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Philanthropy must confront its institutional racism

Saying there aren’t enough Black candidates is just an excuse.
Keecha Harris October 28th, 2020
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The apology of Wells Fargo’s chief executive officer for his assertion that he cannot hire more Black employees and leaders in his organization because the pool of Black talent is limited means very little. I hear this same erroneous claim nearly every day in my work with U.S. philanthropies.

In foundations, as in many organizations, the issue starts with leadership. According to a 2017 survey from BoardSource, non-white leaders make up only 15% of foundation trustees and 10% of chairmen. Similarly, a report from the Council on Foundations found that 88% of foundation executives were white. The Council on Foundations report also noted that 76% of full-time foundation staff is white.

When it comes time to advertise an open position or—equally importantly—allocate grant money to organizations, these primarily white institutions are doing exactly what they have always done: They are turning to their own networks of friends, colleagues, and previous grant recipients.

In a post-George Floyd, post-Breonna Taylor, post-Ahmaud Arbery, post-so many others world where numbers of foundations have publicly committed to funding or supporting the movement for Black lives, the disconnect between their rhetoric and their actions is hypocritical at best. When you consider COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities and the continuing police violence against Black people, it is a recipe for disaster.

Around 40% of people of color-led nonprofit organizations get the majority of their funding from foundations. Yet Bridgespan and Echoing Green found that most of that money comes with strings attached. Their research found that these groups’ unrestricted assets were 76% lower than groups led by white people.

Even when foundations give to POC-led nonprofits, those funds often come at the expense of the very heart and soul of those organizations. Messages get watered down to become more acceptable to the sensibilities of the white men and their mostly white staff who compose the funding organization. 

This is what the scholar Megan Ming Francis calls movement capture: when the money provided by a foundation exerts influence over the organization’s work, whether intentional or not.

The time for throwing hands in the air and claiming that there just aren’t enough Black candidates, Black executives, or trustworthy Black-led organizations out there must be past. Foundations have dragged their feet on the call to diversify their staff and leadership for long enough, creating a stranglehold on funding that, today, could literally mean life or death for entire communities of people.

Philanthropic organizations must recognize that this is their problem, regardless of their area of funding. COVID-19 may be the pandemic-du-jour, yet the pandemic of systemic racism has run rampant across every area of American society for hundreds of years, touching everything from housing to food security to public health to education.

Foundations must sign on to initiatives like the Democracy Frontlines Fund, a newly launched collective of funders that have committed to investing in POC-led organizations that are fighting for free and fair elections and working to defund prisons and police.

Their leaders should join CEOs of other foundations in the work of initiatives like the Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity in Philanthropy, to grapple with racial equity leadership dilemmas and seek solutions through peer-to-peer conversations.

Most importantly, these foundation leaders must reckon with their own internalized racism and overcome the habits of white supremacy culture that are present within them. This is the starting point for foundations to accelerate change within a sector that has been largely stagnant on making real progress while disparities only grow bigger.

The comments from the head of Wells Fargo are sadly unremarkable. They speak to one symptom of a pandemic—systemic racism—that spreads far beyond the walls of financial institutions into the very field of philanthropic organizations that were ostensibly created to effect positive change in the lives of those who needed it most. This pandemic is wholly within our hands to reverse—if only we have the will to act.


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