Brooklyn is home to the largest Black community in North America. Nearly 70 percent of the borough’s residents are non-white. For our staff at the Brooklyn Community Foundation, the events of the past year have revealed in the starkest terms that systemic racism is the greatest threat to the health and well-being of our communities.
As we approach one year of COVID-19 in America, and as we reflect on the record grantmaking we’ve done and the countless changes we’ve made to how we support our grantee partners, we can’t stop asking: “What more can we do?”
Nearly 8,000 Brooklynites — the majority of whom are Black and Latinx — have lost their lives from COVID-19. An untold number more have suffered from its vastly disproportionate health, economic, and social impacts. Brooklyn was the early epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., as the virus spread like wildfire because essential workers lacked protections, crowded housing conditions prevented social distancing, and community health centers were woefully under-resourced and underprepared to test and treat patients.
Yet, the greatest sadness is just how predictable these events were. In February 2020, as the first cases were reported in New York City, our staff and Board came together to begin plans for our Brooklyn COVID-19 Response Fund. In alignment with our commitment to racial justice, we prioritized communities of color who exist at the margins of power and access, and who had been systematically denied the material resources to buffer them from the pandemic’s threats.
In 16 weeks from March through July, we raised and distributed $3.3 million for frontline nonprofit organizations serving the hardest hit communities of color across our borough. The majority of the money was allocated to these communities through rapid-response grants to provide PPE (personal protective equipment), emergency food, direct financial assistance, and more.
We also prioritized funding and supporting organizations that may otherwise not be able to access philanthropic support. Over 70 percent of grant recipients were led by people of color, 35 percent had budgets under $500,000, and 65 percent had no other current funding relationship with the Foundation.
In an effort to reduce the burden on organizations requesting funds, we asked just two questions on our grant application. If an organization needed extra assistance, we walked them through their responses and in some cases encouraged them to partner with established 501(c)(3)s or apply for fiscal sponsorship so that they could receive the grant even if they weren’t an IRS-recognized nonprofit.
And when experts began predicting that as many as one-third of all nonprofits may be forced to close within a year, we deployed an additional $873,000 in unsolicited general operating support to grantees in our discretionary grantmaking portfolios, using a newly developed Equity Filter tool. In this process, we examined the existing grantee’s annual budget size, the identity of its executive director, the number of board members, and the percentage of individual giving as part of annual fundraising (as an indicator of proximity to wealth). Organizations with the greatest barriers to wealth and resources received the most additional funding, as we determined that other organizations would have more resources to weather the storm.
The Equity Filter also informed which organizations we showcased in our donor webinars, press opportunities, and capacity-building offerings, as this often yielded even greater support for those organizations than our own grants offered. For example, one organization we featured in a webinar went on to receive two grants totaling $100,000 from local private foundations that had staff in attendance.
(One of us, Marcella, talked more about our Equity Filter tool in CEP’s “Foundations Respond to Crisis” webinar earlier this month. Watch here.)
Early on, we knew that our response would also need to address long-term structural change to get at the root causes of the pandemic’s inequitable and unjust impacts. And as the first wave of the virus subsided in New York City, the entire country erupted in mass protests for racial justice in response to the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
These combined events challenged us — like so many other institutions, as detailed in CEP’s recent report, Foundations Respond to Crisis: Toward Equity? — to confront our power and complicity in systemic racism. None of us could afford to fall into the trap of planning for rebuilding or a return to normal. It was long past time to push the conversation to reckoning, repairing, and reimagining.
To start, our Board of Directors increased our annual drawdown for the fiscal year 2021 to 7 percent — not a comfortable decision for a young foundation with assets under $90 million. Next, we began to rethink the potential of these assets in the work towards racial justice.
As a community foundation, we must be an accountable partner in both resource redistribution and investing in grassroots power building. Power is generative. When we invest in local organizers, movements, and leadership, the results are exponential.
With that in mind, we have embarked on an ambitious second phase of our Brooklyn COVID-19 Response Fund, beginning with a community engagement process we’re calling Brooklyn Insights 2020.
Right now, we are in conversation with hundreds of Brooklynites deeply affected by the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, with the goal to hear their lived experiences, their challenges, and their solutions for long-term change. We will next distill everything we learn into an RFP for $1.5 million in grants by June, which will be distributed through a participatory grantmaking process done in partnership with our community advisory councils. This process will also inform future investments in advocacy initiatives and public-private partnerships that target systemic change.
Taking on a community engagement process in the midst of a pandemic is no easy task. As a foundation, it pushes us further into spaces where we relinquish control and decision-making power. Yet, it is critical that we not only ask ourselves, “What more can we do?,” but that we also go to our communities to tell us the answer.
Seven years ago — just five years after our founding as a new community foundation for Brooklyn — we created the original Brooklyn Insights process to reset the Foundation and its priorities as we struggled to find our footing. From that process came our commitment to racial justice, which set the Foundation on the path to be a champion for equity and social change. Now, with a greater sense of urgency and purpose, we look forward to using what we learn to ignite even more internal and external transformation.
Cecilia Clarke is president & CEO of the Brooklyn Community Foundation.
Marcella Tillett is vice president of programs and partnerships at the Brooklyn Community Foundation.
Follow the Foundation on Twitter at @BklynFoundation.