Illustration by iStock/svetolk

This op-ed ran on December 14, 2020 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Liz Dozier, Founder & CEO of Chicago Beyond and Candice C. Jones, President & CEO of Public Welfare Foundation.

This year, as COVID-19 raged and our nation faced a collective racial reckoning, we’ve seen increased charitable giving both to Black communities and to Black-led organizations that are implementing new visions of justice and safety. But how can we ensure that this new burst in investment is more than a passing trend? How can we build awareness, systems, and processes to ensure these investments continue past this moment? Not only do these organizations need lasting and long-term support, but philanthropy needs to wrestle with past failures to invest in the very communities we claim to be working for. 

After all, there have long been glaring disparities. As the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy found, “the combined funding to Black communities is 1 percent of all community foundation funding while the combined Black population is 15 percent, resulting in an underfunding of Black communities of $2 billion.” This data point is a crisis of its own, all the more so in a moment marked by headlines warning about the possible extinction of nonprofits. Just this May, Echoing Green and The Bridgespan Group published a report outlining barriers to resources faced by Black leaders, particularly Black female leaders: Even where the work targeted Black communities, Black-led organizations had 45 percent less revenue and had 91 percent less unrestricted net assets than white-led organizations. 

The work is already being done, and many organizations have recently taken steps to get closer to the communities we serve. Public Welfare Foundation has narrowed and deepened investments in eight targeted locations to fund community-led ecosystems for justice reform. Chicago Beyond launched the Going Beyond initiative and the Backing the Fight Fund to reach and support Black and Brown communities during the pandemic and recent social movement. And we are not alone. Women of color leaders like Melanca Clark at Hudson-Webber Foundation and Yanique Redwood at Consumer Health Foundation are also drawing down resources for hyperlocal work. 

However, while the notion of giving to local, Black-led organizations will garner supportive head nods and maybe even a snap, ensuring investments to Black-led organizations continue—and grow—won’t be easy. How, then, can we ensure the sustained existence of Black-led community organizations serving on the frontlines and organizing mass demonstrations demanding change during this moment? 

1. Privilege Proximity

Philanthropy has long been rife with structural inequities, discrimination, and bias, privileging groups and individuals that have access to donors. But we too often conflate access and familiarity with potential for impact, while discounting the notion that proximate organizations have the most ability to drive change and a sustained commitment to the places they live and work. When we look at organizations like Chicago Beyond and the Going Beyond initiative, we see the importance of proximity in identifying and addressing specific community needs. Working hyperlocally on the ground in the South and West sides of Chicago, the initiative was able to pinpoint the type and magnitude of support their communities needed, delivering $250,000 per week of basic necessities to families, and adjusting distribution as needs evolved. Like Chicago Beyond, some community foundations have stepped up to ensure resources are driven to local nonprofits: organizations like the Greater Washington Community Foundation, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation have set up hyperlocal funds to help individuals quickly and effectively drive resources to community organizations, and ultimately, communities most in need. 

2. Re-Think What Works

Philanthropy has weaponized research by using it as a tool for gatekeeping the industry. Particularly when working with organizations run by people of color, we want evidence of “what works” while refusing to support the investments in research and scale necessary to provide it. Even when organizations are granted funding for research, researchers are often out of touch with the realities of people of color. Especially when research is, as it too often is, white institution-led, researchers can fail to ask the right questions or possess the humility when engaging with community members to listen and meaningfully partner with the groups being evaluated. 

We need funders who will invest in organizations led by people of color, recognizing that research in these areas is lacking because of cyclical underinvestment, not because of a lack of potential. It is only with commitment to funding that organizations in underdeveloped or unexplored areas can become active players in the philanthropy world. If we want to uphold our commitment to hearing and uplifting Black-led organizations, the industry must also make it a priority to reimagine leadership, increase diversity among research teams and expand equity across the field. 

3. Look Within

There is a real opportunity for funders to break up these power imbalances, increase access, expand the voices that we listen to, and diversify our funding portfolios. But this change will require that philanthropy wrestle, not just with broad racial-inequities in the world, but with the unique field-based inequities we drive and are uniquely positioned to disrupt. Funders need to see this shift as an opportunity to include new voices and the kind of ideas that seed transformation, as opposed to the exclusion of long-term organizations and partners on which we may over-rely. 

This work will necessitate humility as we revisit the composition of our boards, how we articulate funding strategies, our processes around grantmaking and reporting, and consistently tracking who gets access to our resources. Chicago Beyond’s Seven Inequities Framework is one tool funders can use to address these power dynamics in both research and grantmaking. The framework requires a greater awareness of inequities at play paired with consistent questioning such as who do we believe to be valid and who or what do we really value? Why? 

4. Support Emerging Leaders

To accelerate and sustain these efforts, let’s bet on organizations that are rooted in communities. Let’s trust, and invest in, emerging leaders with new, innovative ideas. Leaders like Hassan Lattif who started Colorado’s Second Chance Center out of the trunk of his car in 2012 to assist formerly incarcerated people as they work to re-establish their lives. The Center just opened a supportive housing center for returning individuals and has been critical in supporting rapid re-housing during the pandemic. In a state with an average recidivism rate of nearly 50 percent, the recidivism rate for Second Chance Center participants is under 10 percent. Leaders like Hassan are in every community, on the ground working every day in the same zip codes that have been most impacted by the pandemic and often reflect generations of systemic inequities. 

There is an opportunity for philanthropy to take a hard look at our funding policies and reorient to level the playing field and build an equitable future. We rely on community-led organizations when times get tough. They are the leaders who identify inequities early, organize to fight injustice, and humbly serve their communities by delivering basic needs. They don’t just show up in the moment of crisis; they show up every day. We owe it to them to do the same.