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Why Racial Equity and Racial Justice Are Vital for Philanthropy

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Five years ago, United Philanthropy Forum joined many of our colleagues in their long-standing efforts to advance racial equity in the philanthropy sector, and each year our work has deepened and expanded. Responding to the interests of our members, we have offered many programs, services and resources to help our more than 90 philanthropy-serving organization (PSO) members advance racial equity in their own organizations and with their foundation members, and we have begun doing more intensive racial equity work in our own organization. We are not doing this work because any funders are pressuring us (and increasingly the work has become part of our core budget and not supported by any targeted funding). We are doing this work because we want to embody the change that we seek in philanthropy and in our country.

Our hope is that someday you will not be able to predict any aspect of a person’s well-being based solely on the color of their skin, but sadly that is not the case today. If you look at just about any issue that philanthropy cares about, from education to health care to the environment, some of the greatest disparities are along racial and ethnic lines. These racial and ethnic disparities of social and economic well-being have persisted for decades, and in many cases, the gaps are widening, despite billions in philanthropic investment. The Black and white wealth divide is as wide today as it was in 1968. Those disparities were clearly exposed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year and a half. Philanthropists need to ask why this is the case, and that requires looking at this work through a racial equity lens.

This means that philanthropic leaders, particularly white leaders, need to rethink all aspects of how they do their work, from who is on their staffs and boards to who and how they fund the work of nonprofits to their willingness to abundantly resource people working deeply in communities of color to improve people’s lives in meaningful and lasting ways. It requires philanthropy to significantly increase funding to nonprofit organizations led by people who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian American/Pacific Islander, to trust that these leaders know how to use the funds by following trust-based philanthropy practices; and much more. This is not easy work, and yet a wide range of Forum members continue to work diligently to help their philanthropic members learn how to advance racial equity in authentic and impactful ways.

The Forum is also clear that focusing more philanthropic resources to ensuring equitable outcomes for people of color does not come at the expense of foundation funding to rural America, where racial and ethnic minorities comprise about 22 percent of the population. This is not a zero-sum game. In fact, the Forum has just launched a new initiative to encourage more and more effective philanthropic funding to rural America. Prioritizing racial equity in philanthropy is not mutually exclusive to addressing historically concentrated poverty that exists in many rural communities. These issues are intersectional.

Philanthropy’s focus on racial equity requires not just looking at how funders might need to adjust their grantmaking practices to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, but also a look at how public policies can serve to reduce or exacerbate these disparities. One only need to read Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” for example, to understand how explicit federal, state and local housing policies over many generations have caused racial segregation that has contributed to widening wealth disparities by race and ethnicity. Working to end such policies and ensure that future policies close the disparity gaps, and do not widen them, will ensure more fairness in how our government works in order to present a more just and equitable system for everyone, with changes being led by people of color. This is why one of the six principles guiding the Forum’s public policy work is to “champion racial equity and justice.” This is not about political ideology or about left vs. right, even though some may paint it as such. It is about fairness for all.

As for the Forum’s internal work on racial equity, we are focused ensuring that all of the Forum’s internal policies, practices and operations reflect our values of equity and inclusion and our vision of a “courageous philanthropic sector that catalyzes a just and equitable society where all can participate and prosper.” Our internal racial equity work has never been about tearing some people down or demanding that those with privilege be punished. The work has been about ensuring that our staff, 60 percent of whom are people of color, are equally valued, respected, acknowledged and empowered in our organization. It is about understanding that if you have an organization where the staff and board bring diverse perspectives, experiences and backgrounds, and if you cultivate an equitable environment in which everyone is able to thrive and do their best work, you will have a more effective organization. This is not always easy work, for sure, but it is vital to being a relevant and successful organization in the 21st century. 

In terms of “privilege,” racial equity work also requires white people like me to acknowledge when we have received advantages in our lives and careers due to our race. For example, my parents received a mortgage in the 1950s for their first home through a program that was not available to people of color (see Rothstein above), which helped to increase our family’s future wealth in a way that was not available for everyone. I got my first internship thanks to connections that my father had at the company where he worked. That’s not to say that I did not work super-hard to get where I am in my career, because I did, but there are people who do not look like me who have worked just as hard or harder than me but did not enjoy the same advantages due to the color of their skin. In order to eliminate these inequities in the future, we have to acknowledge and come to terms with our country’s systemic racism of the past and present. That is the only way we can move forward to a more equitable and liberated future for all.

United Philanthropy Forum remains committed to deepening our work with our staff and board, and with all of the members of our national philanthropy network, to advance racial equity and racial justice in philanthropy. It is simply the right thing to do if you care about a fair and just society where all people can prosper.

David Biemesderfer
President & CEO
United Philanthropy Forum
Follow me @dbiemesderfer