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How Philanthropic Organizations Can Do More to Support Racial Equity

black lives matter sign
Photo: Gabe Pierce on Unsplash

The coronavirus gradually spread throughout the world this year, and altered many aspects of our lives. As time progressed, we began to understand more about COVID-19. It became increasingly apparent that race was a factor in who contracts and dies from the disease — across the U.S., a black person is nearly 2.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than a white person. These tragic disparities laid bare the results of generations of systemic racism. We already knew that those living in lower income neighborhoods, with less access to clean air or water, residing in substandard housing, in food deserts, with limited access to health care, and beyond, were more likely to experience worse health outcomes. Introduce a pandemic, and you have a magnified crisis for populations that have disproportionately lacked access to healthy lifestyles and experienced discrimination that compounded that lack of access.

As the pandemic began to take more lives, and societies around the world began to shut down businesses and other aspects of life in order to slow the spread of the virus, various economic consequences began to emerge. Here again, race became a factor. From mass unemployment to small businesses unable to secure capital, communities of color have been bearing a heavier burden. So many of the brave frontline employees working in supermarkets, buses and subways, drugstores, post offices, factories, and other places, while more privileged populations worked remotely, have been adversely affected by the spread of the virus. These populations are disproportionately people of color. They have to survive, so they go out and work. Because of pre-existing socioeconomic conditions, many people of color have not been able to socially distance, even at home. And many children have not been able to learn at home because they have limited access to computers or the internet. These are all components of a troubling picture of an economic crisis.

As the public health and economic crises developed, and set the table for several years of necessary rebuilding and reimagining, we were gruesomely reminded of another persistent crisis — racist violence, particularly against Black people. With roots in generations of slavery and lynching, modern day police violence has remained fairly consistent. There are so many names of African Americans who have been murdered by police or by those who felt empowered to act like law enforcement. Sometimes these incidents are caught on video. This is increasingly the case. On many occasions during the 21st century, mass protest follows an incident of police brutality. In most of these instances, the perpetrators are not convicted of their crimes. In many cases, no one is even charged.

The month of May 2020 had already included two notable examples of unarmed Black people being murdered under these conditions — Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. On May 25, there was something of a tipping point: the slow crushing of George Floyd’s neck by one police officer while two other officers dropped their weight on the rest of Floyd’s body. Another officer watched. The roughly nine minutes in which the life was drained out of George Floyd were all on video, as he repeatedly indicated he could not breath and called out for his deceased mother. The uncaring look on the face of the officer whose knee was placed on  Floyd’s face was a striking and emblematic aspect of this horrifying scene. It demonstrated what so many activists have been suggesting — that Floyd’s life did not matter. Indeed, this incident was a spark. It lit a fire or ignited a bomb. While the month’s acts of fatal racist violence were not new, they pushed many people of all races to cry out. Activism in the streets has now spanned the globe.

The world has been grappling with a pandemic, with record numbers of people out of work, and now these struggles are converging with the most graphic reminders of seemingly intractable systemic racism displayed in shootings and an asphyxiation. This is where we are right now.

Philanthropic responses to our public health and economic crises were on the rise, as indicated in my prior blog posts. There has been some pressure for philanthropy to take more racially specific approaches to their giving in recent years. This pressure seems more justifiable than ever. The combined public health, economic, and racial violence crises are matters of racial equity and racial justice. And perhaps the groundswell of activism triggered by Floyd’s murder will usher in a new era, not of crisis, but opportunity — a serious effort toward transformative social change in policy and life.

Conversations about racial equity and racial justice in philanthropy have increased in recent years. This has been encouraging. But a recent study demonstrated that comparatively little philanthropic funding is given to organizations led by and serving communities of color. For philanthropy, increased funding to historically underserved communities is one clear way to demonstrate a commitment to change. Individuals looking to contribute to Black-led organizations can consult resources such as this guide.

Perhaps the groundswell of activism triggered by Floyd’s murder will usher in a serious effort toward transformative social change in policy and life.

Philanthropic organizations and individuals can also make greater contributions toward racial equity and racial justice by providing more support to the organizations already doing community organizing and advocacy in communities of color. The Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) recently sponsored a study on Black-led social change organizations. This study concluded that Black-led organizations across the country consistently experience challenges with cash reserves, funding from foundations, and resources. The low levels of institutional philanthropic support for Black-led social change organizations and Black communities are blatantly apparent. For many years, ABFE has been advocating for greater funding to Black communities. It recently released, in partnership with Black foundation executives, a call for action by philanthropy on anti-black racism.

In order for foundations to be better equipped to address these disparities in how they distribute resources, they have to look at themselves as institutions. This is more than a question of giving. It is also about who foundations are as organizations — the values to which they are committed and the populations they represent. It is hard to expect donors or philanthropic institutions to effectively advance racial equity externally without committing to advancing racial equity internally. The Race and Equity in Philanthropy Group (REPG), recently released a report on how some of their member foundations have incorporated a commitment to racial equity into their overall strategic priorities. This means that these issues are central to their core purpose.

Since 2006, REPG has been bringing foundations together to exchange ideas, lessons, and practices with each other. This forum for mutual learning and exchange enables foundations to draw insights from peers in order to influence institutional change in their organizations.


Overall, there is much to be done in order to align philanthropic values and practices with the most pressing issues of our times. But, for the most part, philanthropy, like so many other sectors, has not adequately or comprehensively done its part to challenge systemic racism. And many would wonder why we would even expect this since the very systems that exploited communities of color for generations produced the wealth that spawned what we see as a substantial and growing philanthropic industry.

Nevertheless, we are clearly at a moment where we all must be challenged to do our part to end systemic racism and the anti-Blackness that is evidenced in the long list of victims of police violence over the last few years. Philanthropy, while rooted in a history of inequality, includes some very committed and dynamic individuals in associations like ABFE and in formations such as REPG. These champions of racial equity and racial justice are positioned to challenge foundations from within. In community foundations represented in REPG (the San Francisco Foundation, the Seattle Foundation, and the East Bay Community Foundation), CEOs of color have been engaging wealthy donors on their role in advancing racial equity.

Some groundwork has been established. But it is time for more widespread change in philanthropy. This moment, while tragic and heartbreaking, could spark a next level of transformation in a field that has the potential to contribute to a more racially equitable and just future.

In addition to being a research scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, David J. Maurrasse is the president and founder of Marga Inc., a consulting firm providing advice and research to strengthen philanthropy and innovative cross-sector partnerships to address some of today’s most pressing social concerns. He is also the author of Philanthropy and Society.

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