Due to racist killings documented on video, inequity regarding the nation’s pandemic response, and the resultant protests that occurred in 2020, there has been a heightened focus on transforming institutions and addressing inequity within various public and private sectors and industries. Philanthropy is no different.
An often-perceived source and support for good in society, philanthropy is historically steeped in and presently rife with racism. Through external examination and internal reckonings, examples of racism in philanthropy have made headlines. At the same time, organizations are becoming more intentional with their diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) assessments and activities. Yet, discussions of racism in philanthropic grantmaking are often mired in a limited framework.
That framework is shaped by vocabulary. The two commonly discussed forms of racism are explicit racism, blatant acts such as the use of racial epithets, and institutionalized racism, racially discriminatory practices and policies that are ingrained in how organizations and entities operate. However, as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes in “Racism without Racists,” institutional racism can exist without people committing intentional acts of racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).
More recently, racial microaggressions — brief, interpersonal acts of racism that can happen daily and can accumulate into harmful effects — and implicit racial bias — unconscious racial prejudices people hold that influence their interactions and decision-making — have gained heightened attention within philanthropy. These terms have become part of mainstream discussions about racism as many organizations are attempting to address DEIB issues among funding organizations, their employees, nonprofits, and grantees.
This blog post shifts the abovementioned discussion by using a more expansive vocabulary and an exploration of various types of racism I personally experienced or witnessed as a Black woman sociologist who leads a race- and gender-centered donor-advised fund. The Black women leaders I have funded are knowledgeable, resourceful, hard-working, imaginative, authentic, and insightful.
As I have engaged with them and reflected on our experiences, I am struck, although not surprised, by how much racism influences our work. Their and my experiences with racism can help illuminate racism in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. This piece does not reflect on a singular experience with racism. Rather, I use my experience and training as a sociologist to provide context for racism I have observed within the field of philanthropic funding to give an overarching understanding of various types of racism that Black women leaders in philanthropy may experience.
There needs to be an expanded acknowledgment of the types of racism that occur in philanthropy. This is imperative because a deeper understanding of the types of racism that are pervasive throughout philanthropy allows for more curated interventions to reduce harm and to develop more equitable and inclusive institutions.
It is critical to understand that racism is not experienced in the same way by every member of a particular race or community. The concept of intersectionality also helps us understand that people experience racism differently depending on their other social identities, like gender, sexuality, class, religion, and ability (Coaston, 2019).
For instance, gendered racism refers to how people of color of different gender identities experience racial discrimination related to that identity. For instance, Black women who give birth experience higher rates of maternal mortality due to institutionalized racism and practices within the U.S. health system (Petersen, Davis, Goodman, et al., 2019).
Philanthropy must be cautious to not fall prey to two perverse forms of racism as it pursues DEIB. A dangerous approach to talking about race is the notion of colorblindness, a logic that argues that people do not “see” race. This perspective does not allow for groups of people to fully express cultural differences. Further, it minimizes the realities of how people of color experience racism in their daily lives.
Moreover, philanthropy must be cautious to not rely on diversity ideologies. Diversity ideologies refer to white people’s approval or celebration of racial/ethnic diversity but limited support of anti-racism. Diversity ideologies minimally acknowledge the existence of racial inequality, commodify aspects of the cultures of people of color, and prioritize the feelings and assessments of white people (Mayorga-Gallo, 2019).
The aforementioned types of racism do not represent an exhaustive list. However, I highlight these various forms of racism so that we can more astutely grapple with the racist experiences I detail later in this piece and think through the intentional strategies that reflect the nuances of the forms of racism.
In 2018, I started a donor-advised fund named the Black Women and Girls Fund (BWGF) at the Baltimore Community Foundation. Through BWGF, I apply my subject matter expertise in race, gender, and policy to philanthropic grantmaking to intentionally create funding strategies that empower and celebrate Black women and girls and Black women organizational leaders.
One of few Black woman-led, donor-advised funds in the country focused explicitly on Black women and girls, the Fund works closely with its grantees to learn about and help address the challenges these organizations face. At this time, BWGF has focused its efforts locally in the Baltimore, Maryland region. Through the Fund’s development, initial deployment of grant proceeds, and my conversations with BWGF’s grantees, the following became apparent:
1. Black women-led organizations are underfunded.
Black women and girls make up 17% of Maryland’s, 34% of Baltimore’s, and 16% of the Greater Baltimore Region’s population (Maryland State Data Center). In the state of Maryland, foundation funding per Black woman and girl is only 17 cents (Howe & Frazer, 2020).
According to a report by the Ms. Foundation for Women, only about 4.2% of national funding available for women and girls of color in 2017 explicitly targeted Black women and girls (Howe & Frazer, 2020). Further, nationally, around 40% of organizations that serve Black women and girls have budgets less than $50,000 (Howe & Frazer, 2020).
“Racism is inextricably linked to underfunding. Interpersonal racism and microaggressions make it difficult for Black women founders and leaders to be part of social networks that have disposable assets for giving.”
Racism is inextricably linked to underfunding. Interpersonal racism and microaggressions make it difficult for Black women founders and leaders to be part of social networks that have disposable assets for giving. Some Black women leaders of grassroots organizations often feel underlying cultural stress regarding being explicit about primarily focusing on Black people or Black women and girls. These leaders fear they could face anti-Black backlash or pressure to represent their work as targeting issues related to all women of color, thereby minimizing the particularities of the Black experience.
2. Limited financial wealth in Black communities leads many Black-led organizations and Black donors to rely on white institutions.
