This Moment in History: The Call for Philanthropy’s Transformation

Conversations regarding racial equity in the field of philanthropy have been growing for the last two decades. Amid a worldwide health pandemic that has gravely impacted Black and Brown communities, and the greatest civil unrest in recent history, our society’s complacency with state-sanctioned neglect and violence against Black bodies has become even more evident. Where has philanthropy’s advocacy been present in advancing our collective conversations around an anti-racism agenda?  As philanthropy wrestles with the sector’s willingness for accountable change, it is more evident that philanthropy’s espoused values of equity have essentially been absent from influencing the systemic and institutional racism that has plagued our communities.

We know philanthropic institutions, with their power, privilege, insularity, opacity, and risk-aversion also have been significant players in the problem---upholding and perpetuating the very attitudes and actions of oppression that we claim we are working against. The stark reality of death in front of us has been true for some time in other ways as well: the high infant mortality rate for Black babies and high murder rate for trans women of color across the country are two indicators of this. Our call to our philanthropic colleagues is that there is no longer time for a well-planned “dress rehearsal” for racial equity---we either support collective liberation for our communities or we do not.

Our communities are in desperate need of our bold leadership. We must become accountable to the people most impacted, influential where our power can be most leveraged, and humble in following the lead of community leadership, especially Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC).

a diverse group of young professionals working together on a project

These communities are not a monolith but encompass many intersectional and critical identities in addition to race/ethnicity:  immigrants, queer and trans folks, individuals with disabilities, and many more.

There are many calls to philanthropy in this time for how we can release more dollars into communities or be more intentional about our areas of investment, especially as it relates to centering the Black community and addressing anti-Black racism within the health and criminal justice sectors. In our philanthropic work over the past few years, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation has deepened our understanding of the “how” for advancing this type of work, which has allowed us to bring more intentionality into   strategies in this time. Two bodies of work that have been instrumental in this are our Anti-Racist Transformation Team (ARTT) focused on our internal operations and our Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) work externally focused on community-wide issues and strategies. The wisdom held in these spaces has taught us what authentic transformation of philanthropy can look like when we work and lead alongside community in reimagining shared power and accountability of an institution.

The following key principles for advancing racial equity in our transformation process have helped guide us. These lessons have informed our ability as an institution to pivot to the demands of this time (in some areas better than others) as well as ensured that we are building something sustainable and transformative beyond this moment. We share these with the acknowledgement and humility that these lessons have not come easily and are still very much in raw formation as we continue to “build the bike” as we ride it. No transformational journey is easy, linear, or without conflict and this reality is very true for us as we engage this work.

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Center Authentic and Accountable Relationships

More than ever, we are seeing how our humanity, suffering, and resilience are interwoven. For too long as philanthropic institutions, we have upheld formal relationships of power as gate keepers of resources, rather than working with community as co-creators and stewards of resources.

One of the most powerful aspects in the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s internal and external racial equity work has been the transformative relationships with community, especially BIPOC, that we have built. Many of these have been unlikely relationships among people who may have never been directly connected otherwise but these relationships  have deeply impacted  the people involved.

Relationships have been the force that upholds our accountability to community in this work. These relationships allow us to better understand the diverse experiences across our community in a way that shapes our perceptions of issues and the solutions we advocate for. These relationships have forced a reimagining of a shifting power structure and they are the bedrock that sustains us as we navigate tension points that accompany our work. As a result, we have come to know deeper healing, learning, and understanding of our shared humanity despite other dominant narratives around race that strive to divide us further. Within philanthropy, these narratives play out in that People of Color, especially Black folks, are seen as not worthy of investment and issues of poverty or violence are often blamed on BIPOC. Philanthropy upholds the narrative of the “haves” and “have nots” through the White savior complex of who has power and resources to determine the life trajectories of our communities who have been most oppressed. Shifting our relationships with one another has invited us to live into re-envisioning a space where all belong and where BIPOC are not only present in the room, but their voices/perspectives are centered.

Specifically, during this time, the existing relationships with community manifested into regular gathering spaces and outreach phone calls with community leaders with the central questions:

  • How do we support each other and community in this time?
  • What resources are needed for frontline workers and organizers?
  • How do we have real accountability around inadequate services, actions of police, and key decision makers?

We at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation are currently asking ourselves what is the new infrastructure and decision-making processes that engages internal and external stakeholders to foster more shared power and to inform our strategy going forward.  We recognize that reimagining our power structure alongside community can lead to different funding strategies, advocacy, and policies in our work. Most recently, we have engaged community ARTT members in considering shifts in our current spending policy and TRHT members in informing actions on local issues of racism disproportionately impacting the Black community.

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Building the Infrastructure

Committed resources have been critical to institutionalizing these bodies of work inside our foundation--financial resources, staffing, organizational staff support, elevating the leadership of  Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and valuing the lived experience of  these individuals through paid community leadership have been essential. We cannot build a new system using the same playbook, staff, and skillsets we used before. We have learned that we have to train for it, recruit for it, prioritize it in our budgets, build decision-making processes that support it, and plan for it at all levels of the organization.

