Holding up a Mirror to Philanthropy: Align Practices with Racial Equity

Photo Credit: Maggie Potapchuk

Photo Credit: Maggie Potapchuk

In recent years many nonprofits have found themselves abandoned without warning by their philanthropic partners. The stories are disturbingly similar.

Several years ago, a nonprofit service provider enjoyed a success on a small scale. It worked successfully with several communities with positive outcomes, not only in the quality of life of the communities where it worked, but in public policy as well. Its primary philanthropic partner at the time was pleased by this. The foundation’s program officer encouraged the provider to expand, to think in terms of “scalability” and national impact. The program officer went on to tell the provider to develop a strategic plan detailing how it planned to manage its growth, reorganize, add personnel, and expand the services it offers. The funder would provide the financing for the expansion. The program officer told the provider to submit an application for a larger grant, one perhaps one-and-a-half to twice as large as before. The grantee was told to submit the paperwork. The program officer would handle the rest. Do not worry, the money would be there, they were told.

But that didn’t happen.

After the organization created the plan, hired personnel, and made commitments to communities, the funder drastically cut the funding to half of what it was before. There was no warning. In fact, phone calls to the program officer were not returned. Instead, the provider received a form letter from their program officer stating their grant application had been declined. The following grant period, all funding was cut.

No explanation was offered, although the funder presented the organization to the world and in its promotional materials as one of its “success stories.”

The service provider was left scrambling to fulfill the commitments it made to the communities it serves. The service provider cannot simply walk away. If they do, they lose any sense of credibility with the community. A huge part of working in communities for racial justice is racial reconciliation work, establishing trust between the various factions of the community. The organization must keep its commitments. It must do what it said it will do. It is on the strength of its word that each party suspends disbelief and extends a hand to work collectively on racial justice. How can someone take that terrifying leap of faith if they can’t trust the person who has promised to be there to catch them if they fall? They cannot.

Facing this significant depletion of resources, the service provider was forced to make sacrifices in the name of solvency and good stewardship. New efforts were suspended. Personnel was released. Not just new personnel, but long-time personnel as well. Remember, not only was the promised additional money not provided, but money already committed was cut.

Mortally wounded, the organization limps on for a time. But more often than not, this is the beginning of the end.

It would be nice to say that this scenario illustrates an isolated occurrence. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. In recent years, philanthropy seems to have taken a strangely capricious attitude in funding. Commitments are made, then abandoned. Long-term projects are begun, organizations are mobilized and encouraged to focus their efforts on them, then support for those projects is abandoned without warning, redirected to some new idea or trend, whatever that flavor of the month might be. This trend is most disturbing for a variety of reasons. It prevents good work from being done. It creates an atmosphere of distrust between practitioners and philanthropy at a time that America can least afford it.

It seems that somehow, the larger philanthropic organizations have lost sight of what they are supposed to be about.  It is not about self-aggrandizement. It is the promotion of the welfare of others. True philanthropy speaks not with words, but through its actions and, most importantly, through its results.

How can philanthropy find its way back to what it was intended to be? It’s simple enough.

  • Be an honest partner. Deal honestly with nonprofits. Hold them accountable but be accountable as well. If you promise funding, deliver it.

  • Take a realistic view of the work and set expectations accordingly with grantees. Some things take time to change. Big business may pride itself on rapid turn-arounds, but resolving social, chronic medical, and educational inequity issues take time. America has existed with social and systemic inequality for centuries. Those issues cannot be cured in a single year.  

  • Honor your commitments. If a funder commits to partner with a nonprofit for a long-term course, stay that course. Do not abandon them without warning or support. There will always be something new over the next hill. It may not be better. If it looks promising, fund it, but not at the expense of commitments already made.

Together philanthropy and nonprofits can work to create equitable relationships and figure out ways to distribute resources to community-centered work using more equitable practices.  But that can only happen if philanthropy is mindful of the interplay of power between grantor and grantee. As with all relationships, each party has to do its part. We need philanthropy to honor its commitments, work steadfastly for racial equity, and be an honest partner.

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A native of Mississippi, Charles H. Tucker is a founding partner of Sustainable Equity, LLC where he uses his skills and experience as a facilitator and program designer to build unity and consensus in communities, nonprofit and corporate entities. A photographer and former newspaper reporter, Tucker uses his communications experience to advocate for social equity and community building. He continues to focus on the journey of achieving sustainable equity.

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We encourage you to send an accountability letter to any foundation that is using inequitable practices or misusing its power and share the impact. We encourage you to meet with them and discuss changes in practices and develop accountability structures. And we invite you tell your story. We must work collectively to share our stories to lessen the consequences on every organization. Keeping our voice unheard leads to the conclusion there is no urgency for the philanthropic sector to be transformed. We must disrupt philanthropy, intervene against inequitable practices, and transform the sector by redistributing wealth so we collectively end racism within our lifetime

What can you do NOW…

  • TELL YOUR STORY: If you are an organization that has experienced racially inequitable practices with a foundation, and you are interested in sharing it - please use this google form and someone will contact you. And we also now have an encrypted email address: DisruptPhilanthropy@protonmail.com. Your information will be confidential until you are ready to share your story. You may choose to share your story anonymously. 

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  • Here is some information on changing funding practices and resources.

  • In future blog posts and on this site, we will share with you some of the work already happening to transform philanthropy. Please share your examples and ideas with us, along with stories of effective racial equitable grant making at DisruptPhilanthropy@protonmail.com

Maggie Potapchuk