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Leon Kaye headshot

In America’s Philanthropy Community, Giving Out Green is Far Too White

Researchers crunched the numbers and concluded that in the world of philanthropy, white nonprofit leaders disproportionately benefit from such largess.
By Leon Kaye

As we settle into this very uncomfortable new normal of coping with COVID-19’s impact on how we live, work and learn, companies and the communication professionals promoting them are now quick to showcase how generous they are. And considering the federal government’s bumbling while local governments are close to the brink, every dollar counts. But there’s a problem: A group of researchers crunched the numbers and concluded that in the world of philanthropy, white nonprofit leaders have been disproportionately benefitting from all this largess.

It’s discouraging enough that philanthropic giving is largely driving down the route Hollywood has paved with movies such as Green Book, which infer, “I’m white, I know better and I’m here to help.” But at a time when racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately bearing the brunt of suffering and death from COVID-19 while they are largely the “warriors” who are fighting this fight, those Americans who feel as if they’ve been thrown under the bus have every right to feel concerned over how – or in reality, if - they will recover in the long term. Philanthropy will have to step in. The challenge is to ensure the communities that need help the most will receive it.

A joint study by the Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green makes a pointed conclusion: If philanthropic foundations want to succeed in enacting social change, they need to tap into the communities they say they wish to make stronger. From the point of view of this study’s authors, two obstacles are in the way of philanthropy’s push to make society better. First, philanthropic leaders need to understand the role that race plays when it comes to the problem these foundations are keen on solving. In addition, race has been a factor in how many philanthropists have recognized leaders and identify solutions.

Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green acknowledge that the quest to do social good comes from a good place. “However, what is often missing from philanthropy’s discussions about achieving results is how much successfully changing the world depends on bringing an intentional, explicit, and sustained focus to addressing racial disparities across the problems we are trying to solve.”

And therein lies the rub: Ensuring that nonprofit leaders of color receive the funding they need is critical, as many of them can empathize with the stubborn problems that their communities confront day after day. Hence this disconnect is seen in how black-led organizations struggle with a lack of funding. Compared to white-led nonprofits, the black-led organizations this study analyzed had revenues 24 percent smaller. And when it comes to unrestricted funding – i.e. funding and grants that come with no strings attached – black-led organizations’ funding streams are 76 percent smaller.

According to the Bridgespan Group’s analysis, nonprofit leaders of color face four major barriers within the philanthropy sector. First, they lack the access to networks, and therefore connections, that are so important in this space. Interpersonal bias that often leads to misunderstanding also comprises a problem. Funders frequently rely on standard forms of evaluation that don’t take into account the needs of foundations that are led by, and work with, people and communities of color. Finally, the study’s authors are frank in their assessment that the sustaining of such relationships does not come easy in a world where “white-centric” views reign supreme.

The researchers at Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green acknowledge that some foundations are now taking racial equity into account when they proceed through the grantmaking cycle. Their study mentions Borealis Philanthropy, The Charter School Growth Fund, Chicago Community Foundation, Ford Foundation, San Francisco Foundation and Weingart Foundation as organizations that have changed how they evaluate grant proposals.

“Population-level impact in the issues donors care about cannot happen without funding more leaders of color and funding them more deeply,” concludes the study. “The question now becomes what philanthropists are going to do about that.”

At a higher level, the authors make it clear: The first three steps philanthropy leaders should take are to get proximate, get reflective and get accountable. And those are lessons that companies can apply internally as they take a close look at both their corporate giving and diversity programs.

Image credit: Mario Goph/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye