Listening and Evolving: How a Community Foundation Put Racial Equity at the Center of Its Work

Alessio Catelli/shutterstock

Alessio Catelli/shutterstock

Can a funder be a “model” when it is simply listening to its community and letting those voices guide its actions? This is the question Brooklyn Community Foundation’s president and CEO Cecilia Clarke posed upon the suggestion that her organization’s highly visible and clearly articulated work on racial justice might serve as a prototype for other funders who want to be more vocal supporters of racial equity work, but are concerned about pushback from wealthy white donors.

Clarke isn’t just being modest. While there are some aspects of Brooklyn Community Foundation’s history and community composition that are unique, its investment in the development of a structured “community-led leadership” process that organically produced its focus on racial equity (among four other priority areas), is a journey that many other community foundations are traveling. In fact, there are 16 other such funders across the nation that have joined a network dedicated to advancing equity in their communities.

While Brooklyn Community Foundation may not accept the “model” moniker, it has become an early and widely recognized philanthropic leader centering racial equity work in its long-term organizational strategy and communicating this priority throughout all aspects of its functioning. So how did it get there?

The timing of Clarke’s arrival at BCF in its unusual history is relevant. The foundation started its life as a private bank foundation and converted to a community foundation in 2009. Its board was half bank officers, and the foundation was still finding its community-based legs when Clarke was hired as CEO in 2013.

“My charge from the board was to finish the transition and develop a vision for this new community foundation,” Clarke says. “Honestly, because I hadn’t worked for a community foundation before, I didn’t know to be afraid of taking on racial equity.”

In her early days, she connected with CFLeads, the national affinity group of community foundations “committed to building stronger communities through community leadership.” Clarke attended the Council on Foundation’s Community Foundation Conference, where she quickly devoured CFLeads’ “Framework for Community Leadership” and learned about the Resident Engagement Community Leadership Network. According to CFLeads CEO Deborah Ellwood, all of these efforts flowed from the seminal 2005 Monitor Institute report “On the Brink of New Promise: The Future of U.S. Community Foundations,” which has become essential reading for community foundations.

“The report essentially said, stop obsessing over dollars under management, turn your attention away from operational efficiency and toward community impact, and focus on working in collaboration with others in your community to make a difference. That’s where your strength is,” Ellwood says. “It encouraged community foundations to go beyond grantmaking and use all the tools they possess—including community convening and relationship building, sharing knowledge, and advocating for public policy solutions—to build strong communities.” It is a message that Clarke took as her new charge.

In January 2014, BCF launched “Brooklyn Insights,” a six-month project to “bring the people and neighborhoods of Brooklyn together to discuss Brooklyn’s future—the pressing needs of our communities, opportunities for change and strategies for collective action.”

The community conversations produced five themes, of which Racial Justice was one and Immigrant Communities was another. (The others were Neighborhood Cohesion, Youth and Criminal Justice.) What they heard from their community was that the roots of economic inequality are in racial discrimination, that institutional racism is at the heart of economic inequality.

The immigrant rights and racial equity areas are rooted in the same philosophical grounding, Clarke says, but BCF’s intense work on immigrants’ rights didn’t take off until after the 2016 election, when current events prompted a board member to assert that “we need to get out in front of this,” and kicked off an Immigrants Rights Fund. The board member said, “This is rooted in our racial justice work.”

While some donors and board members voiced concern that focusing on immigrants’ rights and prosperity might be mission drift for the foundation, deeper conversations determined that it is very much part of staying focused on racial equity. Says Clarke, “This is where having an established, well-defined racial equity lens really helped. Fully 37 percent of Brooklyn is foreign-born, and so this was obviously central to our community-led leadership conversations.”

BCF’s experience reinforces the importance of effective board relations in advancing racial justice work. At the beginning, Clarke says, “Some really appreciated the move toward working on racial inequality, and some were less enthusiastic. For many board members, the community conversations process seemed like ‘just one big hug’ until the implications became apparent.” But the structured process of listening gave her the authority to pursue the racial equity work that the community wanted. The next stage of the process was establishing a Racial Justice Advisory Council, which did result in a little bit of pushback from the board because members were concerned that the council might compete with their authority. But ultimately, the board came to see that the council really helped define what it actually means for a foundation to apply a racial justice lens across all aspects of its functioning.

Some might say that Brooklyn is an easier place than most for a community foundation to do racial equity work, simply because it has a majority “minority” population. Clarke says their racial equity work did not emerge because the people in the community are more diverse, but because it is a community that is very aware that resources have been—and continue to be—distributed along color lines. “Whether you’re in Brooklyn or West Virginia, we all need to unpack these issues,” she says.

And in red, blue and purple states across the nation, community foundations are doing just that. The first cohort for CFLeads’ Community Foundation Equity Network had 10 participating community foundations from Dubuque, Denver, Milwaukee, Kalamazoo, Baltimore, Buffalo, St. Paul, Minnesota, San Francisco, Oakland and the Mississippi Delta. CFLeads just announced its second cohort this month, and it is equally geographically diverse, including Waco, Texas; Cincinnati, Ohio; Jackson, Michigan; Rochester, New York; Flint, Michigan; and Seattle, Washington.  

“Working on racial equity is a journey, and there are challenges each community foundation has to manage, and each community’s relationships are different,” says Ellwood. “The conversation in Dubuque will be different than Brooklyn, but developing a board that supports resident engagement is an imperative no matter where you are.”

When a colleague at a West Coast community foundation told Clarke that they lost one board member as a result of their work on racial equity, Clarke says she advised that this should be viewed as “a good thing for the foundation, because it is now able to reset its board composition with a new member who is supportive of racial equity work. Perhaps it is a trade-off, but a phenomenal board is one that is evolving.”

Clarke says that these lessons are for private foundations, too. “While the private foundation model tends to be much more rooted in the fortunes and interests of white males and preserving the social structures that produced those fortunes,” she said, there are private foundations that are challenging traditional top-down models of leadership. “I recently went to a workshop of foundation leaders held by Philanthropy New York that explored what its members are doing on racial equity that naturally led to a discussion on power in philanthropy. These leaders agreed that racial equity work, ultimately, is all about sharing power.”

While more community foundations are pursuing distributed leadership practices like participatory grantmaking, the shift is not their exclusive domain, and more private foundations are looking to communities for deeper input in new and varied ways.

“At the heart of doing racial equity work, we have to challenge the paradigm of top-down grantmaking,” Clarke says. This revelation is not just for community foundations, but for every funder.  “This work is messy, but you have to act,” she concluded.

Related: Power in Letting Go: How Participatory Grantmakers Are Democratizing Philanthropy