Back From the Margins: Behind a New Call to Boost Funding for Black-Led Organizations

Since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, issues of race have moved to the forefront of philanthropy in a way not seen in decades. And even before a series of police killings catalyzed new activism, foundations had started to give attention to the struggles of young men and boys of color through My Brother’s Keeper, as well as other initiatives.

Despite these efforts, though, philanthropic investment in black-led organizations remains meager, according to Nat Chioke Williams, the executive director of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based funder that invests in community organizing. Williams has been instrumental in creating the Black Social Change Funders Network (BSCFN), a partnership that emerged from a collaboration between the Association for Black Foundation Executives and Hill-Snowdon.

Now, this funders group has released "The Case for Funding Black-Led Social Change," a detailed argument for expanding grantmaking to groups “with predominantly Black board and executive leadership, staff leadership and constituents—if relevant—and whose primary organizational purpose is to work to build the political, economic and/or social power of the Black community.”

In an interview, Williams told me that the recent uptick in philanthropic support for racial justice has been encouraging, along with new work to build stronger multi-racial coalitions to advance equity. But what’s still missing, he said, is a major and sustained investment by funders in black-led organizations—investments that he and others see as critical for building a strong progressive movement overall. 

Williams, who studied black liberation as an undergrad at Morehouse College, has spent his entire career thinking about race and trying to advance social justice. Over time, like so many others in this sector, he came to embrace a broad language about people and communities “of color.” At some point, he said, “I realized in my work I rarely used the term ‘black.’… Even within the social justice sector and philanthropic sector, there has not been as much of a focus on black concerns.”

In part, this larger racial frame reflects changes in U.S. demographics and politics that have occurred since 2000, with advocates and funders following suit. There’s “been a focus and prioritization of Latino-led immigration work over the past 15 years,” Williams said. “That’s been very important. It needs to continue. But something gets lost when you’re not talking about black people specifically.”

What gets lost, “The Case for Funding Black-Led Social Change” argues, is a deeper understanding of how white supremacy operates. The document says that “Anti-Black racism is the foundational architecture for the strategies, tactics, tools and cultural worldviews that propagate and maintain racial oppression, repression and exclusion in the U.S. and the world.” As a consequence, it says, for those interested in dismantling unjust racial hierarchies—including funders—embracing an “unapologetic and persistent focus on anti-Black racism is an essential strategy.”

While it’s debatable whether anti-black racism really is a linchpin of racial oppression worldwide—given the intensity of other kinds of ethnic divisions in many countries—this analysis certainly holds true in the United States. And when foundations first started tackling racial inequality in the 1960s and 1970s, such work largely focused on advancing black communities (although the grantmaking from Ford and other funders soon expanded to include Latinos and Native Americans.)

By the 1980s, though, racial justice had fallen away as a major focus of U.S. philanthropy. Funders continued to neglect this area even as deindustrialization decimated black communities, mass incarceration got underway, and residential and educational segregation deepened. When philanthropy did return to race in a significant way, it was through the broader scope of multiculturalism and inclusion of “people of color,” with a big focus on Latinos and other “New Americans.”

Missing from the new narrative was a deeper historical analysis of racism and an understanding of why investing specifically in black-led organizations is so important. Worse still, say some observers, there's been “a clear philanthropic redlining of African-American communities,” as Ludovic Blain puts it.

Blain is executive director of the Color of Democracy Fund, which seeks to advance social justice in California, with a primary focus on supporting organizations in communities of color. As he sees it, the neglect of black-led organizations is partly the result of the larger—and well-documented—way that philanthropy has shortchanged the South, where many black groups operate. But he also sees a “severe funding gap” elsewhere, and says that too often, resources go to “underperforming white-led organizations” while groups of color get the “remaining slivers.”

Williams offers a similar critique, saying that black-led organizations face a higher bar when approaching funders and draw “greater scrutiny.” That’s true, he said, even for community-based organizations. “It has often been easier or more allowable for philanthropy to support white-led organizations working in black communities than black-led organizations.” That tendency in philanthropy, Williams said, reflects “a natural trend in the cultural history in the United States to push black people off to the margins.”

