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Amy Brown headshot

Philanthropy, Race and Overcoming Lack of Access to Networks

By Amy Brown

As discussed yesterday, the world of philanthropy wields powerful influence, but that generosity often leaves out people of color. Two of the biggest factors holding back philanthropy’s quest for social change are rooted in race, according to recent research from Echoing Green and The Bridgespan Group. One is understanding the role of race in the problems that philanthropists are trying to solve. The second is the significance of race when it comes to how philanthropists identify leaders and find solutions.

“We found a clear barrier is getting connected—that leaders of color need equitable access to social networks that enable these vital connections to the philanthropic community,” said Echoing Green President Cheryl Dorsey in a recent interview with TriplePundit.

“This came up time and time again in our conversations with leaders. A leader of color is invited to a conference, for example—I’ve experienced this myself—and at the end of the conference, you find out there was a meeting within the meeting,” Dorsey added. “A small group of funders invited a small group of nonprofit leaders to meet at the hotel bar or to go out to dinner, and the leader of color just didn't have access to that invitation or that conversation, which was directly correlated with their inability to build these relationships that lead to funding.”

When evidence-based philanthropy is “weaponized”

Another barrier people of color face in the philanthropy community is the difficulty in building rapport with funders. “Even if you can get connected to these funders, there are all sorts of ways that interpersonal bias can show up and inhibit the ability to build trusting relationships between a funder and a leader of color,” Dorsey said.

“Yet another barrier is the getting across the finish line and getting that funder to write the check. Funders will often lack understanding of culturally relevant approaches that proximate leaders of color bring to the table,” continued Dorsey. “Leaders of color will often hear, ‘I would really like to fund solutions generated by communities of color, but there's just not enough evidence of effectiveness, or it's just not clear they have the capacity to execute on the work’. And it's a vicious cycle of disadvantage. Because quite often, leaders of color don't have organizational capacity because funders don't invest in them.”

As Dorsey noted, “Evidence-based philanthropy can be weaponized to exclude leaders of color who are often nearest to the issues that their communities face and are really rolling up their sleeves to do deep, complicated, complex social change work that doesn't necessarily lend itself to easily measurable variables. How do you dismantle 350 years of structural racism around wealth and credit? There's not going to be one metric that you can easily use to measure that organization against. It’s much more complicated and nuanced and sophisticated than that.”

Three steps for funders to remedy the barriers

The research by Echoing Green and Bridgespan recommended three steps, or three “gets,” for donors to remedy these barriers:

Get proximate: Actively build knowledge of, connection to, and mutual trust with communities most impacted by the social change issues you seek to address, through intentional learning and investment.

Get reflective: Collect, analyze and reflect on data disaggregated by race for your portfolio in order to unearth and assess assumptions and biases that are limiting your philanthropy. Then make necessary shifts to your organizational culture, process, and investment norms.

Get accountable: Set racial equity goals to build power among community members and leaders proximate to the problems you seek to address. Share these goals with others who can hold you accountable.

What occurs when powerful change agents are set free

“When we look at social innovators, they are a powerful agent of change for a whole host of reasons. They have that entrepreneurial and disruptive mindset that allows them to leapfrog and fundamentally re-imagine how things are done in a particular field,” Dorsey said.

Echoing Green’s Fellows are illustrative of what can happen when people of color break through the barriers. Gina Clayton-Johnson, for example, founded Essie Justice Group, the mission of which is to build a women-led movement to end mass incarceration by uniting, supporting and empowering women with incarcerated loved ones. 

Gina Clayton-Johnson, the founder of Essie Justice Group,
Gina Clayton-Johnson, the founder of Essie Justice Group, a women-led movement seeking to end mass incarceration by uniting, supporting and empowering women with incarcerated loved ones.

T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison launched GirlTrek, which seeks to pioneer a health movement for black women and girls grounded in civil rights history and principles through walking campaigns, community leadership and health advocacy.

And Colette Pichon Battle started the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) to promote equity in Gulf Coast communities of color that are most affected by climate change by providing community stabilizing legal services and ecological equity training and support for civic participation.

Without engaging companies, there is no scale

That Echoing Green’s new fund is focused on engaging the corporate community in a big way is quite intentional, Dorsey explained. “They are such profoundly important institutions in our global economy that if they are ignored and are marginalized, we do not get anywhere. At its core, movement building is about changing hearts and minds at scale. So to me, it would be malpractice not to include the millions and millions of business leaders who sit on top so many resources. They provide the opportunities to scale the work of these incredible social change agents.”

She added: “And it’s a nice win-win for these companies, as being part of social impact has become a really important part of employee engagement and retention. The reason we’ve focused on engaging 10,000 employees is that we’re trying to be ambitious and audacious and to what we can to reach a tipping point. To get that many people engaged could be really powerful for shifting the way that these business leaders think about their personal role as civic leaders, but also the role of their companies and the civic footprint that they are responsible for in economies across the globe.”

Dorsey rounded out her interview with 3p by saying she hopes that Echoing Green has been successful in “holding up a mirror to the world of philanthropy and saying, ‘To get the results, you have to do the work.’ And it starts with investing in black and brown leaders. If you care about social impact, that is your shortest path to impact on all of these deeply entrenched issues.”

Image credit: Essie Justice Group/Facebook

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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