Two Experts Discuss: Does Philanthropy Have a Race Problem?

On November 16, the Chronicle of Philanthropy hosted a webinar on “Tackling Philanthropy’s Race Problem.” Editor Stacy Palmer moderated the discussion, which featured Wes Moore and Edgar Villanueva. It was an intriguing—but not surprising—presentation by two men who have devoted a great deal of thought and action to the subject. 

Moore is an author, social entrepreneur, decorated veteran, and former investment banker who was named CEO of Robin Hood in 2017. The New York Times announced his appointment under the unfortunate headline, “Robin Hood, Favorite Charity on Wall Street, Gets New Leader,” but Moore—no stranger to challenges in his youth—came to Robin Hood with a clear understanding of the critical role of family and community support in shaping one’s life. Founded by investment professionals in 1988, Robin Hood both raises and distributes funds to develop and support poverty-fighting organizations in New York City.   

Villanueva is senior vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation, a public charity whose mission is to “develop and strengthen a broad-based and representative movement to achieve fully resourced, high quality PreK–12 public education for all children.” As part of that mission, Schott uses both funding and advocacy to publicize and challenge disparities in outcomes, particularly those attributed to class and race. Villanueva is also the author of the 2018 book Decolonizing Wealth, which was—with few exceptions—highly praised by a philanthropic sector that seemed to revel in the accusation that “philanthropy has evolved to mirror colonial structures, ultimately doing more harm than good” and is simply “racism in institutional form.”   

With both critiques of philanthropy and the multiple challenges of 2020 in mind, both speakers encouraged donors to use a race-conscious approach in making their giving decisions, with Moore citing a report from Echoing Green and The Bridgespan Group indicating that nonprofits led by persons of color receive disproportionately lower levels of philanthropic funding. At Robin Hood, the Power Fund was recently established to provide “meaningful investment” not only in such organizations, but also in the development of their leaders. For his part, Villanueva has launched the Liberated Capital Giving Circle, a donor-advised fund that “provides untethered resources to support Black, Indigenous and other people-of-color-led initiatives working for transformative social change.” 

Asked what has prevented the flow of money to nonprofit leaders of color, Moore responded that too many foundations have historically had little turnover in their grantees, and this, combined with a colorblind approach to grantmaking, has resulted in the perpetuation of “a framework built on injustice.” Philanthropy, Villanueva added, has been unwilling to come to terms with the origin of its wealth, which was accumulated through bias and racial inequity and should therefore be seen as “owned by the public.” For both men, the solution is a sustained focus on grantmaking through a “racial equity lens.” Villanueva was clear that this does not mean equal funding for all, but rather the prioritizing of communities of color. If donors are not explicit about race, he warned, it becomes a blind spot.

Beyond changes in their grantmaking portfolios, both speakers encouraged foundations to bring more racial diversity to their staffs and boards and pondered how best to ensure that philanthropy moves sharply and quickly in these directions. Philanthropic leaders, Villanueva remarked, may consider imposing expectations on each other via more data collection about who is benefitting from philanthropy and who is leading the organizations receiving funding. He also suggested that if philanthropy lags behind, external pressure and mandates may be required.  

Despite the heavy lifting required to achieve the ends they seek, both speakers expressed hopefulness that 2020 will bring about lasting change in philanthropy as donors become smarter about and more committed to giving in ways that shift power. Although Moore suggested in his early comments that donors should be constantly alert for new organizations, new leaders, and new ways of effecting change, he was quick to caution donors against making their new race-conscious approach a short-term adjustment. Measuring success in confronting the holistic challenge of race, he warned, will take a long time.   

While 2020 has seen an immediate and generous response to address racial inequity by individual donors and institutional philanthropy alike, it’s impossible to predict what the next few years will bring. At The Philanthropy Roundtable we encourage donors to seek guidance from the communities they seek to serve in developing the direction of their grantmaking programs. Wise donors will also listen to the beneficiaries of the organizations they fund as part of assessing effectiveness.  

But it is quite a different matter for donors to alter governance structures and hand over decision-making authority about what they or their foundations should do. Donor intent is not a trifling matter, nor is due diligence (though Villanueva attributes it to “white dominant culture’s need to be an expert” before taking action). The very first question to pop up onscreen during this webinar asked Wes Moore how his grantmaking recommendations squared with Robin Hood’s stated commitment to “use metrics and qualitative data to evaluate programs and measure results to compare the relative poverty-fighting success of similar programs.” Unfortunately for the audience, this question was not answered.

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