In philanthropy, research shows that race is a factor in determining which organizations get funded and at what levels. For example, a 2020 report from Echoing Green and The Bridgespan Group found that unconscious bias, the limited networks of largely white decision-makers, and measurements that funders commonly seek result in less funding for Black and Latino-led organizations than white-led organizations. Consequently, foundations often perpetuate the very issues that they seek to address, and the people most impacted by structural racism are denied access to the resources they require to effect change.
Philanthropy must reflect on and reimagine its purpose and processes. As a foundation that has disproportionately funded white-led institutions because of our own unconscious biases and an underemphasis on seeking out community-based partners led by people of color, we’ve played a role in maintaining these disparities. We have missed opportunities to collaborate with organizations led by people of color to make our grantmaking more inclusive and impactful.
Over the last two years, we have sought to change that pattern by deepening our understanding of how racial bias impacts the systems and communities where we work. Most significantly, we now prioritize funding community-based solutions led by people of color who center those who are most impacted by the issues we are trying to solve. In addition, while our grantmaking has traditionally employed an invitation-only approach, we recently introduced open invitations in our postsecondary success, food security, and serious illness care portfolios. This shift is helping us discover and fund organizations that are informed and led by the communities they serve. We recognize the power we have to be part of the solution to systemic racism, both in our own grantmaking and as a vocal advocate for change in the sector.
Encouraged by our participation in several collaboratives, including ReWork the Bay, a leadership collaborative working to advance racial equity and economic justice in the San Francisco Bay Area, we decided to ask a selection of Black and Latino leaders of organizations we fund about their experiences with systemic racism in philanthropy. Through those conversations, we learned about how foundations like ours can shift funding to historically underfunded organizations and address disparities in grantmaking. Below are some of the key lessons we learned from those discussions.
Say My Race: Be Specific in the Language and Data You Use
“Say my name. Don’t abbreviate me.”
“If you want to concentrate money in the Black community, just say it. If not, Black people are going to get left in the dust.”
The language and data we use shape our understanding of the communities we seek to serve. They also directly inform how we prioritize funding. For instance, we asked nonprofit leaders how they feel about foundations describing communities and organizations with the acronym BIPOC, which stands for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color,” and has long been controversial. While the leaders we spoke with shared a wide range of reactions to the term, they generally agreed that funders should be specific when describing whom they seek to serve and use an intersectional lens (taking into account age, gender, geography, and other factors). Some individuals strongly disliked the term for its broadness and because it can dilute focus on specific communities that have been historically underfunded. Additionally, the term risks establishing a hierarchy of different racial and ethnic groups that are all in need of investment.
Beyond employing specific language on race, leaders called for more culturally appropriate data and research on Black or Indigenous-focused nonprofit organizations. One individual proposed creating a Black-led version of Guidestar that aggregates data on Black organizations to help guide the billions in new pledges.
Similarly, “Latinx” is also debated. Some of our partners prefer the term for its inclusivity, while others see it as imperialistic and note that most Latinos do not use it to describe themselves. We used the term “Latino” in this piece because it was preferred by the grantee partners we specifically interviewed.
Tell Me Why: Have Transparent Evaluation Criteria
“For whatever reason, the grants just didn’t come through. I don’t know if it’s because of racial bias. But, I’m not in the club that gets the money.”
The majority of the Black and Latino leaders we interviewed are unsure whether they personally experienced racial bias while applying for grants. They explained that, typically, there is no transparency in how foundations evaluate grants and, often, the only communication that applicants receive is a rejection letter. Multiple leaders encouraged foundations to implement more transparent application processes that explicitly outline evaluation criteria in requests for proposals and state goals for grantee-partner representation.
Identify Characteristics of Systemically Underfunded Nonprofits
“Too much weight is put on specific proof points. How do we assess organizations on other data points that speak to aptitude, mindset, intent?”
For foundations that seek to shift funding to organizations historically overlooked by philanthropy, our Black and Latino grantee partners recommend looking at multiple characteristics. Beyond having Black and Latino staff in leadership positions, grantee partners emphasized the importance of organizations that (1) exhibit high potential, (2) co-design programs with communities, (3) explicitly call out race in their name or theory of change, and/or (4) are smaller in size — in particular, organizations without development staff or 501(c)(3) status. Many grantee partners emphasized that these characteristics apply to a plethora of high-impact organizations, but they operate under the radar and without funding. Imagine if those organizations received the funding they needed to catalyze their impact.
Eight Ways Foundations Can Improve
“If there is that lack of understanding, then the cycle will never end.”
Our partners had a range of recommendations on how foundations can overcome intentional or unintentional bias, take an intersectional lens, and shift more funding to systemically underfunded organizations. Here is an initial list:
- Hire more foundation staff who are people of color, especially individuals representative of the communities that the foundation seeks to serve.
- Hire more advisors who are people of color, especially those that represent the communities the foundation seeks to serve — and give them the power to source and recommend grants.
- Create grant opportunities or evaluation criteria that aligns with some of the points that our respondents suggested above, such as co-designing programs with communities or explicitly calling out race in the organization’s name or theory of change. However, be mindful of the types of questions directed at applicants; avoid those that are irrelevant or offensive, such as inquiring about the education level of leadership, or how programs impact “all races.”
- Give applicants the option to do an in-person interview or a video proposal rather than a written proposal, which respects organizations that have limited capacity and/or development staff.
- Encourage all grantee partners — both white-led and person of color-led — to think about diversity and pay equity among staff, especially for female staff of color.
- Lay the groundwork to welcome and support Black and Latino leaders, especially at the beginning of funding relationships.
- Participate in ongoing implicit bias training, with a particular focus on interactions with potential and current grantee partners.
- Build stronger relationships at the neighborhood level. As one grantee partner said, “Get more involved. See it for yourself.”
Stupski would like to sincerely thank the leaders who spoke with us — we are grateful for their candor and trust. While we have much more to learn about our own biases and how to make our grantmaking truly equitable, their insights are helping us identify what actions we can take toward that goal. Moving forward, we commit to continuing to ask questions, holding ourselves accountable, and sharing our progress with the sector in the hope of inspiring others to do the same.
For funders interested in exploring more equitable grantmaking processes, we recommend participating in funder collaboratives like ReWork the Bay, the Harmony Initiative, and the Hawaiʻi Workforce Funders Collaborative, and embarking on a similar listening journey with grantee partners and community members. We welcome the opportunity to be in continuous dialogue on the issue of race in philanthropy — most importantly with the grantee partners we seek to serve.