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Foundations and the Depth of Racial Equity

Date: February 10, 2022

Shireen Zaman

Program Officer, Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD), Ford Foundation

Chris Cardona

Managing Director, Discovery, Exploration, and Programs New Work, MacArthur Foundation

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As program officers at the Ford Foundation who helped commission CEP’s two-part study, Foundations Respond to Crisis, we’re heartened to see that many funders plan to maintain the more flexible practices they adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice uprisings. It’s also encouraging to see more commitments to racial equity and racial justice (with the important caveats raised by the “Mismatched” report from Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity), and more support for BIPOC-led and -focused organizations. It’s unfortunate that it took these twin crises for funders to shift practices in a measurable way, but it has demonstrably happened.

Thus far, these investments have rightly focused on addressing anti-Black racism and the chronic underinvestment in Black-led organizations, as documented by Echoing Green & Bridgespan as well as ABFE over the years. We hope that, as foundations’ commitment to racial equity continues and deepens, we can also adopt a more inclusive and nuanced view of what racial equity actually means in a society as diverse as the United States.

A striking finding in the CEP study is that within racial equity, it is primarily to Black- and Latino-led organizations that funders have increased their support. Very few have increased the percentage of grant dollars going to organizations that serve Asian Americans (only 10 percent give 25 percent of grant dollars or more), Middle Eastern and North African (only 6 percent give 25 percent of grant dollars or more), Native American (only 11 percent give 25 percent of grant dollars or more), and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander communities (only 4 percent give 25 percent of grant dollars or more). This trend has been highlighted and tracked by philanthropic support organizations from AAPI and Native communities for many years and some key findings have been summarized in Katarina Malmgren’s blog post, here.

What does it take to cultivate a deeper understanding of the many communities impacted by racial inequity? Based on our experiences as program officers, we’d like to see foundations commit to: 

  • Deepening Training Experiences: For funders earlier on their racial-equity journey, training is often a first step. Demand for consultants to provide internal racial equity trainings has exploded over the last 18 months, far outstripping the supply. This means it is particularly important for funders to take responsibility for asking questions about the intersectional nature of a trainer’s analysis. How do they understand the different dimensions of racism? How do they address the intersections of race with gender, LGBTQ+ status, disability, class, and other factors that are relevant for the communities the foundation serves?
  • Practicing Cross-Racial Solidarity: For grantmakers of color working within mainstream foundations, there is a special challenge, which groups in the CHANGE Philanthropy coalition have documented over the years, about how to address the needs of the community to which they belong, while also encompassing the wider range of racial equity. It is encouraging to see more racial and ethnic-specific groups exploring intersections, such as a recent funder briefing on Asian-Black-Native solidarity organized by the Lunar Project, and the upcoming joint summit organized by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) and Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP). This is also personal for the two of us as grantmakers of color working in a mainstream foundation. For Shireen, it means understanding positional privilege, pursuing and sharing education on intersectional issues, and ensuring that we continue to question ourselves, especially to push back on the notion of “how we have always done things.” For Chris, it means addressing colorism within Latine communities, and the white-presenting privilege that has benefited him in his work over the years.
  • Commissioning Full-Spectrum Research: For all foundations, it is important to understand the full nuances of the communities which you serve. What are the demographics by race and ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ+ status, disability, class? How have they evolved over time? Community foundations often commission community needs assessments or data atlases, and these existing efforts are a rich opportunity to continue deepening the foundation’s understanding of the communities it serves — including by inviting those communities in to help design and interpret the research.
  • Collecting Nuanced Demographic Data: For all foundations, it’s worth collecting demographic data both about your own staff, and about grantee partners. (Indeed, the latter should not be done without the former.) And in doing so, it’s important, as with research, to address the full range of community experience. A recurrent concern from Native, disabled, and trans advocates is the threat of invisibility — will they be counted? It was illuminating to us that in the CEP study, these underfunded communities were also the ones where foundations reported being “unsure” about whether grants served these communities: Asian American (27% unsure), Middle Eastern and North African (35% unsure), Native American (27% unsure), and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander communities (35% unsure). This points to a lack of data collection. We had one such experience at the Ford Foundation where a Native leader pointed out that our annual DEI report did not include demographics about Native representation on our program staff. That’s because there unfortunately isn’t any, but rather than not include that category, we were asked to report on the category and that it had no information, which we did, and have adjusted going forward.
  • Addressing Board Diversity: In the CEP study, it was striking that there were not major differences in level of willingness to continue more flexible practices based on foundation type, level of giving, or region, but the major significant difference was that these practices were more common in foundations with more diverse boards. While the trend is moving in the right direction, continued focus on board diversity seems to be a key factor in supporting flexible grantmaking practices as well as many other best practices in philanthropy.
  • Building New Relationships: For all funders, consider developing relationships with communities that are under-represented in your portfolio. This could start with asking your current grantee partners who they are working with, or engaging key community leaders and hearing their feedback. It is critical to ensure that the time, communication style and expectations of these communities and their leadership are respected. Melissa Buffalo of the American Indian Cancer Foundation offers some critical insights on building relationships with Native communities here.
  • Preserving Curiosity and Hunger: As funders, we have come to work on racial equity driven by passion and curiosity. What is the real history of our country and what does it mean for how we practice philanthropy? The implications of these twin questions are seemingly endless. And it’s important to cultivate continued curiosity and a hunger to learn more and do better. The data in CEP’s new report point to a gap in knowledge in our field. It’s up to us as funders to continue to learn, explore, and build funding relationships with a wider range of stakeholders in pursuit of racial equity and racial justice.

We hope these observations are relevant to other foundations as they consider how to continue cultivating curiosity and action about the many dimensions of racial equity.

Shireen Zaman is a program officer on the BUILD team at the Ford Foundation. Chris Cardona is senior program officer for philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @chriscardona.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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