Philanthropy Responds to the Racial Equity Movement

A racial reckoning is upon us. The Black Lives Matter movement has rapidly expanded in the wake of highly publicized incidents of racist police violence. Mass mobilization in the streets of major cities as well as suburban and rural towns has taken form across the U.S. and around the world. Indeed, policing has been central in recent activism and calls to action across numerous sectors. But the moment upon us, which feels like a genuine inflection point, is shining a critical light on numerous dimensions of systemic racism, especially as it impacts Black communities.

It is not an accident that this moment is occurring during a pandemic. COVID-19 is demonstrating and deepening racial inequality in many aspects of life. In health, Black, Latinx, and indigenous populations are experiencing disproportionate infections and deaths. In education, students in traditionally under-resourced schools, largely of color, are falling further behind. In economics, jobless rates have been higher for people of color in the midst of a substantial disruption to already vulnerable circumstances in which Black communities have been beset with centuries of limited wealth.

On so many levels, the various faces of systemic racism have been more broadly visible in 2020. Philanthropy as a sector is no exception. However, philanthropy has been on a slow path toward greater efforts to confront racism and pursue racial equity in recent years. An increasing number of foundations and Philanthropy Serving Organizations (PSOs) have been, at the very least, more curious about racial equity since 2016. The actions of the past several weeks exhibit some willingness to change. But, will philanthropy experience its own sustained movement for racial equity and racial justice?  If so, what would be required to make this a reality?

Some Evidence of Increased Anti-Racist Commitments

In recent weeks, a number of foundations sharpened and expanded their commitment to racial equity and racial justice. A substantial number of these commitments have been made only as  statements. But we are also seeing increased giving to Black-led racial justice.

Some foundations have not only increased giving, but raised awareness about these organizations:

A number of foundations have been organizing convenings:

  • The Lumina Foundation supported a partnership between three Historically Black Colleges and Universities to improve student retention and graduation rates. The foundation organized a webinar with the presidents of the three HBCUs to discuss how they are leading during the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide calls for racial justice.
  • The W.K. Kellogg Foundation organized a virtual National Day of Racial Healing: Healing in Action event on June 25 in response to the intensifying police violence against Black men and women.
  • The San Francisco Foundation, The California Endowment, and The Stuart Foundation partnered with Northern California Grantmakers to organize Shaping the Moment into a Movement: Black Youth Voice and Leadership. The event provided an opportunity to hear from Black youth leaders and directors about the needs and priorities that are essential to shaping this moment into a movement and the concrete ways that funders can step up.

One important aspect of racial justice that will be increasingly significant in the coming months is voter participation:

  • The Langeloth Foundation announced that it will deploy $10 million to support civic participation for Black voters and voters of color who are disproportionately targeted by voter suppression and oppressive policing tactics. This new $10 million investment is a significant portion of the Langeloth Foundation’s $88 million endowment.

In the midst of COVID-19, an economic crisis, and a historical reckoning with systemic racism, a number of foundations are increasing giving, or finding creative ways to access capital that can be channeled into grantmaking.

  • The Ford Foundation’s Board authorized an increase of up to $1 billion in giving, financed through the sale of bonds, to help stabilize and strengthen nonprofits that are fighting against inequality and injustice and leading communities through a post-coronavirus recovery. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has also joined with the Ford Foundation and three other foundations to commit to expanding payout over the next two years, and will give up to $300 million. Combined, the five foundations are pledging over $1.7 billion in new resources.
  • The Andrew Mellon Foundation is adjusting its mission to give greater emphasis in grantmaking to programs that promote social justice. The new mission will focus on building “just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking where ideas and imagination can thrive.” As part of this effort they have created a $5.3 million program to distribute curated books to prisons across the country.
  • Several foundations and individual donors have signed an open letter calling for an Emergency Charity Stimulus Bill to mandate increased payout for private foundations from 5 to 10 percent over the next three years and to mandate the same payout requirement for Donor Advised Funds.
  • The James Irvine Foundation’s board approved exceeding their grantmaking budget to allow an additional $20 million to support efforts to end anti-Black racism and advance racial equity in California’s systems of economic opportunity. They will simultaneously develop a strategy for long-term and deeper support for racial equity efforts in their grantmaking initiatives and operations.
  • The Rockefeller Foundation has pledged an initial $10 million to launch the Rockefeller Opportunity Collective. The funds will be allocated to a collective of government, business, faith-based, and non-profit partners in 10 cities over 10 years to protect communities from displacement and eliminate barriers to access capital and credit among low-wage workers and small businesses operated by women, Black, and Latinx owners.
  • The Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Board of Directors approved a 7 percent drawdown from the Foundation’s endowment for the next fiscal year to ensure that during this volatile time, their nonprofit partners will not lose support.
  • The Libra Foundation is doubling their grantmaking to $50 million in 2020 in order to use this historic opportunity to address systemic racism.

