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How Black history has influenced the world of fundraising

January 11, 2022
Two women talk and hold hands, discussing black history in fundraising.

The history and lived experiences of African Americans are fundamental to the construction and growth of the United States. More often than not, we learn about Black or African American history as if it were a disjointed, disconnected part of American history. All too often Black history is left out of K-12 education and relegated to elective courses in college. This perpetuates the idea that the history of Black Americans is contained to a small series of key events and notable names, reduced to points on a timeline.  

Even though legislation technically outlawed “separate and unequal,” it continues and endures across systems. Black Americans are still subject to marginalization across systems like health care, education, workforce and employment, banking and lending, property rental and ownership, government programs, the carceral system, and philanthropy. 

In this guide, we’ll untangle the ways that historic marginalization and bias impact Black nonprofits and communities and the impact of Black history on the future of philanthropy.

Black history is American history.

A Long History of Blocked Wealth describes a wholly representative narrative of the experiences African Americans have lived across all geographies in the U.S. This is also representative of experiences within the context of philanthropy, its investments, practices, norms, habits, and image. As with other systems, philanthropy is known to be inequitably supportive across racial groups. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way Black history influenced the fundraising practices used and experienced by Black leaders.

It’s important to name and position this with unapologetic boldness and honesty because the historical lack of transparency is what supported persistent, perpetual discrimination and racism behind the scenes.  

No system has gone untouched by this history of blatant exclusion and disparate inclusion. We must acknowledge that racist and discriminatory practices have seeped into the philanthropic culture and become codified structures and norms. Philanthropy continues to grapple with how to prioritize and progress toward greater racial equity. 

There are many practices within the world of philanthropy that reflect embedded bias and discrimination. The following elements call for specific and swift change:   

  • Grant announcements, processes, and administration.
  • The language used in grant applications, solicitations, and how (and by whom) problems are defined.
  • Biases and unequal definitions regarding being considered a “risk” or a “risky investment.”
  • Weak relationships, limited communications, and a lack of trust between funders and Black nonprofit and community leaders relative to their white peers and counterparts.
  • Grantmaking organization boards and nonprofit leaders who center and favor the “circle of influence” white leaders bring, perpetuating the myth that Black (and diverse) leaders can’t secure the investments their white counterparts can. 

Philanthropy is undergoing a long-awaited period of introspection, shifting from an elitist mindset to dedicating a greater part of the mainstream movement to centering change and racial equity.  

How does this impact and implicate philanthropy’s future?  

Philanthropy is undertaking a re-imagining on multiple levels. Recent years highlighted that race is a fundamental factor in shaping outcomes. Grantmaking organizations on national, regional, and local levels are acknowledging the irrefutable disparities while responding to their constituents’ urgent needs. 

The future of philanthropy is filled with so many possibilities, and despite historic wrongs, the philanthropic space is filled with hope and courage to keep speaking up, expressing truth, and calling on leadership to navigate uncharted territories. 

As we move forward, funders must center equity in philanthropy by acknowledging the biased structures and behaviors that have become systematized in practice. These systems of power require intentional awareness and dismantling to eradicate.  

An equitable future in philanthropy includes expanding diversity in grantmaker leadership, leading with values, and enhancing trust between grantmakers and communities. Be mindful to avoid over-complicating what listening, learning, and unlearning looks like in practice.  

There are a great number of Black philanthropists who lead within an inequitable system. There are also many leaders serving as strong examples for piloting and implementing procedural, operational, and evaluation changes to create more equitable philanthropic efforts and investments.  

To celebrate Black History Month, Sherece-West Scantelbury, CEO of Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Janine Lee, CEO and president of Philanthropy Southeast, joined us to discuss how our often painful history has shaped philanthropy and what progress looks like for the future of philanthropy.

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    Grants Management
  • Diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging (DEIB)
  • Social justice
  • Philanthropists
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  • Grant management & grant making