A long-time advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Cathryn McClellan Kelly unabashedly brings her personal experiences and knowledge to the philanthropic table.

“Being a Black woman has made me look at philanthropy with a critical eye and lens, leaning toward organizations taking on the root of problems,” Kelly said. “When you are consistently left out of the narrative, you tend to notice more of what is also being left out, purposely or not, and you take those notes with you.”

Kelly was recently featured in the 2022 Black Women Give List, an initiative of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, Black Philanthropy Month and The Women Invested to Save the Earth (WISE) Fund. Building on research that demonstrates the unique perspectives women across race and ethnicity bring to philanthropy and recognizing women as leaders for racial justice issues, the list highlights the contributions Black women donors have made around the world.

Kelly recently shared more about her work with Giving Compass. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Briefly, can you describe some of your philanthropic work that you are most excited about?

I am most excited about the collective philanthropy movement. Being a part of an all-Black women giving circle that only provides funding to organizations by and for Black women and girls has opened my eyes to just how many crucial organizations large funders are missing because they tend to ignore grassroots organizations. These organizations genuinely address problems that people in traditional, non-community-driven organizations can’t even understand. Not only that, but the collective giving movement has also opened many doors for these grassroots organizations that may have never received a grant before and are now eligible for grants by traditional funders. 

Collective giving is challenging the rigidness of conventional philanthropy and causing traditional funders to take a closer look at their practices. The movement toward diversifying philanthropy through collective giving truly changes the game for everyone.

How have your personal experiences as a Black woman informed your approach to philanthropy?

Being a Black woman changes the way you experience and observe the world around you, so I know for a fact it affects my philanthropy. I view organizations through a different lens than most. If organizations serve historically under-resourced and underrepresented groups, the language they use to describe their mission tells how leadership views their clientele. I look for uplifting language that doesn’t speak negatively of the audience. I firmly believe that if you wouldn’t call someone “at risk” to their face, you shouldn’t write about them being “at risk,” either. There is language that empowers people and language that degrades people.

I also look for smaller organizations founded by and for the people and communities they serve. They tend to be closer to the issues and have a better understanding of the nuances that exist in these communities. Many issues facing Black and Brown communities are interconnected. We can’t talk about youth crime without also addressing defunding of community centers in many urban areas, the lack of livable wage jobs for these communities, and much more. Addressing youth crime is only one part of the problem, and it’s the part of the problem that larger non-community-based organizations typically take on, while grassroots organizations might be advocating for better-paying jobs in the community, promoting skills training, and creating nonprofit community centers or community engagements. 

You’ve worked throughout your career championing DEI. How would you describe the evolution of DEI efforts in philanthropy? What progress are you still hoping to see?

DEI has become such a significant force in philanthropy. In the past, you might have seen it here and there for organizations that were a bit more progressive or organizations that used it as a buzzword, but now it is a critical piece to almost all organizations’ missions. Many funders and organizations are looking at their established processes with a lens of equity and asking themselves crucial questions around what these missions are and who is deciding those missions. 

I hope these conversations will continue to grow and evolve to change how traditional funders evaluate organizations deemed worthy of funding. I know there must be an evaluation process. At the same time, funds traditionally go to the same organizations repeatedly, even though there might be another smaller organization with no history of grant funding, but is creating just as big, if not more significant impact in the communities that it serves. By changing the evaluation process, you open the opportunity for those organizations to shine.

What are you most hopeful about?

I am hopeful that all this progress will continue to open doors for organizations created by and for the communities they serve. These organizations address needs and issues more effectively and on smaller budgets than any other organization. They deserve the funding and recognition that they are finally starting to receive. We are already beginning to see some of this happen with traditional funders changing some aspects of their grant requirements to make it easier for smaller organizations that might not have access to grantwriters.

Giving circles like HERitage Giving Fund have also built their platform on offering more than just the funds they give, but the support to grow the capacity of organizations. Hopefully, these trends will catch on, along with the trend of funding operational needs. We are likely to see the rise of community-based organizations truly getting their time to shine for all the work they have done and can continue to do with additional capacity, operational, and programmatic funding. 

What advice would you give other philanthropists?

My favorite piece of advice I ever received when I began my philanthropic journey is that if you see a gap, fill it. This can be done in so many ways. Philanthropists have time, skills, assets, and networks that could be valuable to an organization. Never feel as though you can’t do enough because you could change the course of an organization. You are never too old, too young, too inexperienced, too busy, or too different to make a difference in philanthropy. We really are the change we wish to see in the world, and if you want philanthropy to be more equitable then you must help start the work. If you leave it up to others, it might never change.