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Insights from Community Foundations Who Are Talking to Donors About Racial Equity

As community foundations are increasingly playing a leadership role in their communities and centering racial equity in their programmatic work, many are considering how to engage donors as partners in their efforts to advance racial equity in communities. In a profession that has historically centered donors’ preferences, how can donor advisors have conversations with donors …

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As community foundations are increasingly playing a leadership role in their communities and centering racial equity in their programmatic work, many are considering how to engage donors as partners in their efforts to advance racial equity in communities. In a profession that has historically centered donors’ preferences, how can donor advisors have conversations with donors about racial equity and why it matters for local philanthropy? This was a central topic of discussion in a peer learning cohort of 12 community foundations that Community Wealth Partners facilitated as well as in learning sessions hosted by the National Center for Family Philanthropy and Community Foundation Opportunity Network’s NEON cohort.

A theme of these conversations has been there is no one right way to do this. Individuals enter conversations about race and racial equity from different and personal places. Nevertheless, through sharing stories and experiences, community foundations are supporting one another in finding ways to engage with donors around racial equity. Here are four insights that emerged from the conversations.

1. Speak with authenticity and vulnerability.

Many community foundations recognize they won’t be a credible partner on racial equity without prioritizing their own internal equity work. This often includes investing in staff training and spending time together learning about the history of their communities and how systems and structures have driven racial disparities that exist today. In addition to doing the internal work, sharing openly and honestly about that work can help build credibility and trust. For Maine Community Foundation, Jen Southard, vice president of donor services, said leaning into discomfort also made a difference. “Being honest with our donors that the internal work we’ve been doing has been uncomfortable for us too has helped us open vulnerable conversations with some of our donors,” she said.

2. Invest in relationships.

Getting to honest, vulnerable conversations with donors will require investment in relationships. As one community foundation staff member shared, sometimes it can take a few conversations before a donor is ready to talk about race and racial equity with an advisor. Community foundations are also deepening relationships with nonprofits in the community and other local partners and connecting donors to these nonprofits and partners. The Righteous Rage Institute for Healing and Social Justice has developed the Conductor Circle model for multiracial, multifaith community members to come together for individual and communal healing, relationship building, and grantmaking to advance racial justice in the community. The Rose Community Foundation is partnering with RRI to bring the Conductor Circle to Denver, and has convened a mix of local donors, activists, nonprofit leaders, and community leaders. The name “Conductor Circle” comes from the conductors of the underground railroad that fundraised and built the infrastructure to free enslaved people in the South, and RRI lifts up lessons from the abolitionist and civil rights movement to inform the approaches needed to address racial equity today. Healing is central to Righteous Rage Institute’s approach for social justice and liberation and includes components such as wellness and mindfulness rituals, remembering and restoring BIPOC culture, and participatory visioning and building a new future. Black community members will make grants decisions. Rose Community Foundation is providing seed funding for the pooled fund in Denver, administering grants the fund will make, and tapping its network to attract more donors to the fund. “The work has reminded us how complex and time-intensive deep partnership is, but this level of relationship is necessary for the changes we want to see,” said Sarah Indyk, vice president of philanthropic services.

3. Use data and frameworks.

Many community foundations find it helpful to share data that helps donors understand the racial disparities that exist as well as frameworks that codify the changes the foundation is working toward. The Hawaii Community Foundation created its CHANGE framework to identify equity gaps in six priority areas. The framework includes disaggregated data in each area. Donor advisors use the framework to help donors understand the root causes of challenges faced by the community and which types of investments will make the greatest impact.

For community foundations working to channel more resources to BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving organizations, one barrier to knowing whether you’re having the desired impact is lack of demographic data or knowing if an organization has sufficient talent and resources to submit a fruitful grant application. To overcome this challenge, Hawaii Community Foundation interviewed about 700 grant applicants and collected demographic data to help them better make decisions given who they are reaching through their giving—and who they’re not. According to Malia Peters, senior director of philanthropy, the CHANGE framework and demographic data on grantees helps donor advisors raise awareness about inequities across the state and advocate for increased funding to BIPOC-led organizations.

4. Ground engagement with donors in patience and love.

When the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham (CFGB) engaged community members to help shape its strategic plan in 2018, equity and inclusion emerged as a priority. Since then, the foundation has been convening community conversations about racial equity. From these experiences, board and staff members have learned that it is important to focus on areas where people have common ground, to listen carefully, and meet people where they are. A common concern among many community foundations is that they could lose donors if they push them too far outside their comfort zone. CFGB has found that while the majority of donors agree that equity and inclusion should be a priority, there are donors who prefer to focus on the future and may not agree that we should reflect on Birmingham’s history to better understand how and why racial disparities exist. Board member Brian Hamilton said in these conversations it’s important to stay grounded in compassion and love and to take a long view—recognizing that dismantling systems that drive racial disparities is generational work, and therefore progress may feel slow at times.

There is not a roadmap everyone can follow for engaging donors in conversations about racial equity, but these four takeaways from fellow community foundations might offer a helpful start. As community foundations continue to lean into having a stronger point of view about racial equity in conversations with donors, continued peer learning and support will help advance the field’s understanding and practice.

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