Dear Fellow Funders: No More Statements on Racial Equity Please (Until You Publish “The Receipts”)

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Dear Fellow Funders: No More Statements on Racial Equity Please (Until You Publish “The Receipts”)
By: Scott Thomas, Co-Founder, and Erica Hamilton, Board Member, Arbor Brothers

Over the last few years, and especially since the murder of George Floyd, the philanthropic sector has increasingly engaged in what some have described as a “racial reckoning.”  This process of reflecting on structural racism—and confronting the idea that we as funders have in some ways been perpetuating it—has been pursued with varying degrees of introspection across grantmaking institutions but seems to consistently produce one core output: a carefully-crafted public statement that espouses solidarity with Black and brown communities.  This declaration of values is often buttressed with a vague commitment to increase representation from and/or provide more support to individuals in those communities.

These reflections and statements of support amount to a wonderful step on the road to equity, but let’s call them what they are: a first step.  A baby step.  No matter the degree to which a foundation board’s consciousness is awakened, no matter the good intentions of the staff, if philanthropy’s systems of power—resource allocation, governance, hiring—are not re-examined and reformed to better include and serve communities of color, our statements of allyship are more about self-serving PR than community-serving change.  With some 87% of the sector’s $12B in 2020 racial equity pledges unfulfilled or unaccounted for, a cynic might be forgiven for noting the clear prioritization of appearances over asset distribution.  

So far, so banal.  Words are helpful but not nearly enough, etc.  But there is something simple and practical we funders can all do to help close this gap between intention and action.  We can commit to backing up our words, to transparency around our progress towards equity, and to holding each other accountable for that transparency and progress.  

Call to Action: Funders should commit to tracking and publicly sharing a few basic diversity, equity and inclusion metrics.  This disclosure should include the dollar value and percentage of grants made to organizations led by people of color, along with the racial composition of the grantmaker’s staff and board.  

While true transformation requires much more than these simplified metrics capture, we would argue that unless and until these numbers move in a positive direction, it is unlikely that meaningful progress towards equity is being made.  As our younger colleagues might say, these are “the receipts” which document the actual practices of grantmakers (as opposed to the “wokeness window dressing” emails sent on Juneteenth).

Make no mistake, we at Arbor Brothers are not a model funder when it comes to equity (yet).  While we have made progress diversifying our team and board, we were founded by two relatively privileged white guys who still have many of the same biases and blind spots all too common in the sector.  We haven’t funded enough front-line BIPOC leaders and have made plenty of missteps trying to effectively support those we have funded.  All that said, we have collectively committed to being more equitable, diverse and inclusive, defined what that means for us, and begun transparently sharing our progress towards those goals (our commitment and data are here).  Admittedly, beyond being “more equitable every year,” we are still wrestling with how best to benchmark our progress and define our target end-state.  As we learn from other grantmakers who are achieving success on this front, we hope to have better landmarks by which to steer.  

You also care about equity in philanthropy.  What can you do?

  • - If you are in a leadership position at a grantmaker:  Push for your organization to make a commitment, define metrics of progress, and report them out transparently.  You can start with this downloadable template.
  • - If you are not in a leadership position, but work at a grantmaker without such policies in place: Ask your manager what’s holding them back from pushing for this transparency.

And yes, next time you get an email or see a post on social media which references a grantmaker’s commitment to equity, ask them for the receipts.