The nonprofit sector is the third-largest sector in the country, however, that hasn’t translated to robust change for communities of color, which have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic instability of recent years. This disparity has sparked a rallying cry: It’s time for philanthropy to change.
The Boston Women’s Fund recently held this year’s first virtual gathering in our Getting Proximate Series: The New Faces of Philanthropy. This vibrant roundtable event featured four women of color working to revolutionize the philanthropic sector: Chastity Bowick, Executive Director of Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts INC; Dr. Makeeba McCreary, President of The New Commonwealth Racial Equity & Social Justice Fund; Lisa Owens, Executive Director of The Hyams Foundation; and Giselle Ferro Puigbo, Executive Director of Brookline Community Foundation.
United by their fight for liberation, our panelists discussed their vision for disrupting philanthropy by dismantling harmful systems to create real, lasting change in communities of color. Here are the night’s top highlights.
Changing philanthropy to better serve community partners requires a mindset shift Dr. Makeeba McCreary called “unphilathropizing” — creating new practices that differ from how philanthropy has traditionally operated. It’s easy to reflexively fall in line with “the way things are done” in the sector, but one step toward breaking from the norm is to develop a habit of re-examining your day-to-day actions. What do you need to do differently to create different outcomes?
“In a healthy and productive way, I’m constantly questioning myself in the day-to-day,” says Giselle Ferro Puigbo, Executive Director of Brookline Community Foundation. “When I’m having conversations or making decisions, I think: ‘am I being complicit or am I actively doing something different?’”
Reimagining Partnerships to Create Balance
The simple truth that community organizations rely on foundations for financial support creates a power imbalance that, if left unexamined, can hinder an organization’s ability to thrive and drive change. It’s time for foundations to view grantees as true partners and acknowledge that community leaders have the expertise necessary to best address the problems they’re working to solve. The panelists referenced the saying, “do nothing about us without us” as a driving force in their work. As foundations determine how funds are allocated, people with relevant lived experience must have a seat at the decision-making table.
“I don’t see a lot of me in philanthropy, and that’s something I want to disrupt as well,” said Chastity Bowick, Executive Director of Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts Inc. “I’m tired of going to these organizations and experiencing the same thing: a cis-gender white man telling a person of color how to distribute resources to a community that they’re from. There are so many different things that we need to disrupt that I think: can we just tear the whole thing down, start over, and rebuild it?”
Lasting change comes from balanced partnerships. Foundations can move in this direction by rethinking how they structure their relationships with grantees. Consider alternatives to processes that require your grantees to ask for resources or prove that they’ve earned your financial support. Instead, Dr. McCreary suggested, you could ask each grantee how they would like you to measure their success.
Lisa Owens, Executive Director of The Hyams Foundation, centers the foundation’s partnerships on asking “What do you need from us, and how can we best support you and your work to build power?” and “What do you need from the rest of philanthropy? How can we use our relationships to organize other funders and philanthropy to build a strong movement?”
Owens takes this position with Hyams’ partners: “We are with you for the long haul. We are with you until we win. If we are with you until we win, then we don’t need all the bells and whistles. We don’t need you to prove your existence.”
Address Long-term and Short-term Needs
Understanding the root causes that drive the needs people have today is critical. This makes creating long-term strategies while meeting short-term needs necessary for change. One approach is to aim for driving multi-generational impact — What would you do differently with that goal in mind?
Funding organizing is another method. Community organizations working on base building are by necessity addressing both long- and short-term needs. While meeting individuals’ daily needs like housing, transportation, and health care, these organizations are also working to change the very systems that caused the challenges their communities are facing. While receiving services, individuals are organized into a long-term movement that builds their leadership and creates capacity for them to organize their community, which begins multi-generational systems change.
Lastly, supporting infrastructure is immensely helpful, as well. Funding communications, IT, and development staff today can impact communities for decades.
Tips for Successful Leadership in this Sector
The panelists agreed that their roles require ample support, which can be an anchor if you find yourself facing the “glass cliff.” Create your own safety net comprised of people inside and outside of philanthropy. Consider setting up a weekly call with a colleague to discuss your challenges and your wins. Lastly, board support is important, too. Their understanding of white privilege, systemic oppression, the root causes of inequities, and the identity-related challenges you may encounter in your leadership role can help bolster your success.
Closing: Black Joy is Revolutionary, too
The evening closed with each panelist sharing how they are finding Black joy. Some discussed the power of countering disheartening mainstream depictions of Black life by sharing and centering positive, beautiful Black images, photographs, and art. Others found joy in letting their authentic self shine in spaces not traditionally meant for people of color and knowing that doing so opens doors for others. One panelist is creating a collective for women of color in philanthropy and exploring how they can best support one another.
The way forward requires bold ideas, radical imagination, deep listening, and each other.
Thank you to all of our panelists for sharing their wisdom and to our partners at PNC Bank, who sponsor this Getting Proximate series! To hear more on disrupting philanthropy and how lived experience impacts each of our panelist’s work, watch our conversation in full here.