NoVo in the Media

White People in Philanthropy — This Is Our Move

22 February 2018
BY Pamela Shifman

“America is burning,” Vanessa Daniel wrote last fall. “White people in philanthropy, what is your move?”

For foundation leaders — some 90 percent of whom are white — this urgent question from Daniel, executive director of the Groundswell Fund, cannot be rhetorical. Along with our sheer numbers comes an undeniable fact and ever-present responsibility: It will be our courage — or our silence — that will ultimately determine whether philanthropy works to dismantle white supremacy in all its forms.

As a white woman, a lifelong activist, and executive director of the NoVo Foundation, a social-justice foundation created by Jennifer and Peter Buffett in 2006, I am deeply committed to racial and gender justice. I’ve had the privilege of supporting and working alongside fierce and brilliant movement leaders, working tirelessly to remake a more just world. Movement leaders — of all races, genders, and backgrounds — take huge personal risks every day to end patriarchy and white supremacy.

Yet it must be said: We in philanthropy, especially the 90 percent of whom are white, have not taken anywhere near the same risks. As beneficiaries of an unjust system, it’s time for us to act and to ask: What will we risk to upend white supremacy? What does risk in our industry look like?

As white people, the work we have to do is substantial. We need only look to last year’s Alabama election, where nearly 70 percent of us voted for a candidate who, in addition to being an alleged child molester, said the last time America was great was when it had slavery and that getting rid of constitutional amendments after the 10th would “eliminate many problems.” Our racism and bias permeate all aspects of our society, including philanthropy itself, and it will require sustained, intentional, and fundamental cultural change to truly address.

Vanessa Daniel, and a chorus of other leaders of color, have brilliantly outlined many of the ways white people in philanthropy can help dismantle white supremacy. From increasing funding for racial-justice work led by people of color to calling out microaggressions in our workplaces to collecting race and gender data to expose deep-seated disparities in giving, we are called both to deconstruct white supremacy in our society and to shift the everyday practices in our institutions that prop it up.

But Daniel is also challenging us to go beyond our own spheres and become advocates and leaders in this work. One of the only ways we’ll know we’re making real progress, she writes, is when “white philanthropic leaders are writing pieces [about dismantling white supremacy] instead of women of color like me.”

In that spirit — and in an effort to answer and echo her call — I offer below three additional ways white people in philanthropy can begin to respond to racism. Given the deep-seated violence of white supremacy, it may seem counterintuitive to start with technical practices. While incomplete on their own, as part of a commitment to undoing racism, these concrete actions can open up room for a much deeper reckoning and transformation to occur:

Recognize that bias — explicit and implicit — is all around us, and take steps to disrupt it.

Racism and sexism are systemic problems embedded in the very structure of philanthropy. They are in the air we breathe and water we swim in; they’re everywhere. As white people, we need to recognize that our environment makes implicit bias in grant making pervasive, and we must therefore make a deliberate effort to disrupt it.

Here’s a test for white grant makers: Close your eyes and picture a “social innovator.” Now be honest: What does that person look like? If you said “white” and “male,” you are not alone.

At the countless conferences, panels, and seminars I have attended, I’ve seen how philanthropy has a habit of celebrating and favoring white men — and their latest technological “innovations” — over some of our society’s most proven social innovators: women of color and low-income women. From organizing and civic engagement to providing support for survivors of violence and even meeting basic needs like clean water access, these women have always developed strategies and technologies to creatively support themselves and their families and work toward justice.

Over the years, these approaches to transforming unjust circumstances have been consistently undervalued by philanthropy. In our search for social innovators, philanthropy risks overlooking promising work based in hard-won wisdom that has not received the necessary resources.

Racial disparities in philanthropic giving are fundamentally about whom we trust to lead us to change, whom we think of as strategic, and how we measure the capacity to do great work. Grant makers must take conscious action to challenge our deepest, and sometimes unconscious, assumptions — assumptions that pose as common sense — if we are ever going to make true progress in significantly shifting funding to transformative work led by people of color.

Dismantle historical bias by challenging our own norms and practices.

In philanthropy, racism and sexism don’t usually announce themselves with tiki torches and Twitter tirades. More often, they show up as one fewer zero on a paycheck or one fewer zero on a grant award. American employers have a long and shameful history of undervaluing and undercompensating women’s work — and the gap is especially pernicious for black and Latina women, who make just 65 cents and 59 cents, respectively, on the white male dollar. Past discrimination is compounded when employers use a woman’s salary history to inform her future pay. That’s why NoVo recently made it a policy to never request salary history information from potential new hires — a practice we were glad to see New York City recently enshrine into law.

Nevertheless, this type of discrimination continues to show up at an organizational level. Organizations led by women of color and women from indigenous communities, denied the powerful networks and social capital of white-led nonprofits, often subsist on shoestring budgets. Their ingenuity, however, cannot be an excuse for underinvestment by philanthropy. Although their white counterparts are encouraged to make audacious appeals for capital, these women get trapped in cycles of perpetual underfunding. Breaking the cycle requires that grant makers step up to propose larger grants — even if that means disregarding the (made up) rules many of us follow that limit our foundations from providing more than 20 percent of an organization’s overall budget.

Just because women from indigenous communities and women of color have managed to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear does not mean they should have to.

Support organizational well-being.

At grass-roots nonprofits and organizations led by people of color, staff members often belong to the same economically marginalized communities where they work and face many of the same obstacles as their members or clients. It’s on us — grant makers and foundation leaders — to make sure they are fully supported and set up to succeed.

Too often, foundations provide limited project support and neglect to support their grantee’s staffing costs. Budget pressures, paired with a deep commitment to continuing important programming, set up a situation in which nonprofits are forced to skimp on employee salaries and benefits that are vital to their staff’s well-being. Nonprofit staff members are deeply passionate about their work, but many are barely making ends meet.

Foundations have an important role to play in creating more just, fair, and equitable workplaces.

As grant makers, we should make a practice of asking the nonprofits we support: Is your staff paid a living wage? Do they receive health insurance? Earned sick leave? Parental leave? And more important, if the answer is no, how can we help you to change this? Those working tirelessly to improve our communities deserve nothing less.

These recommendations are simply one starting point; I share them in the hope of adding to the conversation and adding my voice to the growing chorus calling for change.

I invite all my white colleagues across philanthropy to deepen this conversation through opinion pieces, blog posts, and creative media of your own. Grounded in the courage of Daniel and many other leaders of color, this dialogue could lead to lasting change — but only if white leaders join the call. The time to add your voice is now.

After all, as Daniel wrote, “the only thing white supremacists are more afraid of than people of color, queer people, and black- and brown-skinned immigrants” is white people of conscience. If enough of us rise up with courage, shift “out of neutral and take action for racial and gender justice,” the movement for change will be unstoppable.

he moment to move from thought to action, to commit ourselves fully and freely to this work, is now. White people in philanthropy: What is our move?

Pamela Shifman is executive director of the NoVo Foundation.