We need to #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW! more than ever

Written by: Lisa Ranghelli

Editor’s Note: This post is co-published as part of the #DisruptPhilanthropyNow campaign, being organized by The Within Our Lifetime (WOL) Network. Racial justice leaders and movement organizers are encouraged to submit their stories about racially inequitable practices in philanthropy and/or their ideas  on how to transform how resources are distributed here.

In April 2018 NCRP joined a new campaign to rally movement leaders to hold funders accountable who espouse racial equity values but whose actions harm communities, especially Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). The campaign has relaunched this summer and issued a new call for stories of funder hypocrisy:

#DisruptPhilanthropyNOW! is a loving invitation to our colleagues, friends, and comrades in the racial justice movement to say “enough!” We need to speak the truth about the impact of the current grantmaking system. We can no longer protect our own resources by being silent when we know one of our funder’s unjust practices has devastating effects on other organizations or in the communities where we work… We need to stand in solidarity. We must disrupt inequitable practices and radically transform the philanthropic sector, so we collectively end racism within our lifetime.

When the campaign first started, I wrote about #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW! in the context of NCRP’s own efforts to help nonprofits speak truth to power, and I acknowledged that this remained a challenge, because of ongoing fear of reprisals.

Fast forward, and the sector landscape seems very different today. Racial equity was already becoming a more central focus in philanthropic discourse, as evidenced by the popularity of our 2018 Power Moves guide. In 2020, COVID-19 and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others by police caused upheavals nationally and shook nonprofits and philanthropy. The differential racial impact of the pandemic magnified longstanding health disparities, and the murders starkly amplified the systemic racism of state sanctioned violence. As a result of these twin crises, hundreds of foundations pledged to ease their grant requirements or made funding commitments to benefit Black communities.

While more foundations are talking the talk on racial equity and trust-based philanthropy than three years ago, how many are thoughtfully walking the walk? Evidence suggests for many foundations that made pledges last year, those changes are temporary. According to the Center for Effective Philanthropy, “most foundations do not plan to undertake these new practices in the future to the degree they are doing so now,” and funders have generally not shown an interest in providing more multiyear general support or diversifying their mostly white boards. And a joint report from PolicyLink and Bridgespan found that only $1.5 billion of the $11.9 billion in 2020 racial equity funding pledges can be tracked to recipient organizations.

Are funders more receptive to critique from their grant partners and the communities they serve when racial equity efforts fall short? Many grantmakers have embarked on this journey with openness and humility, inviting feedback and sharing their missteps and lessons learned. Yet too often, funders still take a defensive posture. When NCRP released publicly-available data on funding for the explicit benefit of Black communities among 25 community foundations, at the request of our nonprofit members, the knee-jerk response from many was to critique the numbers, without providing similar grant-level data of their own. Nor did many wish to admit that even with more accurate data, there is still a wide chasm between funding levels for Black communities and what those communities need and deserve to thrive (or even in proportion with their population size).

This type of defensive stance can inhibit dialogue and make some community leaders skittish about speaking. Thankfully,  we are beginning to see some funders responding with humility and openness and even more BIPOC leaders successfully calling funders to account In May 2020, Black artists publicly criticized the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta for perennially funding almost exclusively white-led arts organizations. After much organizing by local community leaders, the foundation took the critique seriously, met with the arts groups to study the problem, and hosted a town hall. It then changed its eligibility criteria and application process and prioritized Black-led organizations for the next round of grants, in which 85% of arts funding went to Black groups.

Meanwhile, in Washington State, a group of BIPOC executive directors issued a call to action to grantmakers to increase their payout, provide multiyear general support, and invest in BIPOC organizations and their systems-change efforts in response to the pandemic. At least 8 foundations have signed the pledge.

It’s past time for movement leaders and funders to engage in honest conversations. The danger of philanthropic complacency and a return to business as usual is ever present. Even grantmakers with the best intentions and equity commitments will make mistakes and need to hear from their constituents. And if those dialogues don’t go anywhere, then a public accountability action may be the best next step. We’ve seen how it can result in meaningful action.

NCRP didn’t join #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW! just to be a signatory; we are an ally to movements and to our nonprofit members. If justice organizations and other nonprofits want help understanding philanthropy or speaking out about harmful funder practices, please reach out to NCRP and #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW!

We also stand with funders who build, share and wield power with racial justice movements. We encourage these leaders to share their stories of philanthropic hypocrisy to hold up a mirror and promote accountability in the sector.

Lisa Ranghelli is NCRP’s Senior Director for Evaluation and Learning.

Top photo credit: Julian Wan on Unsplash