Fighting for a more just and equitable ‘normal’

Written by: Cleyris Perez-Santos

Date: November 24, 2020

This year has been an exhausting year of multiple intersectional crises. We’ve seen everything from earthquakes in Puerto Rico to ravenous wildfires on the West Coast, all amidst a global pandemic, a never-ending string of law enforcement abuse cases and an election cycle that doesn’t want to end.  

Economically, the adjustments have been just as big. While some businesses and families have been able to whether the economic downturn and work from home, many others have had to file for unemployment or, even worse, risk catching the disease because of their status as essential workers.  

While foundations have been quick to respond to the changing conditions, many seem to still be hoping that the current immediate crisis come to an end. Which begs the question: How will philanthropy adjust to the current moment?  

In his recent column in Inside Philanthropy, NCRP’s Research Director Ryan Schlegel urges “sector leaders to begin using their imaginations to envision new ways of advancing the public good with public/private wealth.” 

“Philanthropy leaders should be radically reimagining their role in a just society — leaning into the transformation COVID has wrought on our economy and society” because “many are dwelling the minutiae of the old way of doing philanthropy.”  

Schlegel writes that foundation can fund the immediate response, the economic recovery and their missions, and still have plenty left over if they can center their work on the realities that affected communities face and commit to doing things like spending more than just the traditional minimum of 5% of their institution’s assets. 

Schlegel’s popular piece came on the heels of several NCRP briefs this year that have looked at the amount of funding that community foundations have explicitly designated for Black communities, as well as immigrants and refugee communities.  

As NCRP’s Eleni Refu and Lisa Ranghelli wrote in Blue Avocado, those reports “found that the share of local philanthropic dollars specifically designated for these respective communities was a mere penny per dollar for service organizations and less than half that for movement groups involved in advocacy and organizing, despite their obvious disproportionate vulnerability.” 

Unfortunately, for many, these data points are nothing new — philanthropy has a long history of massive under-investment in communities of color and Black communities specifically.  

Institutional philanthropy is itself a product of unjust systems that have recently begun to come apart at the seams. Its combined $1 trillion in assets largely reflects generations of ill-gotten wealth stemming from slavery, corruption, and worker and environmental exploitation.  

Between 2010 and 2019, according to FoundationMark, foundation assets grew 50%, while the Federal Reserve reported the median U.S. household’s financial assets (excluding real estate, business equity, etc.) increased just 3%, and the median Black household’s financial assets decreased 23%.  

While the cash, stocks and bonds sitting in philanthropic bank accounts have piled up, foundations have maintained their decades-long commitment to steering grantmaking away from work that is targeted in the communities in the best position to put it to good use.  

Between 2010 and 2017 (the most recent year of data available for the Foundation 1000, a representative sample of the largest 1,000 foundations in the U.S. compiled by Candid), foundations gave just 9% of their total grant dollars and less than 1% of their total assets to work explicitly to benefit Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities.   

They also gave 1.4% of their total grant dollars and about 0.1% of their assets for work intended to benefit immigrants and refugees. 

What does seem new is the very real opportunity to repair the damage of the past in systematic way. Will their wallets follow their words? Schlegel believes that because “the old arguments about the value of a dollar today versus two next year ring hollow,” philanthropy must adapt in order to survive.  

If at some point the foundation industrial complex is faced with the level of public scrutiny and thirst for accountability that has been directed at institution after institution in American life over the last 2 decades, I am not optimistic it would survive intact.  

The point is: Many institutions that once sat on rock-solid foundations of public trust have lately found themselves in quicksand once the curtain is pulled back by savvy political actors. Foundation CEOs and staffs should not delude themselves into thinking it cannot happen to them. 

For many online, Schlegel’s words rang true, as he verbalized what many have been feeling and saying in smaller circles. 

Benjamin Soskis, research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute tweeted“One more observation sparked by Ryan’s important post. I’m completing a research brief on charitable & philanthropic giving during the Great Depression & one thing that I was esp. Struck in reviewing the history is how *little” philanthropy was changed by the crisis.” 

Everyone knows that our nation – and the idea that a fair, just and democratic society in which the common good is recognized as a high priority – is at a crossroads. We know that a place where everyone systematically receives equal justice, full inclusion and fair treatment can only happen if leaders across all sectors commit to making it happen.  

Whether it’s new or old, that is a normal that we should all be equitably striving for, regardless of a pandemic. 

Cleyris Perez-Santos is NCRP’s events intern.