Specialising in the wholly impossible: Black women leading in philanthropy

Annmarie McQueen

In the early 1900s in a series of letters back and forth, U.S. educator and activist Nannie Helen Burroughs and social worker Jane Edna Hunter stood in awe of the obstacles they had overcome to fund, either with their own money or the philanthropy of others, schools and training programs for Black girls. Burroughs wrote to Hunter, ‘be it ever so difficult… we specialize in the wholly impossible.’ This statement from Burroughs has become a rallying cry for Black women who stand in the vanguard for social justice in the world and inside the field of philanthropy. 

This #Allianceat25 webinar exploring the power of black female leadership in philanthropy was guest moderated by Melanie Brown, interim deputy director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and senior Atlantic Fellow at the London School of Economics. It was produced in partnership with Atlantic Fellows and Voice. Vision. Value. Black women leading philanthropy.

The three panellists were Danielle Walker Palmour, Director of the Friends Provident Foundation; Moky Makura, Executive Director of Africa No Filter; and Toya Randall, Catalyst and Curator of Voice. Vision. Value. Black Women Leading Philanthropy and senior director at Casey Family Programs.

Toya Randall

Toya began by acknowledging that August 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of black philanthropy month, a widely celebrated international event that was founded by Dr Jackie Bouvier Copeland. She spoke briefly about the legacy of the black female leaders who inspired her to launch Voice. Vision. Value, which is a ‘digital narrative platform to uplift and document the accomplishments and contributions of black women, whose leadership presence and impact in the sector often go unnoticed.’

Voice. Vision. Value honours the legacy of black women who have transformed the sector, researches the leadership contributions of black women and develops customized tools to address professional barriers unique to the community. It also curates safe spaces, and provides ‘holistic professional and personal development that prioritises wellbeing, promotes strategic network building and strengthens opportunities for pathways to advancement.’

Danielle Walker Palmour

Danielle introduced Friends Provident Foundation, which is a small U.K based foundation. Their mission is to create a ‘fair and sustainable economy,’ which she believes requires an ‘evolution of our economic paradigm.’

Danielle stated that the ‘pandemic has shown that the current system does not work in terms of actually serving society well.’ However, structural change must be ‘born from a deep awareness and excavation of structural inequalities in our economy and society.’ You cannot ‘redesign a system without an awareness of what is going wrong… otherwise, you just redesign the same inequalities.’

She also touched upon the structural inequalities in philanthropy, where boards are ‘predominantly white, male and over 60.’ Friends Provident Foundation is designing a system that ‘brings some public accountability to the practices of private foundations. It looks very carefully at diversity, transparency and accountability across all operations.’

Moky Makura

Moky introduced Africa No Filter, which is an ‘African-based funder and donor collaborative,’ that aims to shift ‘harmful, stereotypical narratives’ about the continent, such as ‘Africa’s broken because nobody wants to fix us… Africans lack agency to make change and are dependent on external sources.’

They do this by investing in research around storytelling, narrative, and peoples’ perceptions of the continent. They are also a grantmaker to the media and creative sectors, with the aim of ‘catalysing creativity on the continent’ and supporting the critical role of the arts and culture sector in changing narratives.

Alongside research and grantmaking, they also work on projects that disrupt ‘the ecosystem of how things work that contribute to the narrative we see.’ One of their recent projects is the Global Media Index, which looks at how top media outlets cover Africa, and highlighting good storytelling that accurately reflects the continent.

Catalytic change in philanthropy

After the introductions, Melanie moved into the panel discussion segment of the webinar, asking: ‘what can institutional philanthropy learn from the way that you all are leading catalytic change in philanthropy today?’

Toya explained that in the US, there is growing representation of people of colour in philanthropy, including at senior levels: ‘right now we have the largest number of black women CEOs in the sector than ever before in history.’

As the US grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, economic inequality, and racial reckoning, ‘black women’s unique perspective at the intersection of equity, race, gender, and class uniquely position us to address these issues. When we step into these spaces we’re doing so not only for ourselves but for our families and communities.’

Self-care is a leadership muscle that has to be developed and sustained to enable black women to continue doing good work without sacrificing their own wellbeing. The work is too important.

She discussed how black women are using their positions of influence to ‘drive structural change’ and move the field away from a ‘charity model’ and it’s ‘paternalistic practices’ to a model that is ‘more equitable, inclusive and just.’ This must be done through mobilizing all resources, not just grant-making budgets, and ‘interrogating and investigating policies and practices’ within the sector which relate to operations, recruitment and investments. She finished by saying that the ‘conversation to centre equity is building momentum’ and that we are now beginning to see the true impact of black female leadership in the sector.

Danielle also jumped in with the UK perspective, where she believes ‘there is much work to be done… in terms of holding a mirror up to the sector to be aware of the situation.’ She spoke candidly about the experience of being a minority in the sector: ‘we cannot norm ourselves, we are not normed by society as the baseline… we are considered the exception,’ and how this otherness provides a ‘critical perspective because we are forced by society to have one.’ She stated that ‘philanthropy needs to understand that just because it’s done things this way for a long time, it doesn’t mean it’s normal, or sensible, or the best way of doing it.’

Moky spoke from her experience as an African woman, which ‘on the ladder is at the bottom… there are black women, and there are African women underneath that.’ However, in Africa philanthropy is still seen as ‘women’s work’ and therefore less valuable than ‘men’s work’ which generates money. ‘The better side of the coin is to be making the money, to be giving it away is not the sexy part, yet.’ Moky added that ‘there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of making philanthropy more strategic so it’s seen as men’s work, as important work.’

