Racial equity is a huge buzzword in philanthropy today. Many individual donors and foundation leaders are thinking about why they might get involved and also how to pursue racial equity in their grant-making. This is a very personal decision-making process for each funder. As a philanthropy leader and fellow traveler on this path, I am offering up some discussion questions that were helpful within my organization, and I hope they might be helpful to others as well.
For me, the drive to pursue racial equity came from a clear-eyed look at the outcomes we were seeking. Over the past decade, I led a mid-sized family foundation that is primarily focused on improving education outcomes for low-income students of color. After many years of investment in well-meaning schools and nonprofits, there are still massive inequities in educational outcomes for students based on race and income, and these gaps are not closing over time. For other donors, different reasons may compel them to pursue racial equity. Below are some questions to help funders explore why they are interested in this work.
- Can the goals you are ultimately seeking be accomplished if significant portions of our society are not thriving?
- Are your grantees achieving all the outcomes you had hoped for? Which populations and communities are struggling the most?
- Is there a pattern of outcomes that vary by race in the areas in which you are making grants?
- Is opportunity equally distributed in the communities you are serving? Are there any populations that are not consistently accessing key opportunities?
After reflecting on why you are drawn to this work, then the question is how to do it. As our staff reflected on how race factored into all aspects of our grantmaking work, we began shifting our internal practices to promote racial equity. This happened through many small steps over time. There was no silver bullet. Over four years, we significantly diversified our education grants portfolio from 20% only BIPOC-led organizations in 2017 to almost 60% in 2021, and the journey is not over; the efforts are ongoing. With an annual grants budget of approximately $30 million, this shift has already delivered millions of dollars to BIPOC-led organizations and the communities they serve. Below are some questions to help funders explore how their internal grant-making practices could change to support racial equity.
- Do you know your numbers? What percentage of all your grantees are white-led organizations? What percentage of your grantees are BIPOC-led organizations or organizations that are diverse in other ways (e.g. board, senior staff, whole staff)? What percentage of your total annual funding is going to white-led organizations versus to BIPOC-led organizations or organizations that are diverse in other ways? What patterns do you see that are driving these numbers?
- Who are you connected with? How diverse is your personal network on social media? How diverse is the network of people you spend time with in your professional life? How diverse is the group of people you spend time with in your personal life? How can you expand and diversify your networks? Can you listen and learn more from the diverse connections you already have?
- Whose spaces are you spending time in? Who is hosting the events that you engage in as part of your philanthropy work (meetings, webinars, conferences, etc): funders or grantees? Are these predominantly white spaces or spaces hosted by people of color? These distinctions can make a big difference in terms of what topics are on the agenda, how they are discussed, who is asked to speak, and which organizations and which causes are identified as worthy of support.
- How can grant-seekers access your foundation? Do grant-seekers have to know someone on your staff or board in order to get a meeting with the foundation? Is there any open-access mechanism that allows leaders and organizations that don’t have personal connections with your foundation to share their work with you?
- How do you identify potential new grantees? How do you develop your grantmaking strategies? Are you seeking input and recommendations from people of color? Are you seeking input and recommendations from the communities you are aiming to serve? How diverse are the decision-makers in your foundation? Do the decision-makers in your foundation represent those you are aiming to serve? What benefits could be realized if the population you aim to serve had more influence and power in your decision-making processes?
- How much value do you assign to a strong track record of success? How risk-averse are you? Prioritizing organizations with the strongest and longest track records often screens out BIPOC-led organizations that are newer and smaller. We realized that our interest in a strong track record was mainly a way to reduce risk and feel more confidence that our grantees could deliver results, so we created alternative approaches to risk management. Can you find other ways to address the issue of risk? Can you accept higher risk for a cluster of grants to organizations that are newer and have more innovative models that might deliver higher impact than existing models?
- How much value do you assign to scale of impact? Prioritizing organizations with the largest scale of impact can block BIPOC-led organizations that are community-based and devoted to impact in one particular place instead of widespread impact. Can you find a way to give credit in your selection process to organizations with deep local ties and knowledge of the communities they are serving? Would you be willing to give multiple grants to smaller-scale organizations working deeply in communities, rather than one big grant to a larger-scale organization?
- Do you require certain measures of impact or a certain quality of evaluation data? Impact data is a chicken and egg problem for many nonprofit organizations. In order to conduct sophisticated impact evaluations, they need to raise a lot of money; but they cannot raise a lot of money if they don’t already have sophisticated evaluation data. Some BIPOC-led organizations may need funding to strengthen their internal data collection capacity or to pay for external evaluations. Is there a route for organizations without sophisticated evaluation data to get support from your foundation? Would you be willing to fund an evaluation for promising organizations that have early evidence of impact? Whose outcome measures are you focused on? What benefits might you gain by using outcome measures proposed by your grantees?
- How are you supporting your grantees? Are you willing to provide flexible general support to your grantees? If not, what ideas or beliefs are blocking this? Are you willing to provide multi-year funding to your grantees? If not, what ideas or beliefs are blocking this? Are there any differences between white-led and BIPOC-led grantees in terms of who receives general support and multi-year grants from your foundation? Are you willing to provide capacity-building support? What other kinds of support are BIPOC leaders asking you for?
- What educational experiences are you seeking? Listen, read and learn as much as you can. Keep your goals for racial equity in mind in your daily work – via books and articles, webinars and trainings. Create time, space, and structure for deeper planning and action through longer fellowship programs and communities of practice like the Capital Collaborative by Camelback Ventures, which I participated in a few years ago. You cannot grow and change your existing practices without putting in time, attention, and effort.
This list of questions is not exhaustive by any means. Every funder will need to do their own research, ask more questions, examine their own practices, and identify specific changes to address racial equity. This work will feel messy and uncertain at times, and that’s OK! Embracing discomfort and being open to change are essential steps in building a more equitable future.
Camelback Ventures’ Capital Collaborative works with white funders and social impact investors who want to deepen their individual and organizational commitment to racial and gender equity — but may not know how. You can learn more by submitting an interest form for the Capital Collaborative’s 2022 cohort or signing up for the newsletter!