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How to Get Real About Racism in Philanthropy

The families most impacted by inequities in the U.S. don’t need to study research about how the education, health and criminal justice systems are interconnected. They see it in their daily lives. When a main breadwinner is out of jail and employed, family members are better equipped to get to a critical doctor’s appointment, pay for food and rent, be attentive in school and participate in extracurricular activities.

Grantmaking organizations often fund specific issue areas like education, health or criminal justice. Yet these issue areas are so intertwined and rooted in systemic racism that to address one, you have to address a wide range of intricately connected challenges. Grassroots organizations working at the community level know this and work tirelessly to meet the wide-ranging and complex needs of their community members. At the same time, they face a number of barriers to getting funding to serve families in this way.

“It almost feels demeaning to have to explain all the different issues and how they connect and all the different partners we work with,” explained one leading activist and panel member at the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s panel event celebrating its 25th anniversary. This event brought together a combination of leaders in philanthropy and grassroots activism to discuss how structural racism in philanthropy impacts the sector’s ability to make the world a place where all people can thrive.

The Schott Foundation for Public Education has been creating unique spaces like this to discuss where philanthropy is failing and identify ways to better support organizations serving people living in poverty. As an audience member at the event, the power of these honest and self-critical conversations felt palpable. Looking around the room, I noticed that audience members were more attentive during the discussion than in any other panel I’ve attended. Attendees were physically and vocally cheering on the panelists as they passionately shared insights and stories that were real, race-explicit and, in some cases, might not have ever been said aloud in a crowded room.

The Schott Foundation, along with many other leading foundations, is setting a new standard for talking explicitly about how racism is showing up in the philanthropic sector and what leaders can do to correct this. These types of conversations are critical to the broader movement for social justice and income equality because they are challenging the status quo and helping identify specific, actionable steps that can be taken to remove structural racism from philanthropic structures, thereby increasing the resources available to organizations run by and for people of color. From the discussion, I took away these three key practices to create raw, honest dialogue about race as well as some key insights on racism in philanthropy:

1. Be intentional about who is speaking.

In addition to making sure the conversation about race was led by leaders of color (eight of the 10 leaders in the conversation were people of color), panel organizers also worked to upend power dynamics between grassroots organizations and foundations in the way they formatted the conversations. The first panel featured philanthropic CEOs and executive directors from the Andrus Family Fund, NoVo Foundation, Open Society Foundations and the Schott Foundation, each of whom had a chance to speak to their perspectives on the issue of racism in philanthropy and how they are working to change the system. Then the funders took to the audience and the stage filled with grassroots leaders from Black Alliance for Just Immigration, The New School, New York State Board of Regents, State Voices and United We Dream. This shifted the power, giving grassroots leaders space to drive the conversation, share their thoughts on what the previous panel had discussed, and respond openly and honestly to questions about how philanthropy is falling short. These leaders spoke about philanthropy’s distance from the immediate needs they seek to meet, how grantmakers need to take more risks, and how foundations are shaping the social justice movement, whether intentionally or not. They also spoke about the need to take stronger stands in political discourse to shape the policies and practices impacting both the sector broadly and communities of color specifically.

2. Be race-explicit.

Both conversations talked about how racism and white supremacy show up in philanthropy. The foundation leaders spoke about the differences between white-led and Black-led organizations. White leaders, they said, are more likely to have grown up financially stable and comfortable talking about large sums of money. They are also more likely to grow up in the same circles as other white philanthropists and, as a result, to have connections and field-specific language that give them an upper hand. Black-led organizations are more likely to know how to do more with less funding and are less likely to speak the language of “white philanthropy.” As a result, despite their strong leadership and knowledge of what is needed, they are less likely to receive large grants. The conversation also talked about foundations’ bias toward giving large grants to already high-resourced organizations, which are oftentimes white-led. This perpetuates structural racism because foundations are effectively allowing white-led organizations to take risks and fail but not enabling Black-led organizations to do the same. “If we want grassroots organizations to grow their capacity to become these high-resourced organizations,” one panelist said, “foundations must re-envision their role as incubators and spend the time and money to help smaller, grassroots groups build capacity to be anchor institutions in the future.” By explicitly differentiating between white- and Black-led organizations, the foundation leaders were able to dissect ways that well-meaning philanthropic practices might be furthering inequity.

3. Be self-critical.

Neither the foundation leaders nor the grassroots leaders seemed to hold back in their critiques of philanthropy. The foundation leaders shared with a vulnerability that I have rarely seen in panel discussions. They talked about how the field of philanthropy generally, and their organizations specifically, can do more to take a deep and honest look at how their funding practices thwart groups’ abilities to work collaboratively with other organizations and across issue areas. They rolled up their sleeves and delved into the hard conversations. They offered personal examples. They asked direct questions about what challenges grassroots organizations face when working with philanthropic organizations and what the philanthropic sector needs to do differently. They explicitly invited real and critical responses. They listened deeply to the grassroots leaders. They responded not with defensiveness or explanation but with gratitude and a spirit of learning. There was no backlash for being real, which meant that this could truly be a space safe enough for true learning and sharing.


To have conversations like this, we must get real. That means rolling up our sleeves and being raw, vulnerable and self-critical. We can’t address the systemic causes of inequity without being able to name the dynamics at play and the ways in which they manifest in unintended negative outcomes for communities and people of color. Yet getting real is just the first step. Once we’ve gotten real and invited criticism, we have to take these criticisms to heart and change the ways we work.


If you weren’t able to attend the panel, the foundation also hosted this webinar on “Racism in Philanthropy: Effective Practices for Grantmakers” with representatives from the Ford Foundation, CHANGE Philanthropy and PolicyLink featuring a similarly honest and self-critical conversation. You might also read the foundation’s article, “Sit in It: Philanthropy Must Embrace Discomfort and Rapid Change on the Road to Achieving Equity.”

Feature image by the Schott Foundation. See more photos from the event here

Allison Brown

About Allison Brown

As a consultant, Allison Brown leads client engagements, advises and coaches leaders, and spearheads internal teams to develop solutions and deliverables through research and analysis. She has a strong background in social enterprise strategy, with a focus on education and women’s empowerment initiatives. Her expertise is specifically centered around expansion planning, developing sustainable business models, and leading communication strategies. See Allison’s full bio.

One Response to "How to Get Real About Racism in Philanthropy"

  • David Patrick Bickham
    June 15, 2017 - 6:16 pm

    Thank you raising this issue. I see a double-aged sword of white racism and black conservatism and gate keeping. So we might consider the mutually supporting white racism and internalized racism in philanthropy. Additionally, philanthropy should invest in cultural models of innovation and transformation, including empowering organizations’ not depending so existentially on white philanthropy. Often I have noticed with my white colleagues that they have access to ideation and design resources, which then are promulgated in communities of color. As a result, they demand fees, resources and value in the context of what you describe but do not necessarily possess the intellectual and programmatic rigor, results and creativity. Black thought partners and practitioners do not have the space to take risks and mine our own culture(s) to elevate our frameworks to the level of policy, science and methodology and we are often performing multidimensional tasks. Additionally, I feel we are absorbed in immediate crisis management of complex social issues, capacity building and systemic change with little opportunity to apply strategic foresight and futurism, which would allow us to look beyond immediate brokenness to the long term models of what we really envision. I would love to be a part of a group to address these matters and learn from others.

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