50 years in the making

Marking the 50th anniversary of the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE), Toya spoke about the 50-year journey to reach this point of representation in C-suite and leadership positions, and the ongoing conversations around equity in relation to investment management. New tools and practices are being used to ‘interrogate and investigate how philanthropy is moving money through a racial equity lens for the largest percentage of its assets and resources.’

You cannot redesign a system without an awareness of what is going wrong… otherwise, you just redesign the same inequalities.

In answer to a question from Melanie about what the US can learn from African philanthropy, Moky spoke about how the Western concept of institutional philanthropy is the ‘only type of philanthropy [Africans] have come to recognise,’ and has ‘become the norm.’ However, this also comes with the danger of adopting ‘practices that… have proven to be ineffective.’

She stated that the way strategic philanthropy is done in the West, the philanthropists identify the problem, come with a solution, and implement it, with or without the help of locals. Strategic philanthropy often focuses on affecting change through ‘long-term strategic plays…but is that the role of philanthropy, or is that the role of government?’ What Moky would like to see more of in the future is philanthropy that stems from ‘asking the problem from the person who needs the help.’

Changing the power dynamic

In response to a question from Danielle about how this model of philanthropy deals with power dynamics, Moky spoke about the growing conversation around #Shiftthepower and the importance of diverse representation in the sector. However, ultimately those who hold the money also hold the power and ‘it’s how you use the power.’

Toya agreed, stating that in the US philanthropic sector ‘power-sharing is on the table… philanthropic organisations have a much more robust and deeply committed engagement strategy that centres community, and brings community into the room… to develop strategies together and ask these questions.’ She added that ‘budgets are moral documents… where you are investing speaks to your true values’ in relation to equity, inclusion and engagement.

‘You’ve got to change the dynamic,’ Moky said, agreeing with Toya that sharing power is the way forward. Danielle added that ‘money is a power, but is not the power.’ She spoke about the value of communities and knowledge sharing, stating that ‘we’ve got some big global challenges that we cannot solve as philanthropy no matter how much money we’ve got.’

Adding value beyond grantmaking

Moky discussed how her organisation has been looking at non-financial ways to add value. Focus groups with creatives in her network found that many of the resources they needed were non-financial ones, such as ‘access to network, opportunities to become sustainable, capacity building.’

She stated that the ‘University of Youtube is the most popular academic institution on the continent’ as it enables people to learn and upskill, and demonstrates how ‘capacity building through training is critical.’ While money isn’t everything, it does enable these things to happen and ‘opens the doors.’

The personal cost of philanthropy

‘In philanthropy, we have the time to dream,’ Melanie said, ‘the time and opportunity to mess up and try again. We don’t always give that to our grantees.’ She then shifted the conversation to the personal impact on those working in the sector and asked how they navigate what is often professionally and personally taxing work in the face of crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘I realised I’ve been fuelled by anger for quite a while,’ Danielle admitted. ‘Anger is an incredible fuel, it does work… but it takes a toll.’ Danielle added that anger needs channelling, with a clear outlet. She recognised that for some, ‘system change is threatening’ and spoke about the importance of self-care and team-care, as well as embodying values of honesty, directness, kindness and understanding.

Money is a power, but is not the power.

Moky emphasized the need for speed and efficiency in philanthropic work, particularly during periods of crisis such as the pandemic. ‘Covid is not so much a health crisis on the continent, it’s an economic crisis,’ she stated. ‘For us to be sitting on funds… it wasn’t acceptable.’ She acknowledged that although there are some risks inherent in philanthropy ‘you can’t frontload everything to manage risk, there isn’t enough time, there’s too much at stake.’

Toya spoke about the effectiveness of ‘crisis management strategies that were developed’ and implemented to deal with devastating events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and Hurricane Katrina. The question now is, ‘how do we sustain this model of trust-based philanthropy?’ In doing so, we must avoid a return to ‘all the things that delayed and exacerbated the ability of communities’ to respond to urgent needs.

Self-care is a ‘leadership muscle that has to be developed and sustained,’ to enable black women to continue doing good work without sacrificing their own wellbeing. ‘The work is too important,’ Toya stated. ‘Having us at the table will change the game, and we can’t do that if we’re not well, so wellness is something that is being operationalised in the sector going forwards.’

Paving the way forwards

In response to a question about mentoring young black women, Toya suggested that those looking for mentors, sponsorship or to build networks should ‘just reach out and ask the question,’ as very often the person will respond and make time they ‘know what it’s like to feel isolated or to be the only one in these spaces.’

The speakers took another panel question asking, ‘what advice would you give to a young African/African American woman interested in being part of this sector?’

‘There are several fellowships that are available for individuals in the sector,’ Toya said. She also suggested connecting with those already in the sector, and joining ABFE as well as regional and national associations of grantmakers who often post job openings and networking opportunities.

‘Sometimes it’s putting ourselves out there and… knowing that we have something to offer, we are unique in our experiences that we can bring to these jobs that other people cannot,’ Melanie commented. She also recommended that aspiring philanthropists should ‘find a mentor… who can pave the way for you.’ Moky commented on the importance of being willing to learn and ‘get hands-on experience.’

You can watch the full recording of the webinar below.

This event was part of our 25th-anniversary celebrations. To mark the launch of our milestone 100th issue in September, we’re hosting a special live panel on 16 September at the Aga Khan Centre in London. Register now to join the live stream.

Annmarie McQueen is the Marketing, Advertising, and Events Manager at Alliance.


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