental” funding.

NCRP’s definition of the most effective grant-making for marginalized communities (going back to the 2009 publication of Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best) includes only giving that names marginalized people explicitly in its intent or strategy. Our research has shown that funders who named specific marginalized communities in their giving strategy were more likely to make progress against their equity goals and to hold themselves accountable.

Our Black-led nonprofit member organizations and partners have affirmed the crucial importance of naming Black communities as the intended beneficiaries of giving rather than relying on incidental funding. So, especially in this moment, is not enough to give to, for example, the local YWCA or United Way in a Black-majority city and assume that the immediate and systematic issues around equity for Black communities are being addressed, tackled, or handled.

The NCRP excludes from its tally not just donations to the Y or the United Way, to food banks or homeless shelters, but to funding for schools or job training programs that are not explicitly race-based. The Greater Washington Community Foundation gets no credit, thus, for a grant to the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in southeast DC, where an overwhelming majority of students are Black. Judging by test scores, Thurgood Marshall is the top performing high school in the mostly-Black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and one of the top schools in DC. This strikes me as an effective way to invest in Black communities.

Image for post
Image for post
Graduating seniors at the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School

By email, Ryan Schlegel, director of research at NCRP, further explains the thinking behind the study:

NCRP’s decades of research as well as our relationships with our grassroots nonprofit partners …have convinced us that it is crucial to focus the sector’s attention on grant-making which explicitly names Black communities as the intended beneficiaries, not just incidental ones.

The central role race, and especially anti-Black racism, have always played in sector relationships and economic models, warrants a race-conscious approach to any form of resource building, not just race-blind funding practices. That is not to say that general assistance that reaches Black individuals or groups is not helpful or on some levels meaningful.

What we are saying is that community foundations owe it to their missions and their local residents to explicitly do more to address racial inequality and structural racism…

Community foundations that want to be judged on their general assistance without an explicit focus on investing in Black life and liberation should do so with the understanding that most community advocates and organizations like NCRP have different moral and professional expectations. We hold, and will continue to hold, them to a higher standard. The urgency of the issue, not just the moment, demands it.

Some community foundation leaders praised the report. In an NCRP press release, Tony Mestres, president of the Seattle Foundation, calls it “important and timely, highlighting a historically persistent problem across the philanthropic sector: the chronic underinvestment in Black-led organizations and movements.” Denise St. Omer, vice president of grant-making and inclusion initiatives at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, said: “In this moment when many community foundations are leaning into the work of advancing racial equity, NCRP’s report helps guide our work and inform our thinking.”

Philanthropy’s diversity

But righteous agitators need allies. Foundations can support a variety of organizations that create opportunities for Blacks and repair the damage done by racism: Charter schools that Black parents have shown that they want. Historically black colleges and universities. Proven nonprofits like the Nurse-Family Partnership, which supports first time mothers living in poverty. Faith-based organizations that seek to strengthen families. Groups that address inner city violence like The Woodson Center in DC or Mothers in Charge in Philadelphia. Philanthropy’s diversity is one of its strengths.

And, yes, funders should support old-fashioned charities that offer food and shelter even if they can’t deliver systemic change.

If you doubt it, ask the people at Martha’s Table.

Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about philanthropy and accountability

Marc Gunther

Written by

Reporting on philanthropy, psychedelics, animal welfare, global poverty, etc. Ex-Fortune. Baseball fan. Runner. Seen in Gen, Marker, Elemental, OneZero.

Nonprofit Chronicles

My writing about foundations and nonprofits. I’m interested in the accountability of foundations, how they invest their endowments, the impact of nonprofits, effective altruism and the animal rights movement.

Marc Gunther

Written by

Reporting on philanthropy, psychedelics, animal welfare, global poverty, etc. Ex-Fortune. Baseball fan. Runner. Seen in Gen, Marker, Elemental, OneZero.

Nonprofit Chronicles

My writing about foundations and nonprofits. I’m interested in the accountability of foundations, how they invest their endowments, the impact of nonprofits, effective altruism and the animal rights movement.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store