In philanthropy, we often talk about local leaders and groups knowing their communities best. Too rarely, however, does our giving actually reflect that sentiment. Grantees tell us our support is frequently too narrow, comes with too many strings attached, and exhibits a distinct lack of trust. They may be right — just 12 percent of grants are awarded as unrestricted, multi-year support. This gap is also reflected in which groups we choose to support and how we support them. Research has found, for example, that among organizations focused on improving the lives of Black men and boys, those with Black leaders had 45 percent less revenue and 91 percent fewer unrestricted assets than similar groups with white leaders.

This is sadly unsurprising when one considers the demographic makeup of the philanthropic sector today. Nearly three-quarters of donors are white — though not because white people are more generous. Indeed, some research suggests the opposite, as Black households give away 25 percent more of their income than white households. White donors are, however, more often drawing on centuries of generational wealth and influence.

This dynamic has long shaped and continues to shape philanthropy. Philanthropists are not only bringing their funding to the table, but also their own worldviews and biases. It is critical that philanthropic leaders recognize when they lack a true understanding of the challenges they are trying to address and listen to those who are on the ground doing the work.

We would all be wise to remember that every theory of action is predicated on certain assumptions about how systems work and that those systems do not work in the same way for everyone. We must recognize the inherent power imbalance between funders and grantees, acknowledging that simply asking for feedback may not be enough when the nature of the balance of power in the relationship is so skewed. The role of a philanthropist should not be one of a generous, all-knowing benefactor, but a ready and eager partner who is willing to learn, listen, and change.

Read the full article about centering community partners by Hannah Lee at Philanthropy News Digest.