Philanthropy: Let’s Talk About Race, Baby

Written by: Caitlin Duffy

Date: May 18, 2016

With more and more evidence of the effectiveness and impact of social justice philanthropy – which works toward solving society’s problems at their source – new language is emerging to describe systems change strategies. The phrase “social justice” can hold clear ideological connotations, and with growing political divides, funders with broad audiences may seek more “neutral” language.

Yet given the complexity of systems and power, coupled with the polarized environment of race relations in the United States, I think it is necessary for us to address white privilege and the history of oppression of people of color. Recent events and social movements, political candidates and longstanding injustices show that philanthropy and the organizations that serve the sector can no longer shy away from the topic of racism and other -isms.

That is why NCRP believes that strategic philanthropy is social justice philanthropy. Our research has consistently demonstrated the effectiveness of social justice philanthropy in advancing equity. Through our annual Impact Awards, we have highlighted the work of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation and others as exemplars for social justice philanthropy, with a clear commitment to grantmaking for racial equity and grassroots movement building. Citing the North Star Fund and Resource Generation as inspiration, Hill-Snowdon developed its Making Black Lives Matter Initiative to begin building long-term institutional and political power for Black social change and racial justice.

What caused me to reflect on the differences in how funders respond to current movements and public debates surrounding race was a new resource guide by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), which encompasses the elements of social justice philanthropy but names it “Systems Grantmaking.” GEO introduces “systems grantmaking” not as a new approach, but as an existing way to “influence the bigger picture in all its complexity.”

In reading the guide, I was reminded of my colleague Andy Carroll, who has written extensively about “changemaking foundations” and “catalytic funders” among Exponent Philanthropy’s members, which he characterizes by many of the hallmarks of social justice philanthropy: risk-taking, community engagement, policy advocacy, convening and bold leadership beyond the distribution of grants. Indeed, in a blog post for NCRP he wrote, “Social justice funding is changemaking, and changemaking is a form of philanthropic leadership.”

Both examples are indicative of the burgeoning conversations about philanthropy for change on a systematic or structural level; but how does such an approach differ from social justice philanthropy?

I’ll call it like it is: race.

Sector infrastructure groups have wide membership and may steer clear of activities they deem divisive, but by avoiding these difficult conversations they risk applying their leadership in ways that reinforce the problem. If philanthropy trains its champions to be public leaders but not responsive to issues of race, we can make the issue worse.

I realize that in certain cases, using explicit racial equity language may not be the most effective approach. People from communities that have experienced violent racial tension can be triggered by language associated with past trauma, making it more inflammatory than constructive. For example, in Words Matter: Language and Social Justice Funding in the US South, Grantmakers for Southern Progress found that many Southern funders use more muted, nuanced language to garner trust and avoid negative connotations.

That said, there are a number of affinity groups that have chosen to address race explicitly – going beyond coded language such as “inequality” or “lack of diversity.” For example, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG) is hosting Putting Racism on the Table, a learning series that I have attended on behalf of the Diverse City Fund. WRAG’s president, Tamara Copeland, recently shared why Nonprofits Need to Talk About Race, Not Just Diversity in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

I would like to challenge all sectoral organizations that care about racial inequity to stretch beyond any conscious or unconscious fear they may have of disturbing their white peers’ discomfort and talk more explicitly about structural racism. If they don’t, the risk is that some foundations may try to embrace systemic change approaches while lacking tools or motivation to undertake the hard work of addressing racial inequity, white privilege and implicit bias.

To build on the frameworks produced by GEO and Exponent Philanthropy, grantmakers can look to the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, Grant Craft and Funders for Justice for valuable resources on how to combat institutional and structural racism. In 2014, The Foundation Review dedicated a volume to racial equity, and last year NCRP held a popular webinar on how foundations can best support the movement for racial equity. Organizations such as the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC), VISIONS, Race Forward and the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond also offer strong trainings.

As a white person on my own learning journey, I encourage white leaders to promote racial justice by following these five steps offered by NCRP’s executive director, Aaron Dorfman, and to learn about the organizing and educational work being done by Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) across the country.

We cannot afford to skirt the issue of race because of fear or discomfort. From slavery and the plantation economy, to Birmingham and Selma in the 1960s, to Ferguson and Charleston today, people of color are dying because of the color of their skin. So philanthropy, let’s talk about race.

Caitlin Duffy is the project associate for Philamplify at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP and @DuffyInDC on Twitter and join the #Philamplify conversation.

Image by Marc Wathleu, modified under Creative Commons license.