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Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: On Philanthropy and Racial Justice

Throughout the last two months, we have seen countless emails and social media posts of how companies and organizations plan to change some practices and review their internal culture because of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). The financial donations and changes in retail store practices are kind. Still, they seem performative because they aren’t leading to systemic policy changes that positively impact the day-to-day lives of Black and Brown folks. Are these corporations paying their employees a living wage, providing robust benefits (including paid sick and family leave), hiring returning citizens, and diversifying their corporate and store leadership structures? Are they committing to ending food deserts by opening new full-service grocery stores with reasonable prices? How do their current actions help eradicate the root causes of poverty for Black, Brown, and other marginalized communities? They’re not.

In the nonprofit sector, we’ve seen many rapid response grants and other funds allocated to Black-led or Black -community-serving organizations whose commitment is to justice and, in particular, racial justice. While all of this seems timely, we can’t help but ask if this same energy will be present in the coming weeks, months, and years? Will funders still show up and financially support Black-led movements that continue to battle every day against systemic oppression and all forms of state violence? More importantly, is that funding enough to sustain growth and deepen the praxis for those movements? As the author and nonprofit leader Edgar Villanueva states, “The time for empty solidarity statements has passed—philanthropy must take accountable action and release an unprecedented amount of unrestricted funds to fuel long-term Black-led movements for racial justice. This moment requires absolutely nothing less if we profess to be dedicated to justice.” 

An essential piece of funding calls for us to look deeper into who the funding is coming from and, by extension, the effects this has on the work and projects uplifted. We have to look deeper into whether these projects benefit vulnerable communities and populations it is meant to serve. Is funding being given to just check a box to show issue/racial diversity in a Foundation’s portfolio, or are they helping their grantees dig into the work to find real solutions? There is no doubt that funding at any level is helpful for an organization operating with a four or 5-figure budget. We must ask ourselves: Why are these organizations that work to improve the day-to-day suffering of Black and Brown communities operating with an anemic budget in the first place? Because of the confluence of COVID and M4BL, many foundations are waiving their standard rigorous application, reporting, and renewal processes and replacing them with a phone or video call with grassroots leaders. Funders are making money more accessible to under-resourced organizations that may not have the slightest idea about how to begin the process of receiving grant funding or mid-sized organizations without a dedicated development person on staff. Still, will this continue to be the case in the long-term?  

Another piece to consider is the length at which these funds are being provided. As Borealis Philanthropy pointed out, “funders typically rush to make rapid response grants to show concern. While we applaud the impulse to do something now, this approach is best a band-aid and, at worst, can send grantees on a boom-and-bust roller coaster.” We know that funding organizations with more substantial gifts for longer lengths of time (and with fewer restrictions) almost guarantees that nonprofit organizations can focus on actually providing solutions to their issue-areas or community support rather than spending inordinate amounts of time hustling to find and keep funding to continue their operations.

Long term solutions that focus on ending systemic oppression through meaningful policy changes and bolstering community support and mutual aid are the best and only ways to tackle anti-Black racism and state-sanctioned violence. We hope to see long-term and more mindful investments from corporations and foundations into Black, Brown, and marginalized communities that have experienced decades of divestment and outright neglect. A more significant demonstration of their commitment would be to promote and hire bright, passionate, and radically Black and Brown people into decision-making leadership spaces to ensure that justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) are modeled and practiced in the real world.