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What Does Philanthropy Sound Like, Part One: Learning from Donors of Color

Date: October 4, 2022

Isabelle Leighton

Executive Director, Donors of Color Network

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When you think of the word philanthropy, what images come to mind? A building? Stacks of money? Grant checks? Board rooms? Who sits in those places of power?

When Donors of Color Network (DOCN) was formed to nurture a joyful community prepared to shift the center of gravity in philanthropy, we knew that image had to change — we had to be able to see the people and stories behind the money. We needed to focus on the relationship instead of the transaction.

“Philanthropy Always Sounds Like Someone Else: A Portrait of High Net Wealth Donors of Color” (Portrait Report) is a qualitative research report based on the individual narratives of over 100 high-net-worth donors of color. These interviews revealed deep-rooted giving practices and community ties that ran counter to what the mainstream narrative says about philanthropy and wealth. Donors of color are an untapped power source already in place to shift philanthropy toward racial equity. Here, we’d like to share a few lessons learned from conducting Portrait Report research.

The philanthropic sector should seek to:

  • Nourish peer-to-peer networking in their programming. Affinity-based networking allows professionals to gather and build connections based on shared characteristics or interests. This bolsters communication and collaboration, which can make programming more effective and increase productivity. The donors of color interviewed in the Portrait Report were highly networked yet expressed a strong interest in connecting in new and different ways. They belong to fraternal organizations, professional networks, social networks, alumni and children’s school networks, and identity-based groups. For the most part, however, they are NOT networked with each other.
  • Examine their relationship with the racial wealth gap. In our Portrait Report research, two elements were common to the stories shared by everyone interviewed: first, how aware they were of becoming wealthy while coming from families and communities that remained poor, low-income, or middle class; and second, the fact that they had experienced racial prejudice and racism in their lives. The philanthropic sector committing to examining this shared experience and how they can work to close the gap in their practices will bring us closer to equity and accountable relationships with movement leaders. During Portrait Report research, interviewees mentioned feeling guilty because they were the only ones in their families or communities who had earned great wealth. They described the discomfort of having more financial resources than their parents. They described the strangeness of jumping to a different social class.
  • Put their money where the movement is. The philanthropic sector would do well to align its goals with movement leaders. It’s imperative to embrace getting involved with on-the-ground organizers and working to find ways to fund innovative and equitable solutions.
  • Fund longer grant cycles and general operating expenses. In speaking with movement leaders, DOCN staff heard, again and again, the desire to increase core trust with funders and philanthropists. Trust-building is an integral part of philanthropic dollars doing the work they are meant to do. Showing trust to movement leaders by funding in less restrictive ways also shows movement leaders the trust they need to do their work sustainably and successfully.
  • Lead with people of color. This might seem obvious, but there is a critical and urgent need to be accountable to who is in the room where decisions are being made. We must ask ourselves, what are the life experiences of the people in philanthropic leadership, and do they reflect the experiences of the people that philanthropy serves? As one interviewee, a Latinx man who leads his family foundation said, “We have a racial matrix for staff and board diversity that we require applicants to fill out. That piece about who has power, who is making the decisions and how that affects programming — who’s in charge?”
  • Resource infrastructure to build critical capacities. The late activist, philanthropist, and DOCN co-founder Urvashi Vaid, defined infrastructure as “the capacities needed to win governing power; they are strategy, research, policy, advocacy, funding, communications, and organizing. Infrastructure is what’s going to get us there.” The philanthropic sector must ensure that their programs allow movement leaders to build these critical capacities in alignment with political education.
  • Nurture donor education to redefine the status quo. Philanthropy should prioritize learning from leaders of color. We may not need an overarching strategy to win a more just world, but we do need to carry with us the lessons learned by those most affected by unjust and inequitable systemic conditions. Almost everyone interviewed for the Portrait Report believes that education is the best path to opportunity and that access to education can level the playing field, address disparities, and create opportunity. This need does not stop as wealth is earned. It’s critical that philanthropists view themselves as lifelong learners, and the sector should seek to support this continued education. As Vaid said, “To stop the wrath of the expansion and mainstreaming of white nationalism, antisemitism, of racism, misogyny, and theocratic Christianity, that requires accurate and critical analysis. It requires action on our movements. Partly, at least acknowledge that’s what we’re up against; many of us act like we don’t have opposition or we don’t see the opposition in a clear-eyed way.” Donor education will allow us to see clearly and think forward.

It is time to tap in. Philanthropy must embrace, cultivate, and learn from donors of color if we wish to change how things are done. We must embrace donors of color as a new power source to fuel racial and gender justice movements and defeat white nationalism and white supremacy. We have the power to teach and practice solidarity now more than ever.

As Bobby Seale, American political activist and Black Panther Party cofounder put it: “Revolution is about the need to re-evolve political, economic, and social justice and power back into the hands of the people, preferably through legislation and policies that make human sense. That’s what revolution is about.”

Isabelle H. Leighton is executive director of the Donors of Color Network. She has been organizing and strategizing in multiracial movement-oriented spaces for two decades. Find Isabelle on LinkedIn.

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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