Philanthropy and racial justice – can it be different now?


Jenny Oppenheimer


Let’s face it, racial justice hasn’t exactly been a top agenda item for mainstream philanthropy. However, COVID-19 and its manifestly disproportionate impact on people of colour, together with the global outpouring of disgust in response to the killings of black people, is forcing philanthropic leaders to confront why they have allowed their evident ‘corporate blindness’ to continue.

This analysis is fuelling an identity crisis in philanthropy and, as happens when people think about their identity, philanthropy is being forced to examine its provenance, its heritage and its very DNA. It’s taking a deep dive into its roots, its positions of power and its role – and what it is having to face isn’t pretty. The brutal reality is that much of philanthropy has been built on historical and racial injustices and on oppressive structures which continue to be maintained to this day. The zeitgeist in current-day progressive philanthropy is around power and privilege, which raises questions about who gets to hold power, how they got there, who gets to dictate what ‘good’ looks like and so on.

While these are important discussions to be having, I’ve been thinking about how these issues have been manifesting in the past couple of months and here are some of the things that I’ve been noticing:

There’s a lot of attention being given to the potential opportunities post-COVID, to the ‘building better’ and to advance towards a new utopia. While this sort of scenario planning is important, it’s something that is available only to people who have the luxury of time, stability and contacts. People who are in the midst of a crisis or who are on the frontline of need don’t have these options or opportunities. So, it’s the same faces who are at the party and they are usually ‘thinkers’, all too often white, liberal, educated, employed and holding senior positions. How can we build back differently if we’re mining the same seams? I’m reminded of a conversation I had with someone very senior in the financial sector after the global financial crisis of 2008. She was worried that we would continue to experience similar crises because the City folks were sticking with their herd and continuing to seek out, elevate and listen to the same sorts of voices. Excuse the herd analogy but it’s apt here – her argument was that they would all go over the cliff together because there was no one in that herd to explain what threat that cliff might pose.

Will the new visions being debated and designed by socially progressive institutions be much different from what’s gone before if people with lived experience of injustice are not involved in the plan-ahead work? The knee-jerk reaction to this sort of question has been to ‘bring in difference’ but all too often this is tokenism rather than genuine openness to and respect for other perspectives.

Why is having different perspectives important? Well, we are in a time of upheaval and crisis and as Milton Friedman once observed: ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.’ I know that Friedman’s credentials as a neoliberal may cause some to balk, but just think about the success of that movement. Neoliberals made sure that there was a different idea lying around and, in the crisis post WW2, they were then well funded by millionaires and foundations to spread those ideas. Does philanthropy have the courage to do the same to build and progress racial justice ideas and approaches? And no, it isn’t enough to launch a fund and/or ask people to join the conversation – that’s just replicating the problem.

The other thing I’m noticing is that while funders talk and deliberate amongst themselves, communities are taking things into their own hands and eschewing traditional philanthropy. Crowdfunding and direct giving are on the rise, in part because they allow for greater flexibility and encourage a shift in accountability away from the funder to the community – the recently launched Resourcing Racial Justice is a good example of this.

The governance models of most philanthropic institutions are outdated and tend to reinforce oppressive structures. Just think about how perverse it is, especially for the most marginalised and suppressed, to expect them to have apply to the very people who have benefited from the structures of inequality for money to reverse and break down those very structures that have shielded and kept the oppressors in positions of power. Is it any wonder then that relationships and money are beginning to flow sideways rather than via the more traditional routes? The question now is how can philanthropy use its position and money and be more robust in supporting this move to greater autonomy – participation, devolution, endowments, ownership?

It’s been great to see foundations respond to the pandemic and recent racist events by switching to flexible core funding, relaxed reporting, solidarity statements and having more intentional conversations on how to fund for racial justice – PRE’s Grantmaking with a Racial Justice Lens and Future Foundations UK provide some practical guidance on the latter. Here is a list to help you think about the what next, after posting statements of solidarity. However, we really need to dig deeper and move beyond performative acts and focus on performative outcomes – policies, procedures, ring-fencing etc won’t matter much if the outcomes for minoritised groups continue to remain poor.

The #MeToo movement sparked the world’s first mass movement against sexual abuse and brought a sharp focus to broader gender issues. Previously untouchable perpetrators have been confronted, women’s voices have been heard and believed, laws have been enacted and practices challenged. It feels to me like we are experiencing a similar movement moment for racial justice. Systemic inequalities and injustices have been laid bare. If justice and equity are at the heart of what drives philanthropic endeavours, then there is no way philanthropy can avoid challenging the inherent structures that they are a part of and which impact so negatively on the lives of black and brown people. This will require everyone, at all levels, to be braver, more intentional and more accountable in the work that they do.

Jenny Oppenheimer is Action Inquiry Manager at Lankelly Chase

Comments (1)


It's enormous that you are getting ideas from this piece of writing as well as from our dialogue made at this place.

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