Beyond grantmaking, some foundations have directly addressed how to increase impact investing to combat systemic racism:

  • Several foundations are signatories to the 2020 Belonging Pledge: A Commitment to Advance Racial Equity, which focuses on investing with a racial equity lens. Signatories committed to discussing racial equity at their next investment committee meeting and moving an agenda forward that includes next steps and results sharing.

Recently, a number of community foundations have been establishing funds to support initiatives in their localities with specific attention to race and organizations led by and serving Black and other communities of color:

  • The Seattle Foundation, which houses the COVID-19 Response Fund, announced it will award $9.2 million in grants from the Response Fund to more than 200 community organizations and prioritize Black-led and Black-serving nonprofits who are navigating growing needs.
  • The Seattle Foundation is also housing the Black Future Co-op Fund. The Fund will be a collective hub for efforts to eradicate poverty, build generational wealth, preserve Black Culture, and celebrate the incredible resilience of the Black community. Its architects are four Black women leaders with long histories working to support the Black community across Washington state.
  • The East Bay Community Foundation along with The City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Division, and Akondadi Foundation announced the launch of Belonging In Oakland: A Just City Cultural Fund. This is a new multi-year program that will fund Oakland cultural practitioners of color to radically imagine a racially just city. In the first year, the Fund will award approximately $300,000 for up to 12 grants of $25,000 to support ideas for what a racially just Oakland could look like.
  • The Brooklyn Community Foundation prioritizes support for grassroots organizations led by Black people and other people of color as part of their institutional commitment to racial justice. Additionally, they are committed to investing in Black and POC leaders to ensure they have the support they need to fight for change.

Considering Long Term Commitments

This is an extraordinary year that is challenging philanthropy to respond accordingly.  But questions remain about long term commitments. There is no short-term strategy that can adequately dismantle systemic racism. Some foundations are grappling with how to develop longer term programming. For example:

  • The California Endowment released a statement in which they committed themselves to specifically undertake a decade-long investment in community “power-building” and increasing investment in Black-led organizing, advocacy and movement building organizations. Additionally, they will track and report publicly on funding to communities of color and Black-led organizations, develop an explicit strategy to use impact investing tools to contribute to Black economic development, and create a new Director of Advancing Racial Equity reporting directly to the President and CEO. They are also creating a President’s Youth Council, to be comprised of youth who identify as Black, African American, Native/Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific Islander, who are engaged in social justice and health equity. They will serve in partnership with the CEO of the Foundation to shape its investment and culture.
  • The Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced that it will increase its annual spending to allocate an additional $48 million over the next five years to address critical system failures that underlie both COVID-19 and the enduring racial justice crisis. The spending plan includes $10 million for a new program focusing on racial justice that will identify systemic advances and fundamental changes in policy to dismantle structural racism.
  • Open Society Foundation is supporting what they call the “nation’s historic movement towards racial justice” by announcing investments totaling $220 million in emerging organizations and leaders building power in Black communities across the country.

Many will watch closely to see if a larger number of foundations institute multi-year commitments. In this moment, foundations are challenged to assess what they have done to date, determine what they can do now, and re-imagine for the long run. It is this third dimension that will provide us an indication of whether we are going to see a philanthropic movement toward racial equity and justice.

Philanthropy Responds to the Racial Equity Movement


About the author(s)

Founder and President
Marga Inc.