Can philanthropy create greater racial equity and social justice?

Good question.  And what do “success” and “progress” look like?   These are two questions we at Effective Communities pursued over five years, with support from the Ford Foundation.

Pathways to Progress: Focusing Philanthropy on Racial Equity and Social Justice (pdf) is the culmination of this work, drawing lessons from Ford’s portfolio of grants, “Community Philanthropy and Racial Equity in the American South.”

Formerly a website and now a downloadable document, “Pathways to Progress” presents broad strategies by which progress gets made in social change efforts using philanthropic resources.   We think it has application to addressing a variety of inequities, not only those framed in racial terms.

The analysis is based on reflective conversations conducted by our team (including Betty Emarita and Dr. Vanessa Stephens) with nearly 100 philanthropic organizations operating in both African American and White American settings.  We grounded our inquiry in the ultimate goal of closing “gaps” or “disparities”– those long-standing differences in group averages that indicate inequitable or unfair public systems and private market performance – and the challenge to philanthropy to help in that work.

What do philanthropic organizations do to close such gaps?  We present six pathways to progress that summarize how philanthropic resources are used with the intent, ultimately, of creating improvements to the benefits or outcomes along more equitable lines.   The six pathways:

  1. Preparing the organization to address tough issues like social justice and racial equity
  2. Building trust – talking safely and listening productively to difficulties and opportunities
  3. Advancing solutions that stand to close disparities
  4. Strengthening relationships, networks, and leadership
  5. Increasing resources that can be deployed to address disparities and gaps
  6. Combining the above to move the needles that measure system performance

The six pathways are not intended to be undertaken serially.  Rather, they represent interconnected strands that combine and recombine at different points, as with DNA, to produce a level of effort that moves those needles or metrics indicating the state of our systems.  If there’s not much interconnection of efforts, real change is unlikely to happen.

For each of the six pathways, we present a set of promising practices drawing on examples from the field as well as links to practitioner organizations.  We also include benchmarks by which initiatives to reduce inequity can be measured as well as links to short essays and tools allowing you to go deeper on key topics, including papers written by our team.

The answer to our opening question is “Yes, philanthropy can help.”  If only the piecemeal or independent efforts that currently dot the landscape could be strung together more intentionally to create more powerful efforts that create collective impact – impact that actually moves the needles indicating more equitable system and market performance –we’d see real progress, and much more effective use of philanthropic resources.

Using the Pathways as the backdrop or lens for creating meaningful strategy – making grants that collectively produce efforts with real power behind them — could make a big difference.    Some of this thinking is elaborated in Wanted: Better Evaluation Practices for Better Philanthropy.

More impactful philanthropy requires a style different from the prevailing one, which involves piecemeal, independent, and scattered efforts.   Our communities need sustained, change-focused efforts that engage a variety of essential players pushing together against the creaky mechanisms that maintain the status quo.  My hope is that foundations are open to inviting and receiving such proposals.

You can download “Pathways to Progress” here.

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Steven E. Mayer / November 14, 2011