White philanthropy, much of it created from extractive origins, historically has not invested the necessary transformational funding to establish or support wealthy, endowed Black-founded or centered organizations. This is an important distinction, as a Black-led organization can be a white organization due to having majority white boards and staff and an organizational history and culture that privileges whiteness.
Further, there is limited wealth and resources within Black communities, and the city of Baltimore is no different. Thus, it is challenging to establish funding vehicles like donor-advised funds at Black-owned entities. In developing BWGF, I was not able to identify a local intermediary that is explicitly Black-serving and also has the infrastructure to support donor-advised funds.
“[T]he history of disinvestment in Black-owned financial entities and the systemic racism that has limited the accumulation of Black wealth have consequences for where and how funding for Black causes is housed and distributed.”
As a result, I chose the Baltimore Community Foundation to house the Fund because its president is a Black woman, there are Black staff members, and people of color are on its board. Unfortunately, the history of disinvestment in Black-owned financial entities and the systemic racism that has limited the accumulation of Black wealth have consequences for where and how funding for Black causes is housed and distributed.
3. Philanthropy’s traditional application process and due diligence taxes and marginalizes small, Black woman-led organizations.
BWGF grantees must prove to (often white) program officers that they are worth funding with metrics that do not always align with how the programs prefer to demonstrate their success.
Program reviews primarily come from a white perspective or understanding of community-based problems that cloud supposedly objective evaluations. This approach positions the program officers as experts instead of positioning the Black women leaders as partners and experts.
This approach requires Black women founders and leaders to explain what they do in ways that appeal to and appease funders and program officers. The result is a draining song-and-dance of reframing programs and opportunities to match funders’ priorities, as opposed to providing opportunities for philanthropy to truly listen to Black women about their values and how they see their work as important to their communities. This is especially difficult for Black women leaders who find themselves facing many of the same challenges as their clients and beneficiaries.
This process is mired with interpersonal and cultural racism that influences how philanthropic workers evaluate Black women-led organizations and who they choose to fund. This is also a matter of institutional racism, given the wide-spread lack of racial diversity among staff and leaders of philanthropic organizations. Even when Black people or people of color are employed by philanthropic organizations, they may be hamstrung by the evaluation practices of their organizations.
“Philanthropy must fund Black women leaders who are imaginative in creating and running organizations that not only address Black pain but also highlight Black joy and possibility.”
Finally, the white-centric view on the proposal process limits funding creativity and purpose for both funders and grantees. Black leaders need money to fund time to think, rest, and build. Philanthropy must fund Black women leaders who are imaginative in creating and running organizations that not only address Black pain but also highlight Black joy and possibility.
4. Philanthropy’s reaction to protests against racism in 2020 included unprecedented amounts of money and exultations that Black Lives Matter. However, the record levels of funding did not result in increased funding for all Black-led organizations.
It is wrong to assume that the large funding commitments of many philanthropic and corporate institutions resulted in a funding groundswell for all Black-focused organizations. Surely, some did, and many of these organizations can now do transformative work as a result. Yet many small, local organizations on the ground, operating with small budgets who have grassroots community trust, access, and knowledge, continue to be under-funded.
Some BWGF grantees did not receive increased donations because funders prioritized topics that were related to the protests, like criminal justice. Additionally, some organizations lost funding because their former sources of support redirected their giving towards issues that philanthropic networks and media cited as pressing issues for Black people; or they sought to make large donations to singular organizations. Consequently, organizations explicitly focused on Black women and girls face diversity ideologies and commodification of diversity that result in diminished financial support for their approaches to fighting gendered racism.
To combat racist, anti-Black policies and practices in philanthropy, we must not simply focus on diversity or representation or even racial equity. We must intentionally dismantle white supremacy and the ways we accommodate and privilege whiteness. Philanthropy still overfocuses on the problematic consequences of racism, not its contribution to it.
 Public sentiment often characterizes blatant forms of racism as old-fashioned, despite their continued occurrence. For more details regarding old-fashioned and modern racism see, the American Psychological Association’s description here: https://dictionary.apa.org/modern-racism
 See the American Psychological Association’s definition of institutional racism here: https://dictionary.apa.org/institutionalized-racism
 See The University of Washington’s diversity, equity, and inclusion glossary for more details about microaggressions and implicit bias and the American Psychological Association’s definition of everyday racism
 The Annie E. Casey Foundation has a detailed list of terms and definitions related to race, racism, and equity at https://www.aecf.org/blog/racial-justice-definitions/
 A brief definition can be found in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s glossary. Systemic racism is discussed at length in Joe Feagin’s Systemic racism: A theory of oppression
 See “cultural racism” at the following link for a more detailed description: https://www.sjsu.edu/diversity/office/education/terms.php#C
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Coaston, Jane. (2019, May 28). The intersectionality wars. Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination
Howe, E.E. and Frazer, S. (2020) Pocket Change: A Data Brief on Organizations Serving Black Women and Girls in the United States. The Ms. Foundation for Women: New York, NY. https://forwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Pocket-Change-Black-Subpop-Factsheet.pdf
Maryland State Data Center. (2021, June) “Population by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin for Maryland’s Jurisdictions, July 1, 2020.” https://planning.maryland.gov/MSDC/Pages/pop_estimate/CensPopEst
Mayorga-Gallo, S. (2019). The White-Centering Logic of Diversity Ideology. American Behavioral Scientist, 63, 1789–1809. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-White-Centering-Logic-of-Diversity-Ideology-Mayorga-Gallo/068a3a9dc89e7e3ced4402e652619109ae2c111e
Petersen, E.E., Davis, N.L., Goodman, D., et al. (2019, Sept. 6). Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Pregnancy-Related Deaths — United States, 2007–2016. Morbidity Mortality Weekly Report, 68, 762–765. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6835a3