The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the outrage and outcry following the killing of George Floyd have laid bare entrenched racial disparities in our country as have few other moments in American history. Philanthropy, like many other sectors, is in the midst of upheaval as individuals and organizations seek meaningful and enduring ways to uproot inequitable systems with radical humanity. We have little time to waste.
Radical humanity starts with asking ourselves two fundamental questions—What does it mean to live in America? and What are our responsibilities to each other?—borrowed in this context from Ralph Ellison’s 1964 essay “Hidden Name and Complex Fate: A Writer’s Experience in the United States.” Ellison, one of America’s most trenchant and evocative writers on race, said this:
“Only by considering the broadest accumulation of data may we make choices that are based upon our own hard-earned sense of reality. Speaking from my own special area of American culture I feel that to embrace uncritically values which are extended to us by others is to reject the validity, even the sacredness, of our own experience. It is also to forget that the small share of reality which each of our diverse groups is able to snatch from the whirling chaos of history belongs not to the group alone, but to all of us.”
As philanthropists, we have the same responsibilities Ellison assigned to himself and other observers. We need to recognize not only the complexities and differences of experience that embody our entire culture, but also embrace the validity of the knowledge diverse perspectives bring. On that basis, radical humanity means radically seeing each other, and we have to admit that philanthropy writ large has been operating with one eye closed for too long.
The ‘Broadest Accumulation of Data’ and a New Reality for Philanthropy
Philanthropy alone cannot address America’s entrenched and systemic disparities, but the sector has a critical role to play in rearchitecting the country on a foundation of equity. The first step is clear and eminently achievable in the near term, and can catalyze our collective progress against longer-term, more complex challenges: We must listen to, partner with and invest in more social entrepreneurs of color, in organizations led by people of color and in leadership development for people of color at all levels in philanthropy. They often have the expertise that comes from close proximity to the challenges we face, and their insights about the affected communities are essential if we are to redress the inequities plaguing our society. By investing in them, we are investing in their power, which will be the critical driver of change in our shared future.
In late February, just before the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systematic racism seized our collective consciousness, New Profit announced a new initiative called Inclusive Impact designed to address huge racial funding and other disparities in philanthropy. Coinciding with the launch of Inclusive Impact, we released a research report—Transforming the Social Sector: The Opportunity and the Need for Action—that placed core disparities in philanthropy in stark relief. These key findings should change the sector forever:
- Black and Latinx individuals comprise 30 percent of the United States population, but only 10 percent of nonprofit organizations’ executive leadership and 6 percent of foundations’ executive leadership;
- Black and Latinx leaders are not the recipients of sufficient investments—receiving an estimated 4 percent of total grants and contributions in the sector today—and tend to receive a mix of small-dollar, short-term and/or restricted funding;
- To fund Black and Latinx leaders at levels commensurate with their representation in the sector (e.g., receive 10 percent of all grants and contributions), an estimated $22 billion would be needed.
That data provides the basis for necessary shifts in attitudes and approaches if we are to solve the complex systemic problems we face. These shifts can only happen if we invest in the expertise that exists in huge reserves in the communities most impacted. Philanthropy has never done this at anything close to the scale we need now. If we rise to the occasion, we will be helping to generate agency and power, rather than continuing a status quo that has worked under the assumption that any help or answers must come from outside of affected communities. This fundamental “white savior” approach devalues communities and the indispensable, inherent talent in them. We need to cherish and invest in that talent.
Momentum and Transformation
We believe that, of all the systemic transformations that philanthropy can reasonably achieve right now, reducing the racial disparities in funding is the most straightforward and near-term. When we say that, we often hear a version of, “I would do this, but I just don’t see the pipeline of leaders to invest in.” Our answer? Along with great organizations like Echoing Green, Camelback Ventures, Surge Institute, The Workers Lab, New American Leaders, Education Leaders of Color and so many others, we have spent years trying to broaden our field of view and our investment selection approach to reach underinvested Black, Indigenous and Latinx leaders. Together with the organizations above, we have made ourselves aware of a pipeline of hundreds, if not thousands, of extraordinary, proximate leaders who are ready for investment.
This movement to drive exponentially greater resources to proximate problem solvers was gaining momentum before the pandemic hit, and we believe the disparities that have been laid bare will only add to that momentum.
The assets are overwhelmingly in place, and if we fail to embrace this radical new humanity and way of seeing each other and the future, we will suffer for it. As Ellison said in his 1964 essay, this new way of thinking and approach are “a property and a witness which can be ignored only to the danger of the entire nation.”
Few things could be more worth the work than investing in leaders of color across the board in philanthropy.