The work is hard, but the direction is clear.

by Teri Behrens

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 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.

Photo: Teri Behrens

Teri Behrens, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University and editor in chief of The Foundation Review. Learn more about Teri.



  1. Reply
    Lisa D. says

    The author is correct; nonprofits are well positioned to respond to demands for justice. As importantly, they are also crucial for implementing solutions that address injustices. Level heads and access to people and resources to work closely with others for accountability and openness will be important processes for addressing the needs of people who are currently under-served, ignored, neglected or ill-treated. Although most nonprofits are not activist organizations, all are part of a sector that has deep roots that values humanity.
    As we consider recent events and communities that are “out of balance” nonprofits and funders must likewise become “out of balance” intentionally to move forward with other in generating solutions that work. Many have been speaking on behalf of others. It is time for us all to engage closely with one another in our communities. There are needs for justice in policing, housing, aging services and a variety of other areas. Foundation funding can help.

  2. Reply
    Keli Christopher, Ph.D. says

    As an African American woman who has tried to utilize resources from the Johnson Center of Philanthropy in the past, I would like to make it known that I feel that organizations like mine are ignored and neglected by the Johnson Center. Many nonprofits founded by Black people are small. The programming that the Johnson Center offers are for large nonprofits and wealthy foundations. In my opinion, the Johnson Center is blind to its own complicity in the systemic racism that is rampant among nonprofits where nonprofits led by white people receive the lions share of nonprofit dollars to “help” people of color. What exactly do you propose to do to combat the racist infrastructure perpetuated by the philanthropic community?

    • Reply
      Teri Behrens says

      Thanks for your comments, Dr. Christopher. We do indeed have work to do. We’ve just posted a blog today that outlines the steps we’ve taken and plan to take going forward. We’re committed to this journey.

  3. Reply
    Kate White says

    We also need to look at how we measure success for grants. Not all accomplishments are measurable and quantifiable. Doing some things because they are good for the community have value.

    • Reply
      Teri Behrens says

      Yes indeed! I encourage you to look at the work of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative for more thoughts on how evaluation can be a tool to work toward equity. See https://www.equitableeval.org

  4. Reply
    Meagan Maas says

    Great message. Important perspective. I’m curious to learn more about how more established nonprofits can help bolster and support black-led non-profits focused on serving communities of color.

    • Reply
      Teri Behrens says

      This is an important question! There are tools out there — one nice summary piece is https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/kivel3.pdf. Taking responsibility to say something when you see inequity; actively seeking opportunities to collaborate, partner, and share resources with black-led organizations; and stepping back to ensure these leaders have the space to speak are all critical. Other suggestions?

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