Three years ago this week, I published one single post that went viral and catapulted me into the DM's and email lists of hundreds of philanthropic leaders around the world I’d only dreamed of reading about. Some of those messages were fierce with support. Others were cutting in their critique. I was a Program Officer at a well known foundation working for a renowned leader at the time and the punishment for speaking truth to power was swift.
But like it did for many, 2020 clarified for me how I wanted to move in my power and in this position of proximity to wealth. I was no decision-maker, but I was in a position of deep privilege to say something, even if no one listened. But then some of you did. The greatest joy of these last three years has been to hear how many of you in the sector felt seen, heard, and held as you navigated the shifts in your institutions.
If my career had a tagline, it would be "to mobilize resources until everyone’s free." I may not see this in my lifetime and I may not make a dent. I accept that possibility and heed Mariame Kaba’s insight that hope is a discipline. It keeps me going. Some things have changed since this post was published. Some have remained the same. Either way, I hope this piece continues to provide some spark somewhere to someone to stay hopeful and say the thing that needs saying. You never know where it will take you. - CG
George Floyd’s murder by four police officers tipped America into flames that have been fanning for generations. We’ve watched as the loss of another Black life lost in the cruelest of ways manifests into massive demonstrations across the country. Voices and bodies are pleading justice for George Floyd. Justice for Breonna Taylor (her assailants have yet to be arrested.) Justice for Ahmaud Arbery. Justice for Tony McDade. Justice for the thousands of Black lives whose cause of death was racism. The backdrop, a global pandemic that has laid open our country’s widespread racist shame. Foundations have saturated inboxes with impassioned statements of allyship and outraged calls to action. A few have surely recycled some variation of a previous statement re-affirming their commitments to racial justice.
Here’s the thing: platitudes are not a replacement for direct action. Not when philanthropy enables and benefits from white supremacy.
We do this through our deliberate choices to shut out women of color from funding, as Vanessa Daniel from the Groundswell Fund writes. Intentionally stifling accountability in communities of color when organizing and advocacy efforts are cut from budgets. Practices like twenty-page reporting requirements for measly grants, limited payouts that do not transcend the federally mandated 5% minimum, and a perverted devotion to metrics. Toxic internal cultures that tokenize staff and enable racist microaggressions. Anasatasia Reesa Tomkin writes about white supremacy in the nonprofit space beautifully. Women of color handed performative decision-making power without adequate resources, funding, and support to succeed. We are quite literally the least paid, hired, promoted, and supported demographic working in our sector. Our foundation boards are composed of majority White men, some with extreme wealth — many of whom benefit from Black and Brown imprisonment and death through their investments.
How can we claim that Black Lives Matter if we don’t act like we value Black lives inside of our own institutions?
Passionate calls to action without inward change is the philanthropy equivalent of Kendall Jenner solving racism with Pepsi. Fortunately, taking action does not require an internal advisory committee or the commissioning of a white paper. It merely requires reflection and will. No matter where you sit inside your philanthropic institution, and no matter what your role, you can start right now in a few ways:
Hold space for our Black colleagues. Listen deeply. Refrain from over-enthusiastic performative solidarity (quietly donate to these bail funds and don’t demand emotional labor.) Approve paid time off. Delegate work elsewhere. Our colleagues should grieve without the need to worry about work.
Immediately fund Black-led organizing groups . TODAY. Heed the example of Dr. Carmen Rojas, President of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, whose first day on the job included rapid response grants to Black-led abolitionist organizations. Resource Generation created an interactive map of Black-led Black liberation organizations. Funders For Justice compiled this list.
Learn, and never stop learning, to be anti-racist. Resources and readings abound. Angie Jaime writes about combatting colorism and anti-Blackness in the Latinx community. This handy Google Doc guide by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein is a compilation of anti-racist resources for white people. The Center for Racial Justice compiled a list for talking about race and racialized violence with children.
Program Officers must evaluate interactions with nonprofit partners. How do you talk about your community partners? Do you seek out partners whose leadership is racially and ethnically representative of the communities they serve? How often do you center lived experience as expertise? Do you spend time in the neighborhoods you cover outside of scheduled meetings? Reflect on how you might perpetrate racist systems.
Evaluate Grantmaking Operations: Can application and reporting requirements be shortened or eliminated? Are your nonprofit partners paid on time? Can you eliminate overhead conditions? How are you approaching data? Are you giving flexible, long-term, no strings attached capital? Vu Le from NonprofitAF.com offers a list of practices we need to be stopping now. Peak Grantmaking offers data-specific suggestions here.
Foundation Boards: Divest from sectors that profit from the death and incarceration of Black and Brown people like prisons and racist technology. Assess and adequately resource efforts to change organizational culture. Hire women of color to your Board and Leadership (and then pay and support them accordingly to succeed.)
Re-imagine grantmaking models. A racial equity lens is already insufficient. Funding racial justice is necessary. In reality, we should be funding for liberation. We need the courage to fund differently. Support the eradication of abusive carceral systems. Ideas that transfer economic and political power to the community and redistribute wealth. Push for gender justice and an end to transphobia, misogyny, and patriarchal culture. All of these issues disproportionately impact people of color, especially Black people. These models exist. We need the resolve to fund them.
You may be wondering if I am advocating us out of a job, and my response to that is yes, I am.
I want us to imagine a world where philanthropy doesn’t need to exist. A reality where social and political systems are so in service of the people that community safety nets are healthy and abundant. A reality where everyone has a home, makes a decent living, and has access to food, health, and an education. A universe where we don’t fear violence and abuse at the hands of our public servants. Where we can participate in our democracy without attempts to repress our right to do so. We should want these things for ourselves and our neighbors, no matter who they are.
My intention is not to minimize the contributions we make to society. So long as we live within a capitalist system, I believe philanthropy has a role to play. I am grateful for my role as a grantmaker and the privilege of learning from my nonprofit partners. Many of whom are some of my harshest and most caring truth-tellers. However, I can never lose sight of the fact that my holding the privilege of this position as a grantmaker is itself a symptom of white supremacy and an inequitable distribution of wealth. It is our collective responsibility to hold ourselves accountable to our mission. My silence and timidity serve no one. Silence is violence, but inaction may be a literal death sentence for the communities we serve.