Emmett D. Carson is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation. He is also board chairman of the Council on Foundations. He took his Ph.D. from Princeton University and is today a leading spokesman on African Americans and philanthropy. Recently, Carson sat down with Philanthropy to discuss black philanthropy, “free-enterprise nonprofits,” and the challenges facing community foundations.
How is the growth of philanthropy among African Americans affecting nonprofits run by blacks, and how is this growth affecting philanthropy in general?
Prior to the civil rights movement, color defined every aspect of African-American lives. So it’s no surprise that during the 1940s and ’50s black philanthropists supported black organizations almost exclusively. Today, racism has lessened considerably, and African Americans are freer to fund what inspires them. This is what society has hoped for, what the civil rights groups have hoped for. But this success has brought black philanthropy to a curious point. Some African-American nonprofit organizations bemoan the fact that they can no longer say, “You [as a black philanthropist] need to support me because I’m black” and can best understand and represent your interests. Instead, these organizations must prove their effectiveness just as other nonprofits must. Black philanthropists today are free to support whichever groups are effectively achieving the goals the donors wish to achieve.
For many traditionally white-run organizations, this has meant the opportunity for an influx of black philanthropic dollars. But in that opportunity there are also challenges. These charities can no longer simply say “we’re anti-racist and are working to improve the lot of blacks and other people of color,” and expect black philanthropists to rush to them. Instead, these organizations must demonstrate they’re committed to helping black Americans by working in a variety of communities and with a multiracial team of leaders.
In short, we are finally reaching a place in America where every organization has to earn its own way. This is what Dr. Martin Luther King hoped for when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
What has been the impact of black celebrities on philanthropy?
I think, collectively, black celebrities are doing many things. For one thing, they’re putting on the public stage the diversity of thought in the black community. You can no longer say blacks are one-dimensional. We come with a multiplicity of ideas, perspectives, and points of view. Secondly, because there are people of color who are wealthy and influential, nonprofits are beginning to understand that the black community is not a dependent community. We’re well represented in sports and entertainment, but there are also black lawyers, doctors, and judges. In many cases, we have moved beyond the stage of someone being the first, second, or even third black to become a success in a given field. We’re moving into the mainstream of decision-making, although there is progress to be made.
Are there too many nonprofit organizations today competing for too few charitable dollars?
It is always surprising to me that we marvel at the innovation of the American marketplace, but when it comes to nonprofits, we don’t value new efforts. No one ever says there are too many small businesses trying to make it. We say, “Part of the American experience is free enterprise.” The same thing applies to the nonprofit sector. People have a right to say, “I have a better way to do this,” and launch their own nonprofit to try to prove it. They have every right to succeed or fail.
Interestingly, the tremendous surge we’ve seen in the establishment of nonprofits is not being spurred by foundations. Several years ago, we did a “back of the envelope” comparison of the grants of the largest community and private foundations in the area. We learned that roughly 75 percent of the grants these organizations made were going to the same 200 or so organizations. It’s the individuals willing to support new groups who are sustaining the huge growth in nonprofits. That’s a positive consequence of what America is.
What challenges face community foundations in the coming years?
We must differentiate ourselves in a positive way from donor-advised funds and the many other vehicles for giving that are available to donors. Too many community foundations have gone astray trying to look like one of the large, well-run commercial donor-advised funds, instead of selling what community foundations know best—the problems that confront their communities, and which groups are effectively addressing these issues. I believe that if community foundations can’t do this, we’re in trouble, and we’ll lose market share in the coming years.
What is most distinctive about American philanthropy?
In a word, “Diversity.” It’s the beauty of the free-enterprise nonprofit sector. Every group has an opportunity to define itself and where help is needed, and then to create the mechanisms to fund that assistance. In Minneapolis, for example, the Hmong community is among the largest in the country. It’s also identifying its needs and creating the nonprofit structures that can best address them.