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By Erin Okuno, with thanks to Heidi Schillinger
“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
I’ve been mulling over the question of philanthropy and foundation’s roles in equity for several weeks. Working in the nonprofit sector most of my jobs, including my current job, have been funded by private philanthropy. At the risk of pissing off an entire sector and any future job prospects we have to talk about foundations, philanthropy, and racial equity. Many foundations and the philanthropic sector are having or starting to have conversations about their role in advancing racial equity. This is a welcomed change from the “we know best” savior mentality, and power lording over nonprofits. Even with these burgeoning conversations we owe it to those we serve to have the broader conversation about foundations and equity.
If you ask me today if foundations can achieve equity, my answer is no. The current practices and landscape of foundations and the philanthropic sector today does not allow foundations to be equitable. They can adapt their practices to be more equitable, but overall the way philanthropy is currently practiced falls into either providing access to money or programming our way to equity.
Can We Achieve Equity through Inequity?
Jondou Chen, a fakequity partner, is fond of asking the question “Can we achieve equity through inequitable means?” Many of the foundations existing today came about because of private wealth of some sort. Much of the private wealth generated in the United States was through exploitative means of people of color. Through policies such as slavery, underpayment of pocs, red lining, state sponsored practices such as inadequate funding of schools, opportunity hoarding, and other societal practices that favor white people. Wealth and opportunities benefited white people and allowed for wealth accumulation over time. Philanthropy has become a benevolent way for white people to feel ok about their wealth and to work to redistribute it, and at the same time it is also another way for white people to benevolently control the destinies of people of color. Put another way, it is a way for white people to incentivize and reward organizations who can code switch, model off of whiteness, or reward white problem solving for communities of color.
In a slightly off-topic but related story, I once spoke on a panel to mostly wealthy white people who were learning about philanthropy. I kept using the word equity and the philanthropist kept giving me weird looks. I finally stopped and threw a question to them. I asked “How do you define equity?” A bold person said “you mean like financial equity where you build wealth through investments.” In that moment I realized we were having two very different conversations and two different starting points for understanding equity. Since then I’ve become more clear about defining racial equity and not just using the word equity. It also crystallized that white controlled philanthropy has a very different starting point for understanding the impact of their role in undoing racism. In that room there was a skewed balance of power that tipped to the philanthropist because of wealth, being in a collective setting, and control of the agenda. I also wonder if they were ready to think about how their giving upholds or dismantles racism — they probably weren’t ready since I was standing between them and a buffet lunch on real china not paper plates.
In the book Unicorns Unite how Nonprofits & Foundations Can Build EPIC Partnerships co-authored by my friend-colleague Vu Le, the authors write that foundation’s money is for the common good. Once money is put into a foundation it ceases to belong to the person who placed it in the foundation. Yet, even with this belief and practice, many of the foundations existing today consciously or unconsciously practice white-biases and even white supremacy.
Whiteness shows up in who is on the board and staff, how the grant priorities and guidelines are put together, in the processes for distributing funds and the metrics used to measure success.
On a practical level I understand how these practices emerged and the demand to use money wisely. And yet we must acknowledge the inequities and unconscious racism embedded in the philanthropic system. Philanthropy wasn’t designed for people of color’s ease of navigation or access, and it definitely wasn’t designed for poc wellbeing or comfort, including for pocs working in philanthropy.
Who has Power and Control
Whether we acknowledge it or not foundations and philanthropy have a lot of control and power over agendas and nonprofits. Some of the power is used for good and some of it misplaced. When a foundation wants to make a shift or prioritize a new way of working they will signal that shift in their giving and if nonprofits who rely upon those dollars want the money to continue doing their work they have to comply with the shift. Sometimes the change is appropriate and it modernizes nonprofit practices. But when these changes are forced upon a community and without community voice to help shape the change that is how fakequity happens.
The nonprofit sector emerged to fill the gaps that government, individuals, and others can’t fill. We don’t like seeing hungry kids, unhoused people, animals being abused, or racism run amok – the nonprofit industry (it is an industry) chooses to act. We do it because we want to see change, but in order for the change to be equitable it has to be led by the community and those most impacted by the change – not driven by an outside agenda dangling a carrot of payment. This at the heart of Jondou’s question “can we achieve equity through inequitable means?”
Foundations, as we know them today, aren’t designed to share control and power. They are designed to have an agenda and to fund organizations that align with their agendas not a community of color driven agenda. The current model of foundation giving, even pooled giving or poc centered giving, doesn’t allow for this. Pooled and poc centered giving is still built off of models of white-philanthropy, so while foundations and funds centered on poc voice and experience are more equitable they still adopted many of the practices (e.g. grant guidelines, applications, contracts, etc.) and are accountable (i.e. IRS tax structure, laws governing nonprofits, etc.) to whiteness. If we are to achieve racial equity and racial justice we have to believe communities of color should be in control of our own destinies and build a structure centered on pocs, not rebuilding off of whiteness.
Foundation’s Can do Better
In order to do better we need to change. Jondou shared this quote from poet and activist June Jordan “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” We can’t wait for some outside force to bring about the change.
Since we probably won’t see a wholesale change to the philanthropic sector I will leave you with some questions to ponder:
- Riffing off of the Martin Luther King quote at the top, is your foundation/giving looking at root causes of inequities for people of color?
- Who is defining the request for proposal? Is it being informed by what pocs want to see funded? Have pocs been given the space and resources to think and redefine what a radical solution could look like?
- Is the foundation’s board and staff willing to slow down and acknowledge the biases, power, proximity to other forms of power, and inequities it holds?
- Is the foundation willing to share power and control and undo structures that favor dominant culture?
- Borrowing off of another Jondou question, is the foundation willing to ask “What are the justices our community needs from us, and how can we be in a just relationship with each other?” Acknowledging both the giver and receiver have to have a more balanced role with each other.
- Is the foundation willing to change, does it have the courage and humility to change? Will the organization let go of past practices, people, relationships that no longer fit a new vision? Is it willing to put resources into building new relationships and willing to go slow to build trust and put money towards trying new ways of giving?
If we can move foundations to being in more just and equitable maybe I’ll come around to believing foundations can achieve equity.
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