The infrastructure we have been building at KZCF means that we are ensuring that we have more leadership in place for accountability to assure that racial disparities and adaptations needed for COVID-19 have been kept on the radar of our larger communities’ responses. Our infrastructure has also allowed us to deepen conversations quickly, as we did during the uprising after George Floyd’s murder,  a working team in our Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation program already had work in progress focused on transformation of our criminal justice system. This allowed for quicker responses in collective statements at our local commission meetings speaking out against state-sanctioned violence against the Black community.

icon of person with lightbulb (idea)

Allow Strategies to Emerge

Book cover of emergent strategy by adrienne maree brownWe have learned that our racial equity work is not a static process or a set of policies to be adapted but a living body of work that is constantly evolving, growing, and emerging. Maintaining flexibility and organically allowing new strategies to emerge is critical. When working in deep relationship with community, the issues and potential solutions that are generated can be much greater than any goal, metric or strategy that was predetermined. Building in consistent reflection processes that elevate community voice and learning lead to a recognition of when these shifts are happening so we can better follow the community’s lead.

Activist adrienne maree brown  highlights this concept in her book Emergent Strategy: “We will adapt to change or become irrelevant.” As a philanthropic entity, we have to be with community in the unknown, in the non-linear path of growth, validating diverse cultural norms of doing work, and in transformation that is not easily quantifiable in numbers.

This means we must often challenge our socialized notion of “risk” and invest our resources creatively to test and allow new spaces for innovation to take shape. It means unlearning our socialization (both as oppressor and oppressed), consistently naming our biases, rethinking how we view impact and evaluation, and being open to sit in discomfort and uncertainty around the next phases of the work. Navigating these shifts and movements requires skilled leadership to bring everyone along and to uphold focus on the larger vision for a world that would be absent of the need for our philanthropy.

An emergent strategy lens in this moment has allowed for a re-focusing and re-imagining of our work in real time. Our Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation team recognized the critical need for healing and community connection through the launch of the Virtual Healing Project that has supported community healing processes in navigating COVID-19 as well as civil unrest. Hearing feedback about barriers to access, our grantmaking and finance staff were able to respond to a need from grassroots organizations by helping them apply for the Paycheck Protection Program – a response that happened within 24 hours. There was an expedited grant approval process for key grantees in need of immediate resources just as shelter-in-place orders hit. These newfound ways to act with urgency also laid the foundation for quick actions to renewed unrest after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – we had already built spaces for virtual community dialogue and had tested a process to move resources more quickly.  Foundations have not been used to quick, nimble, and innovative action and yet our effectiveness on behalf of equitable community action demands it for us to stay relevant.

Illustration of mentoring and training concepts

Our Influence Goes Beyond Funding

While grants are often seen as our central function, we need to recognize our power and influence in other ways that can lead us to the change we want to see. We must ask ourselves additional questions:

  • How are our endowments invested and do these investments advance our goals of equity? [In 2019, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation established a Socially Responsible Investment option in order to increase alignment with our core values and equity priority.]
  • Do our processes and policies support power building in communities of color?
  • What community tables are we at and how are we leveraging those roles to influence decisions from a racial equity framework in our community?
  • How can we support and create opportunities for leadership from BIPOC who don’t often have a seat at the table?
  • What narratives can we share that will influence local media, philanthropists, and other decision-makers around an anti-racism and racial justice agenda?
  • How can we engage in advocacy work alongside community partners at the local and state levels?

Our sector is called to radically reimagine our relationship to power and our way of being in authentic partnership and accountability with communities of color. Philanthropy has a vital opportunity to be shaped by this moment—and to lead in this moment toward an agenda of justice for our communities. This is an opportunity to authentically center people, their livelihood, dignity, and human rights in a way that has too easily has been lost in our work and is essential for longer-term impact and sustainability of our racial equity work.  The lives and health of our communities are truly depending on it.

Questions for Reflection

  • How will this moment shape your foundation to institutionalize your equity commitments in different ways going forward?
  • What is the current state of your foundation’s relationship with communities of color? How will your relationship and accountability with communities of color look different toward greater transformation?

Additional Reading

COVID-19: Using a Racial Justice Lens Now to Transform Our Future (Lori Villarosa, Nonprofit Quarterly)

Have nonprofit and philanthropy become the “white moderate” that Dr. King warned us about? (Vu Le,

“We Must be in It for the Long Haul”: Black Foundation Executives Request Action by Philanthropy on Anti-Black Racism (ABFE, The Skillman Foundation Blog)


This Moment in History: The Call for Philanthropy’s Transformation


About the author(s)

Director for the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation
Kalamazoo Community Foundation

Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Kalamazoo Community Foundation