I first started working full-time in philanthropy in 2001 as an evaluation manager at a foundation. A common reaction among my friends and family was something along the lines of it being a cushy job — how hard is it to give away money?
The answer then, as now, is, “very hard.” It is hard to give money in a way that will make an impact. Hard to do it in ways that challenge the very systems that allowed the money to accumulate. Hard to do it in ways that respect the lived experiences of those who have been on the receiving end of so many injustices.
In the nonprofit part of the sector, it is hard to face the bias against black-led organizations. It is hard to incorporate an understanding of history into strategies that are community-led. It is hard to give up the savior mentality.
Economic, social, and physical violence against people of color has been part of this country from its inception as indigenous people were forcibly removed from their homes amid a wave of genocide. The violence was institutionalized as people were held in slavery, then held down by policies that prevented freed people from accessing education and healthcare, holding certain jobs, or owning homes in some places. The Jim Crow era was one continuous assault on the dignity of African Americans. In the 21st century, we’ve seen the ongoing “othering” of immigrants, Muslims, and yes… still African Americans.
The protests are a sign of the pent-up hurt and rage that so many feel as a result of daily microaggressions and frequent, blatant aggression — up to and including the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The motives of some of those who moved the ongoing protests into violence are questionable, with accusations about extremists from both the right and left being the instigators. Video from the police handling of these protests suggests that in some cases they escalated the violence. Institutional forces still are an existential threat to people of color.
On the other hand, I am encouraged by examples of police being in solidarity with the protesters in some cities. I’m encouraged that the protesters have been a young, racially diverse group.
What will philanthropy’s response be? While “equity” has been a buzzword at philanthropy conferences for years now, will the sector step up in this historic time and move beyond the rhetoric? Money and mouth both count. We need to use both more effectively to call out injustice where we see it in our organizations and communities, put resources in the hands of those who have the deepest experience of pain and how to address it, and call on our colleagues to do likewise.
Yes, philanthropy is hard. But the direction forward is clear. We need to put our collective weight behind bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. It is not happening fast enough.