Studies show that most foundations in the United States are run by white executives and board members, so it’s not surprising that these institutions might lack a keen grasp of black issues and the powerful grip of anti-black racism. Jeanné Isler, vice president and chief engagement officer at the National Committee for Philanthropy, suggested to me that while philanthropy has done important work on race over recent years, it was still falling short in its "historical and sociological understanding" of racial inequity in America and how this is a driver of so many other issues. “I don’t think the sector has invested the time to understand how we’ve gotten to some of the social problems we have,” Isler said. She echoed Williams’ analysis that “race in America has been built along a black-white binary,” and said that acknowledging this legacy isn’t so easy for many funders. “That requires a level of acceptance. It’s hard to get folks in philanthropy on the same page about how we ended up here.”

Whatever accounts for philanthropy’s racial blind spot, Nat Williams said that a major result has been a systematic under-investment in black-led organizations and, consequently, a weaker social change sector overall.  

“Let me be really clear: Multi-racial alliances, including white people, are extremely important,” Williams said. “This is the pathway to winning a progressive agenda.” But, he added—and it’s a big “but”—“those multi-racial coalitions are only as important as their constituent pieces.”

Williams makes a good point. Black-led organizations have historically been critical players in the larger movement for social change. Young black leaders who have emerged from these groups have often gone on to hold key positions in both national progressive organizations and Democratic politics. Williams now sees this infrastructure and pipeline as badly weakened, and hopes that the Black Social Change Funders Network can push philanthropy to reverse longstanding patterns of under-investment—with an eye on securing larger victories that will advance a range of agendas that are important to funders. The “issues that impact the black community are issues that affect all communities, only they affect black people harder,” Williams said.

So what changes in grantmaking is BSCFN calling for? Overall, it wants to see “at least a 25 percent increase in giving by the nation’s largest foundations to the Black community, with a particular emphasis on strengthening the infrastructure for Black-led social change.” More specifically, the recent paper puts forth seven recommendations, including investing more in community organizing, economic development, policy advocacy, research and intellectual power, communications, and leadership investment. The proposals here are longstanding ideas for strengthening social justice work—but filtered through the lens of making grants specifically to black-led groups.

Jeanné Isler notes “whenever you say some group is not getting funding, it can unintentionally create competition,” and that’s a familiar dynamic in a social sector where resources are scarce. But she stresses that it’s important not to view BSCFN’s call through this zero-sum framework. Rather, the thrust here is to reverse the “neglect of black-led organizations.”

Williams, too, takes pains to emphasize that BSCFN is not engaged in an “either-or” argument about how the grantmaking pie should be sliced up. Rather, it’s making a larger argument that black-led organizations are a cornerstone of a successful social change sector, and it’s time for funders committed to this sector to start recognizing that fact. “We’re not asking you to do something foreign,” he said. “We’re asking you to focus on institutions that are under-resourced.”

To track foundation progress on making changes, Williamson and the BSCFN see the need to gather new data on grantmaking to black-led organizations and better map the current infrastructure for black-led social change. This is an important recommendation, but one likely to encounter resistance from foundations, judging by past such efforts—including an ongoing push that Inside Philanthropy has covered to gather new data on diversity and environmental grantmaking.

More broadly, BSCFN’s call for greater investments in black-led organizations faces an uphill climb for a host of reasons, starting with the fact that most foundations are so white. But even funders who are tuned in to racial issues have other ongoing priorities that conflict with those laid out by BSCFN—and that’s all the more true since the election of Donald Trump, which has triggered a host of urgent calls for new investment across many areas. Most notably, the shift in Washington has served to push immigration issues even more to the forefront of philanthropy.

On the other hand, as Ludovic Blain points out, the 2016 election has helped to demolish any illusion that America was entering a new era of multi-cultural harmony or had gotten past the devastating legacy of anti-black racism. “In a post-black-president world, philanthropy does need to lean in heavily to building the kind of black-led infrastructure whose need may have been overshadowed by having a black president,” Blain said.

The Case for Funding Black-Led Social Change” offers a roadmap for how funders might do that.