Seeding a Better, More Equitable Normal

Susanna Hegner

If 2020 has reinforced any lesson, it is that the people and organizations seeking to advance social, economic, and racial justice need flexibility and stability to adapt to whiplashing context changes in already hostile environments. Those of us with the privilege of working in philanthropy are not the ones doing the critical, on-the-ground, face-to-face work to create safe, equitable, prosperous, welcoming, and vibrant communities.

This year in particular, it is important to ask ourselves how we can better support the doers with equity — front and center. While we certainly have a long way to go in our own work, my colleagues and I at the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation (MRBF) are seeking to listen well and minimize restrictions and paperwork so that our partners can spend more time building power in their communities throughout the South.

For Making the Case, a series of profiles that accompanies its latest research, the Center for Effective Philanthropy interviewed several leaders of a broad range of philanthropic organizations about the importance of providing multiyear general operating support (GOS), including MRBF CEO Justin Maxson and Chief Strategy Officer Elena Conley. While these conversations happened before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread uprisings against police violence, this dizzying chapter in American history we are now living through only amplifies the urgency for this kind of flexible funding.

The pandemic is spotlighting and exacerbating long-standing inequalities created by centuries of white supremacy and structural racism. Not only are communities of color at higher risk of morbidity and mortality, COVID-19 is also widening the racial wealth gap. A Columbia University study found some 8 million Americans, disproportionately people of color, have fallen into poverty since May alone. “Black and Hispanic individuals faced high rates of monthly poverty relative to white individuals before the crisis, but these differences have been magnified after the crisis,” the study’s authors write. “By September, the monthly poverty rate for Black and Hispanic individuals was 25.2 percent and 25.8 percent, respectively, compared to 12 percent for white individuals.”

When COVID-19 began devastating our region of the South, we asked our partners how the pandemic was affecting their work and how we could be most helpful. They described overwhelming demand for their services due to the spike in hardship and woefully insufficient government action. They told us about how they have been forced to cancel vital fundraising events and outreach activities central to their missions in the most important political year of our lifetimes. They reported having to rethink the ways they work to meet people’s emergency needs, support families with lost income, and prevent bankruptcies, foreclosures, evictions, and deportations.

Our partners have been coming up with new and creative ways to engage their communities, register and educate voters, plan for redistricting, and hold leaders accountable — all while keeping their doors open, meeting payroll, and supporting employees’ mental health and family care needs. And they’re doing all this while their prospects for future funding are unclear at best.

“Our grantee partners shared a lot of hard truths that were sometimes painful to hear,” said Conley about these conversations. “Because our relationships are built on mutual trust, there was no sugarcoating of the challenges, and no hesitation to describe the opportunities this moment presents.”

These trusting relationships, and the networks and infrastructure our partners have built, enabled MRBF to act quickly. Our immediate response included:

  • Providing an immediate $10,000 to all board-approved grantee partners for short-term needs
  • Extending most grants by one year — and frontloading those payments
  • Contributing to place-based responses across the South, including mutual aid programs and rapid-response funds targeted to immigrants and refugees left out of government relief programs
  • Bolstering community development financial institutions by eliminating interest on program-related investments and converting 20 percent of them to grants
  • Coordinating with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to redeploy $4 million to hard-hit Southern communities

We see these as just the initial steps of our response, as the ramifications of COVID-19 will likely last for the foreseeable future. Our Board has approved increased spending for the next five years to meet needs as they arise. These grants will also be flexible so our partners can adapt as the ground continues to shift under their feet.

Restrictive grant dollars make it much harder for organizations to adapt and maximize their effectiveness during unforeseen emergencies. Providing sustained general operating support not only best serves grantees, but helps us funders, too, by allowing our program staff to spend more time listening and learning. Providing this type of support is an ongoing demonstration of abiding trust in the experts who know best what their communities need. As Maxson says in Making the Case, “To address complicated and systemic challenges, particularly in the South, organizations need access to flexible resources that allow them to grow their capacity.”

We have long known police and vigilantes are most likely to commit violence against Black people, and in 2020 alone Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many more names were added to the litany of victims of racist violence. We’re also seeing the health and economic fallout of COVID-19 disproportionately harm Black and Latinx communities, and racist rhetoric from the White House has painted a target on Asian communities. And yet organizations led by people of color get far less philanthropic funding than white-led groups, making it difficult to scale their work and address these intertwined crises. In its recent report on funding disparities, Echoing Green and Bridgespan urge foundations to abandon practices that lead to discrimination, like funding only groups of a certain size or budget.

MRBF’s approach has been in line with this. “As part of MRBF’s equity frame, we don’t have a piecemeal approach to who gets general operating support or make decisions based on budget size or breadth of work,” Conley says in Making the Case. “Just because an organization is small doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the capacity to move the work and the strategy.”

We do not want to return to normal; we are demanding a better, more equitable normal.

History has taught us how change happens — at the speed of trust, with patience and persistence, from the ground up. We are at a tipping point that presents an opportunity to dismantle the white supremacy and structural racism exacerbating our current crises.

Another long-held belief this turbulent year has reinforced is that the people most affected by challenges should be the ones in charge of creating the solutions. At MRBF, we view our grantee partners as the people and organizations best positioned to lead the way in rebuilding a South that works better for all of us — in particular communities of color, not just the wealthy few hoarding power and resources. Why would we ever want to make that harder? Our role is to listen deeply, trust the doers, fund more equitably — and get out of the way.

Susanna Hegner is communications director at Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @susannahegner, and the Foundation at @mrbf_org.

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