This op-ed by Bianca Casanova Anderson was previously published on July 16, 2021 in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Reprinted with permission.
As a Black woman who serves as co-executive director of ProInspire, a small nonprofit that last month received a transformational gift from MacKenzie Scott, I now have the opportunity and space to explore and reimagine a range of possibilities for our work. This unrestricted gift is the largest in our organization’s history, and it will allow us to build on our mission and generate resources that influence and equip nonprofits to advance race equity through leadership.
For many Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who work at nonprofits, the kind of space afforded by the Scott gift is not an option. Direct service providers — the nonprofits that are closest to the problems caused by racism and classism — are consistently undervalued because many organizations don’t have the resources to pay good wages, provide strong benefits, and hire enough staff so that people have manageable workloads.
And BIPOC leaders often face another challenge: Our goal to eliminate systemic inequities is both professional and personal. In many instances, we and our families and friends have been harmed by the injustices that we fight against on behalf of the people our nonprofits serve.
Ever since the antiracism protests erupted after George Floyd’s murder, many foundations and philanthropists asked what they could do to support BIPOC leaders and the causes they are working on. Donors like MacKenzie Scott have demonstrated the answer to that question in a big way: channel multimillion-dollar funding to nonprofits led by people of color, especially those that work directly in communities that have been harmed by structural racism. Philanthropists and foundations should also donate more funding to leaders who reflect values of equity, inclusion, and justice in their work.
Through my own experience as a leader, and through ProInspire’s work with the Catalyst Collective, an organization that brings together CEOs and other BIPOC nonprofit executives to discuss leadership solutions, I believe supporting BIPOC leaders will lead to transformation in three fundamental ways:
Create conditions that allow BIPOC-led groups to thrive: BIPOC leaders and the people they serve know how to survive through the most challenging conditions, but we shouldn’t have to constantly work in such tightly constrained circumstances.
As leaders, we should not have to sacrifice our own well-being, authenticity, or integrity to meet revenue outcomes or to provide services and support that all people should have access to in the first place.
Typically, foundations seek to fund new efforts that get in the way of refining the impact of current program offerings of BIPOC-led organizations. Similarly, many foundations are historically white-led and unconsciously hold beliefs that reinforce assimilation to white-dominant norms; this can perpetuate an expectation of code-switching that is less authentic for BIPOC leaders.
Members of the Catalyst Collective identified the paucity of grants available for general operating support and aid for strengthening the management of nonprofits, including to support efforts that advance racial equity, as one of their top challenges. Instead of making small donations to small organizations (more likely to be BIPOC-led) and large donations to large organizations (more likely to be white-led), donors can shift their practices so that BIPOC leaders have more access and resources to expand their organizations into strong, sustainable nonprofits that can move nimbly to meet their missions. Philanthropy should provide large, unrestricted grants to small BIPOC-led organizations and give these organizations a chance to flourish.
Provide unrestricted aid that allows leaders to take steps that reduce burnout and trauma: Through our work with the Catalyst Collective, we know that BIPOC leaders are often directly involved in the issues their organizations tackle, be it lack of affordable housing, environmental justice, civil rights, or so much more. BIPOC leaders bring not only professional expertise, but also often the direct experience that helps us understand what works — and what doesn’t. While that makes us good at our jobs, it also means that we can be at higher risk for burnout, compassion fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from reliving our own traumas as we seek to serve others.
Donors can advance individual and organizational well-being by making unrestricted multiyear grants to small BIPOC-led organizations. That money will allow them to care for their leaders and staff in ways that will let them keep providing aid to the people who rely on them.
Give nonprofits room to explore and experiment. BIPOC leaders deserve to choose and determine what programs and services they think are most needed, not be tied to the whims and desires of philanthropy to support specific approaches and outcomes. When BIPOC leaders can invest in the internal infrastructures of our organizations, build internal management and technology capabilities, and invest in new systems and operations without being hyperfocused on developing new and shiny programs to attract donors, we are able to make contributions in ways that have a multiplier effect because we can collaborate with other groups to achieve greater impact. That’s another reason unrestricted multiyear grants matter — they fuel the imagination and discoveries that lead to great things.
Perhaps it was not a coincidence that MacKenzie Scott’s bounty of gifts to a broad range of organizations that advance equity, be it through the arts, environmental work, or more traditional advocacy and justice programs, came a few days ahead of Juneteenth. That day is especially important for those who are descendants of enslaved people because it focuses on celebration and the importance of finding hope beyond what we currently see and experience. That’s what good donors do — and what they need to keep doing generously if we expect to ever achieve major changes in our society.
Bianca Casanova Anderson is co-CEO of ProInspire, an organization that works with nonprofits to accelerate equity by providing leadership training and other management-skills building.
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