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Revisiting 7 Big Questions for Big Philanthropy: Will A Focus on Racial Equity Be Sustained?

Date: April 9, 2024

Phil Buchanan

President, CEP

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This is second in a series of posts in which I revisit some of the big questions for philanthropy discussed in a post published in the fall of 2022.

I hear more talk about the state of philanthropy’s commitment to racial equity than perhaps any other issue when I am meeting with philanthropic leaders and staff, as well as with nonprofit leaders. While there is little disagreement that many grantmakers and individual donors alike prioritized racial equity in the months following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police, there is much less clarity on where things stand today.

As I turn to the second question in my list of seven that I laid out in the fall of 2022, about whether racial equity will continue to be prioritized in philanthropy, my honest take is that I think it’s too soon to tell. But, for those of us who hope very much that it does continue to be a priority, there is reason both for real concern and also for some optimism.

First, the concern. The reasons for worry are so obvious they hardly need stating. The backlash that began with distortion and fear-mongering about critical race theory has morphed into a broad-based resistance to — and often willful, I think, misrepresentation of — diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. This push-back that has been promoted by a range of voices from Elon Musk to Philanthropy Roundtable under its previous, short-tenured leader.

(More recently, Philanthropy Roundtable’s new CEO, Christie Herrera, appears to have picked up the mantle from her predecessor, endorsing the idea in a podcast interview that “unrestricted gifts are the work of the devil” because “no one wants to see your dollars fund something that you hate, like DEI.” This from the self-proclaimed champions of “philanthropic freedom.” You can’t make this stuff up.)

It’s not just this pushback causing concern, of course. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action in college admissions last year, and ongoing litigation targeting philanthropy that seeks to redress racial disparities, has only exacerbated the worry that big philanthropy’s recent more intensive focus on racial equity will be a fleeting, disappointing blip — gone almost before it started.

I am hardly alone in knowing of specific examples of grantmakers backing away from previously stated priorities, or even changing course on previously promised funding, whether because of fear of legal risk or political blowback. I have talked to frustrated foundation CEOs who thought their boards were with them in prioritizing racial equity, only to realize that they weren’t.

I have also talked to other leaders who believe, in my view absolutely wrongly, that racial equity has been over-emphasized — that it’s led to too much focus on differences rather than on issues that affect people across racial lines (as if somehow these are mutually exclusive). To be sure, we have all seen initiatives focused on racial equity that are less than thoughtful or effective — just as is true for any area of effort — which are then gleefully seized upon by opponents. But we should not let these anomalies get characterized as broadly representative, rather than as examples that prove that even the most worthy goals can be pursued in ways that may be well intentioned but do more harm than good.

So, amid the backlash, there is plenty of reason to be angry, frustrated, and worried. It is, as one of the panelists noted in a recent CEP / Philanthropy New York webinar, “a make-or-break moment.”

But there is also reason for optimism in the form of reassuring data that suggests many foundations are staying the course, or even doubling down, when it comes to equity. In a recent CEP Research Snapshot, we reported that, as of last fall, the majority of foundations were not making changes in response to the Supreme Court’s decision. We were very clear about the caveats: the data represents a snapshot in time, and our findings could be affected by non-responder bias (if those who are backing away from a focus on racial equity were less likely to respond to the survey we conducted).

Reasons for hope amid concern can be found in those who are refusing to be intimidated or to back away from the effort to push this country to, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the final speech of his life on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, “be true to what you said on paper.” This spirit is no doubt, in too short supply, today in philanthropy and in the country more broadly. But it can be found.

Look, for example, at the Walter & Elise Hass’s Endeavor Fund, awarding $24.5 million — no small sum especially for a foundation of its size — over seven years “to combat one of the toughest problems of our time; closing the racial and gender wealth gap;” or at the Surdna Foundation’s inclusive economies work “investing in the development of businesses owned by people of color and … increasing community voice in economic planning;” or at the Melville Charitable Trust’s work on housing which has, among other goals, “anti-racist policy change” to “counter existing racist policies that perpetuate disproportionate housing instability” among certain communities.

It’s not just foundations in the Bay Area or New York region, either. The Kate B. Reynolds Foundation, in North Carolina, declares its commitment to racial equity in bold on its home page and focuses its grantmaking on “long-term sustainable systems change.” The Foundation has taken clear-eyed look at its donor’s legacy, and how its work might seek to repair past harm done.

Community foundations, too, from San Diego to Seattle to Boston have made racial equity an explicit priority. Indeed, a new cadre of community foundation leaders are taking stands on this and other crucial issues, as this recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article describes, recognizing, as the most effective community foundation leaders always have, that, at their best, community foundations are much more than just facilitators of gifts to organizations with nonprofit status. Rather, they can help their communities close divides and realize a future characterized by greater opportunity for all.

There are other reasons for optimism, too.

Foundation leadership, while still far from as racially diverse as it should be, is growing more diverse. The Council on Foundations (COF) reported last year an uptick in CEOs who are people of color from 12 percent in 2021 to 15 percent in 2023 (not nearly where it should be, but progress nonetheless); people of color are also now more represented among foundation staff, numbering about a third, according to COF.

Finally, it’s encouraging to see philanthropy serving organizations like COF and Independent Sector in the legal fray, filing a joint amicus brief in the closely watched Fearless Fund case — offering their leadership while rallying the support of others in the sector.

There is a long, long, way to go, no doubt. But there are reasons for hope.

In 2020, in the days following George Floyd’s murder, I argued on this blog that philanthropy needed to do much, much more to address the factual reality of systemic racism and its myriad consequences. “For those of us who are white and working in institutional philanthropy in one way or another, we are obliged to do more — and to take more risks,” I said.

I am talking about, as I said then and will repeat here, changes in hiring practices that reach talented people where they are and result in less bias and more racial diversity; changes in policies that promote equity and inclusion; and changes in who serves in leadership positions and on the board of directors. I am also talking about advocating for programmatic goals and strategies that seek to alter the structures and policies that have institutionalized and embedded racism in this country.

Pursuing racial equity isn’t some side issue. It’s fundamental to our country living up to its ideals.

In King’s 1968 Memphis speech, responding to injunctions that were seeking to block protests, he declared, “somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”

“I’ve seen the Promised Land,” King said that night, 56 years ago. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

There remains a soberingly long way to go. Now is not the time to retreat. Now is not the time for foundations — the entities with perhaps the most freedoms of any institutions in our society — to play it safe.

Now is the time to keep fighting for America to be true to what it said on paper.

Note: Some of the foundations mentioned here are clients or grant funders of CEP. In my next post in this series, I’ll turn to two more questions from my 2022 post, about how philanthropy can best counter polarization without normalizing extremism and, related, how it can help protect our democracy. Read the first post in this series, on changes in philanthropic practice since 2020, here.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP, author of “Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count,” and co-host of the Giving Done Right podcast.

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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