Check out CEP’s new searchable database of resources for individuals and grantmakers.

Contact Us



Philanthropy is at a Crossroads for Accountability

Date: August 22, 2023

Qiana Thomason

President and CEO, Health Forward Foundation

Never Miss A Post

Share this Post:

As a relatively new entrant to philanthropy, I was recently asked about my attraction to and assessment of the field. Uncharacteristically, I found it challenging to articulate a response. Days later, accompanied by my Grantmakers in Health board colleagues, I visited, for the second time, the National Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama — two places every American should experience. These experiences evoked great clarity about the challenge of my response to that seemingly simple question.

In revisiting the gripping truths masterfully conveyed at the museums, I struggled to read the exhibits through a continual flow of tears. I asked myself why I was crying when these were truths I’ve known for years, and are realities of our history I frequently speak about in discussing their impact on present injustice. This intense emotion caught me by surprise, but I opted to treat myself with tenderness and care. It didn’t matter that I knew much of the information and stories because knowledge does not bar pain, nor does it necessarily translate to responsibility for what is known.

In those moments of silent homage to the resilient legacies of extracted, enslaved, and systemically oppressed people, that spaciousness gave way to clarity.

I serve as a philanthropic leader who shares an ancestral identity with people whose vital contributions created and scaled disproportionately held wealth and shaped our country’s economy — a financial system they were systematically excluded from. I reconcile the paradox between these identities by pursuing accountable stewardship. This is, in part, my attraction to philanthropy. My assessment of philanthropy, however, as a relatively new entrant into the field, examines the other side of the same shiny coin: the absence of accountability. Accountability is a mandate imposed upon other sectors and a concept that is, at worst, noticeably missing, or, at best, barely discussed in philanthropic discourse.

Philanthropy is unbossed, unbothered by, and untethered to government, corporate shareholders, or regulatory entities, save for IRS rules. Simultaneously, philanthropy is uniquely positioned to take the biggest risks and make the boldest efforts to catalyze and facilitate repair of injustices and support the self-determination of resilient and resourceful communities who have borne the brunt of systemic extraction and oppression — if philanthropy so chooses.

The woke philanthropic waves swept over the shores of racial equity work with tsunami-like strength since 2020, and we are now experiencing a retreat to a safer shoreline. Many foundations calculate the long-term implications and risks of their work within a vitriolic sociopolitical context and instead pursue pluralism and safety at the expense of equity and justice. Yet, the benefit and challenge of philanthropic freedom requires us to thoughtfully interrogate the purpose and meaning of philanthropy — the love of humanity — and step into our sector’s accountability to rebalance capital and resources through reparative investments in service to equity, fairness, and justice.

If philanthropy truly aims to live up to our origin and purpose, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are instructive. “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

At Health Forward Foundation, we work every day to support and build inclusive, powerful, and healthy communities characterized by racial equity and economically just systems. This is our purpose. In view of how wealth was created in our country and our sector’s massive collective resources, we step forward and into philanthropy’s outsized opportunity for accountability. This accountability is not without formidable challenges, however that should not dissuade us from these pursuits that address persisting injustices and inequities.

Right now, some of these challenges include (but are not limited to):

  • Access to capital remains elusive as people who are paid low wages continue to be hit the hardest with inflation and recessions.
  • Participation in labor markets and opportunities for wealth generation are on the decline due to higher interest rates on educational and home loans.
  • The social and political capital held by Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities is eroding through strategic national and state-imposed barriers to participation in democracy, as experienced in recent exclusionary election law changes and gerrymandering.
  • Anti-diversity, equity, and inclusion bills are advancing through state legislative chambers. (Notably, in late June, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to end affirmative action as we knew it in college admissions, a consequential decision that is already reverberating throughout the social, governmental, and corporate spheres, and undoubtedly will pull philanthropy into the fray.)

The confluence of these factors leads me to the opportunities of philanthropic freedom and places philanthropy at a crossroads. I offer the following touchstones to prioritize accountable philanthropy — philanthropy in service of repairing injustices to Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities while holding tensions for love, power, and justice in life-giving ways:

  1. Reparative Systems Change: People are not broken, systems are. Injustice caused by unjust systems affect us all. Guided by lived experience, investments and supports are directed at root cause factors that support structural and reparative change that builds wealth, assets, and power within Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities.
  2. Narrative Power: Work to change the temperature of polarizing conversations, leveraging language that embraces abundance and rejects notions of scarcity and austerity. Understand how narrative shapes beliefs, policies, and resource allocation. Work to amplify the strengths, power, and contributions of people of color first. Then, clearly describe the needs of communities in ways which honor their strengths and contributions.
  3. Policy and Advocacy: Difference exists in our understanding and willingness to engage in legally permissible policy and advocacy. For foundations who choose to use their voice to pursue reparative systems change, the “X” factor is in establishing justice-centered, multi-racial, and pro-democracy non-partisan policy priorities. For foundations that want to avoid direct engagement in this space, supporting civic engagement may be a viable path.
  4. Racial Equity in Assets: Research found that less than 1.3 percent of $69 trillion in global asset classes are managed by people of color and women. Accountable philanthropy ensures a foundation’s assets are managed by people of color underrepresented in the finance and investment industry. This is not to be confused with “diversity” in assets under management, for which the industry definition includes white women. The evidence is clear, performance is the same or better for assets managed by people of color. Excavating myths and seeding education to foundation boards with CEO championship is key, as is having a CIO and/or an investment advisory partner with keen understanding of the opportunity and inclusive investment networks of talent of color.
  5. Representation in Governance and Leadership: At the most basic level, credibility and authenticity within accountable philanthropy prioritizes representation by and belonging for people of color in foundation governance and leadership.

In an era of extreme affronts to the wellbeing, prosperity, and freedom of Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities, I invite the sector to responsibly reflect on how we will use our platforms of philanthropic freedom with accountability to our altruistic purpose: the love of humankind — a virtuous force to be reckoned with when perfected with power and justice.

Qiana Thomason is president and CEO of Health Forward Foundation. Find her on LinkedIn and follow Health Forward on Twitter and Instagram.

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

From the Blog