Fierce Urgency: Funders Confront Underinvestment in Black Communities

photo: a katz/shutterstock

photo: a katz/shutterstock

When philanthropy first began tackling racial justice during the 1960s and 1970s, most of that work focused on black communities. The civil rights movement was in full swing, and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. spread the message that robust organizing around anti-black racism could get at the heart of America’s entrenched inequalities. At the time, funding by the Ford Foundation and others, in part, helped build a pipeline of black leaders that went on to head progressive organizations and find success in Democratic politics—even as philanthropic support for racial justice fell away in the 1980s. 

Now, 50 years after King’s death, it’s easy to look at the ways in which progress has been stymied. Deep disparities between the races still exist. And even as the focus has expanded to all “people of color,” black communities still fare the worst on a whole host of indicators. However, as we’ve seen, race is back on the radar of many funders these days. So is providing support for advocacy and movement building. But will those trends actually improve conditions for black Americans?

That question was top-of-mind last month for attendees at ABFE’s 2018 conference, aptly named “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” Taking place in Memphis, Tennessee, the gathering was historically potent, coinciding roughly with both the date and location of King’s assassination 50 years earlier. The battles he fought rage on. “Given the rise of vocal and virulent streams of racism and xenophobia,” said ABFE’s President and CEO Susan Taylor Batten, “the role of philanthropy is more critical than ever.”

Formerly the Association of Black Foundation Executives, ABFE is a philanthropic membership association that first emerged in the 1970s, another era of racial tension and deep political strife. Its current mission, to promote “effective and responsive philanthropy in black communities,” is grounded on the necessity of intentional grantmaking to help close disparities between black communities and others. 

At the same time, that relationship—between funding specifically for black communities and progressives’ general push to aid communities of color—informs how ABFE sees its members’ work. As Batten told us, “Our vision is that ABFE’s conference not only provides a space for funders to have candid discussions about the implications of grantmaking and what is happening in black communities, but that it also sheds a light on the inequities of other communities of color, as well. Ultimately, we believe working on anti-black racism is good for the country, and that philanthropy can play an integral role in addressing the root causes of racially biased policies and attitudes in America.”

But actually getting funders to work on anti-black racism can be tricky. Aside from a few major players like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, many big liberal foundations have only embraced racial justice as a secondary priority. Others merely pay lip service. As Nat Chioke Williams, executive director of the Hill Snowdon Foundation, told us last year, black-led organizations often face a higher bar when they approach funders. And black leadership is still rare in the world of national philanthropy. Of course, it’s not that national funders aren’t sympathetic to black America’s challenges. But true empathy can be harder to realize when racial and economic chasms divide funder from grantee.

At ABFE’s conference, Williams and Jeanné Isler of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy participated in a panel on NCRP’s As the South Grows reports, a series of deep dives into how national funders can engage a region where black communities—and others—face particularly daunting challenges. As we’ve seen, distance between funders and grantees is a major hurdle in the Southeast, both in terms of divergent leader backgrounds and how funders manage relationships with grassroots organizations. 

Other conversations brought together leaders from the East Bay Community Fund, Solidaire Network, Borealis Philanthropy, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and elsewhere to discuss how funders can better support black leaders in business and nonprofit world as well as in philanthropy. They also talked about better including women and people of color in asset management in the foundation world—currently a very white, male, well-compensated space. That’s an important conversation as more funders experiment with impact investments that complement traditional grantmaking. 


In addition to fortifying black-led organizations, panels also focused on how philanthropy can help build black political power, especially where de facto and de jure disenfranchisement has deprived black residents of the vote. And they drilled down on a range of other topics, including the role of funders in supporting black immigrants and black populations in U.S. territories, black women and girls, black men and boys, black LGBTQ people, and black entrepreneurs. 

The sheer diversity of discussion at ABFE’s conference underscores a point we’ve made before about progressive philanthropy in the age of Trump. It’s embracing intersectionality more fully, and as funders rush to keep pace with rapidly developing social movements, they’re gaining a better sense of how different systems of inequality operate in concert. Affinity groups and convening organizations like ABFE have an important role to play on that front, a point emphasized in a recent report by TCC Group on the unprecedented spurt of activity by philanthropy-supporting organizations. 

But philanthropy is still hardly a nimble sector. Getting up to speed with today’s movement builders may require progressive funders to work harder on the strategies ABFE’s conference explored, like getting closer to grantees, providing more general support, and backing organizations led by people from the relevant community. In other words, the same strategies we’ve been hearing about repeatedly from grassroots organizers as well as places like NCRP. 

At the same time, ABFE’s conference calls attention to a particular need for funding that boosts those bottom-up strategies for black organizations. As Ludovic Blain of the Color of Democracy Fund put it for our piece last year, that’s one surefire way to reinforce “the kind of black-led infrastructure whose need may have been overshadowed by having a black president.”