A New Wave of Philanthropy to Support Black-Led Organizations

Crystal Hayling

The murder of George Floyd by a police officer — one in an unbroken string of unjust Black deaths at the hands of law enforcement — has triggered an unprecedented national outpouring of grief, rage, and demands for change throughout the country. The fact that these overwhelmingly nonviolent protests have been met with a militaristic police response, and in several instances with modern-day KKK gangs of white nationalist vigilantes, has heightened awareness of the differential treatment experienced by Black and white Americans.

Our nation’s chronic crisis of racial injustice has also, of course, collided with the health and economic crises of COVID-19, in which poor people have largely been left to fend for themselves. And all of this is taking place during an election year of unparalleled and historic importance.

And yet, despite the overwhelming attacks on Black communities, philanthropy has failed to adequately resource Black-led organizations at the center of transformative change. For years, social justice movements have demanded that philanthropy look in the mirror and see the ways the field replicates the harmful systems that it insists it wants to change. Activists have long warned that this lack of action undermines the very pillars of democracy. For example, modern-day Jim Crow laws expressly designed to suppress Black votes are now being widely deployed to suppress all voting — while most of philanthropy sits on the sidelines.

Doing Philanthropy Differently

In response to these events, the Libra Foundation Board and staff gathered a small but dedicated group of foundations prepared to rise to this moment. The result is the launch of the Democracy Frontlines Fund (DFF), a funder collaborative that seeks to disrupt traditional philanthropic practices in three ways: 1) by providing multiyear, general operating support to take on the issues Black leaders identified as critical — regardless of whether they matched participating foundations’ program area guidelines; 2) by putting decision-making power into the hands of people with expertise in funding social movements (a panel we call the “Brain Trust”); and 3) by building a learning community among the initiative’s funders, grantees, and the Brain Trust that will, over a three-year period, engage deeply in the hard conversations about racism and work to bring effective anti-racism into philanthropy.

As a collective giving and learning community, the Fund will resource and be in relationship with Black-led organizers — the majority of whom fight voter suppression through long-term voter engagement efforts and push for defunding the carceral system in order to build safe and healthy communities.

Although many foundations have been quick to post statements and announce commitments related to racial justice, the vast majority of these pledges do not explicitly name the philanthropic approaches and practices that need to be undone in order to shift from transactional to transformational giving.

Among philanthropic initiatives on race, DFF is unique in that we are funding the country’s most impactful racial justice groups — led by and for Black communities — with unrestricted dollars and no red tape. We are listening to the will and self-determined priorities of Black communities, supporting them, and getting out of the way.

Not tomorrow, but today. Not alone, but together.

The DFF slate of 10 grantees includes national organizations building sustainable local power. These groups are in partnership with one another and are committed to reimagining safety; amplifying the voices of disenfranchised voters; and prioritizing Black, LGBTQI+, youth, disabled, undocumented, and formerly incarcerated leadership. The DFF slate illustrates that change happens at the speed of trust, and that no organization can effectively tackle our society’s problems without including those disproportionately affected.

Lessons Learned

The Libra Foundation has funded people of color (POC)-led groups in the social justice space for years, and we applied what we’ve learned about funding in this space to the core strategy for the Fund.

These are the key lessons we brought with us into this effort: We must listen to our grantees, even when they tell us uncomfortable truths. We must help organizations that are controversial, struggling, or just getting started in the work, too, since these are the organizations often leading change where it’s most needed. We must back up our allies. And we must be willing to be corrected if we make a mistake.

Importantly, we in philanthropy also have to do our own work. In our learning community, we will examine the ways white supremacy inhibits philanthropic effectiveness, identify blind spots that privilege creates, and build authentic relationships with grantees and movement leaders. We will work together to shed the bad habits of philanthropy’s paternalistic and racist past in order to build new practices of trust and partnership.

Philanthropy has a special responsibility to help our nation confront and resolve systemic racism. Meeting that responsibility starts with a fundamental shift in the way our sector does business. We must focus on supporting the people on the frontlines who have gained the trust of the most vulnerable among us. The Democracy Frontlines Fund is just the first wave of change toward that goal. We must keep going until justice is no longer out of reach for anyone in America.

Crystal Hayling is executive director of the Libra Foundation. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at @thelibrafound.

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