Groundswell Fund Shares An Open Letter to Philanthropy, from People of Color-led, Movement-Accountable Public Foundations

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Groundswell Fund Shares An Open Letter to Philanthropy, from People of Color-led, Movement-Accountable Public Foundations 

Dear Colleagues, 

The uprisings of 2020 sparked historic levels of philanthropic giving to address racial injustice. For philanthropy, this signals a tremendous and unprecedented opportunity to dismantle white supremacy in both our country (who we fund) and our sector (how we fund). In both contexts, the cornerstone of white supremacy is dominance and control. By contrast, the cornerstone of racial equity is sharing resources and decision-making power in a way that fundamentally supports the self-determination of people of color. Racial healing and justice in the United States will take all of us working together – white people and people of color. We all have a place in this work. But how we do the work matters. We will not get to a different destination by working in the same way.

The “different way” must include a significant transfer of resources into the control of institutions where people of color, who are primarily accountable to their communities, have the ultimate decision-making power over where dollars go. This includes certain grassroots organizations with the capacity to receive dollars and redistribute them to key leaders and organizations (for example, the Movement for Black Lives) and certain public foundations that are led by people of color who come out of grassroots movements.  As Executive Directors and CEOs of the nation’s foremost people of color-led, movement-accountable public foundations, we support both models. We write this open letter from our own experience, as an invitation to colleagues from private and family foundations and the individual donor community, to disrupt a growing trend that is reinforcing, rather than transgressing, the “same old way” of doing philanthropy.

In the decades leading up to this moment, when talking about race was still largely unpopular in philanthropy, the leading funders of racial justice in the United States were often public foundations like ours, led by people of color who came out of grassroots movements. Rarely endowed, raising what we give out each year, and with staff and boards composed largely of people from the communities we support, we are distinct in philanthropy: while we partner with wealthy individuals and institutions, in every aspect of our work and strategy, we are values aligned with, and primarily accountable to, grassroots movements. We don’t lead or engineer movements; we follow and flank them with giving strategies that are not extracted from but co-created, vetted, and approved by grassroots leaders who have actual decision-making power within our institutions. We hold deep and trust-based relationships with the communities we support. Communities know that when we ask, we’re listening.

From this center of gravity, we have played an outsized role in changing the weather of philanthropy itself to be more favorable to racial and gender justice and grassroots power building. Our voices have often been the loudest to call for increased funding to grassroots organizing, local and state-level work, underfunded regions like the U.S. South, racial and gender justice, and strategic work led by those most impacted – particularly people of color. Turning the conventional philanthropic logic about risk on its head, we have long argued that it is riskier NOT to fund promising start-ups, bold organizing campaigns, people of color-led work, and durable infrastructure. We were early advocates for general support and multi-year funding. And we have been leaders in the practice of nimble, trust-based, culturally competent grantmaking, finding ways to ensure that effective grantees can access resources without being overly burdened. By leveraging our proximity to the grassroots, we can move money fast and strategically in critical moments.

We have also modeled racial equity in the very structure of our institutions. Representation matters and majority people of color staff and board teams are important. The issues that impact communities of color – police brutality, disparities in maternal mortality, deportation, environmental racism – are not theoretical or academic concepts to us. They affect our children, siblings, and elders — the neighborhoods we live and organize in. The vibrant communities that have grown within foundations like ours have also become places to practice new ways of being together across race, class, and gender. Our boards of directors include formerly incarcerated and homeless people who sit alongside billionaires with equal power to shape the giving strategies of our institutions. We are proof that wealthy individuals and institutions (the majority white-led) can partner with, rather than control and dominate grassroots communities of color; and that a more democratic control of money is possible.

Over the years, billions of dollars that would not otherwise have reached impactful work at the grassroots made it there because we stood in the gap. Because we operated, not as gatekeepers but as gate openers, enabling resources to reach organizations that private foundations and major donors did not have the staff time, expertise, or relationships to fund directly, and then amplifying those organizations within philanthropy at large.

Many of the grassroots leaders and organizations most celebrated for their impact (including in the 2020 elections) received their first grants, and their most consistent and flexible funding, from public foundations like ours. They were able to grow and scale with the support of our capacity-building and organizational development programs, the introductions we brokered with other donors and foundations, and the platforms that we helped create to share their work with larger philanthropic audiences.

The current surge in giving to racial justice (thank you Black organizing) has thrown open gates that many of us have been diligently prying open for our communities for decades. Countless foundations are waking up and looking to fund racial justice. This is a very good thing! What’s not good is that vast amounts of these new resources are moving through white-led foundations and institutions where the ultimate decision-makers lack authentic relationships with and deep accountability to communities of color. History tells us this means fewer dollars will make it to the organizations that communities of color trust and need to build actual power (as opposed to the ones deemed “credible” by white decision-makers). As a result, giving will likely be volatile & unpredictable rather than solid and sustained. It also signals a doubling down on white supremacy in our sector by bypassing structures where movement-accountable people of color have the ultimate decision-making power in favor of those where white people hold that power.

Many white-led institutions are attempting to plug the holes from lack of relationships, expertise, and cultural competency, with extraction and gentrification by doing two things: first, sapping the precious time of people of color movement leaders as grantmaking advisors within structures where white people have the ultimate decision-making power. The amount of time philanthropy already drains from these leaders through onerous and extractive grant applications and reporting processes already constitutes a theft. Now it is demanding more. Second, gentrifying the work of foundations like ours. Our phones have been ringing for months with requests from white-led foundations and intermediaries to download (almost always for free) how we do our work so that they can attempt to replicate our models instead of just funding us; as if there were even a formula we could provide that could substitute for actual relationships in communities.

It’s time that philanthropy acknowledges the essential role that people of color-led, movement-accountable foundations play in the larger philanthropic ecosystem. Investments in these institutions are a key strategy for advancing racial justice and self-determination. Therefore, it is critical that foundations like ours not just exist but be well-resourced and treated with respect.

We know and appreciate the many allies we have throughout private foundation, family foundation, and individual donor communities. We’re calling on you to stand with us now in disrupting the current trend in racial justice funding by signing onto this statement as a supporter and voicing the following statements and questions in philanthropic spaces:

  1. The gold standard of racial justice giving is to move flexible resources on a large scale to people of color-led organizations that are primarily accountable to movements in their communities and capable of redistributing these funds. This includes grassroots organizations like M4BL with the capacity to re-grant and public foundations led by people of color who come out of grassroots movements. This type of giving supports the self-determination of people of color.
  2. If you are a white donor or white-led institution building new infrastructure to resource people of color, and that infrastructure is virtually identical to the infrastructure of existing public foundations led by people of color, why are you not just funding these public foundations? Is it due to a lack of trust? A need to maintain ownership and control? And if you are tapping these public foundations to teach you how to build this new infrastructure because you admire how well they have built theirs, why not just fund what they have already built? (Helpful article from Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity)

Our liberation is bound to one another’s, and the surest way to freedom is to follow, and fund, those who know the way. Join us in our vision for the path forward. Please scroll to the bottom of this page for a full list of people of color-led, movement accountable public foundations. 

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