Can Philanthropy Create Greater Racial Equity and Social Justice?

Philanthropy, Justice, and Evaluation
Pathways of progress

Can philanthropy create greater racial equity and social justice?  Good question.  And the answer is Yes, we learned in a five-year inquiry with support from the Ford Foundation. 

What does philanthropy do to make progress in this area, and what does success look like?  Our answers are here, in Pathways to Progress: Focusing Philanthropy on Racial Equity and Social JusticeOur team, which included Betty Emarita and Dr. Vanessa Stephens, based its analysis on reflective conversations we conducted on-site with nearly 100 philanthropic organizations,  operating in both African American and White American settings.   All the organizations visited were from Ford’s portfolio of grants called “Community Philanthropy and Racial Equity in the American South.”

We grounded our inquiry in the ultimate goal of closing gaps or disparities.  Gaps or disparities are measured by those differences in group averages that indicate inequitable performance of  public systems and private markets.  What do philanthropic organizations do to close such gaps?  We present six pathways to progress that summarize how to use philanthropic resources to reduce gaps and create more equitable performance of our systems and markets.

The six pathways to progress:

Preparing the organization to address tough issues like social justice and racial equity

Building trust – talking safely and listening productively to difficulties and opportunities

Advancing solutions that stand to close disparities

Strengthening relationships, networks, and leadership

Increasing resources that can be deployed to address disparities and gaps

Combining the above to move the needles that measure system performance

No one pursues these pathways in order, and no one pursues them all.  Instead, a major insight of this study is that these pathways are like interconnected strands that combine and recombine at different points. The challenge is to connect them in a way that can move a metric of disparity.  If there’s not much focus on a particular disparity, and not much interconnection of efforts, real change is unlikely to happen.

Philanthropy, Justice, and Evaluation
Pathways to progress

In Pathways to Progress: Focusing Philanthropy on Racial Equity and Social Progress, we present a set of promising practices from the field, with links to practitioner organizations.  We also include short essays and tools written by our team, allowing you to go deeper on key topics.

The answer to our opening question is “Yes, philanthropy can help.”  If only we could string together the piecemeal or independent efforts that currently dot the landscape to create more powerful efforts that collectively move the needles.  Then we’d see real progress toward more equitable systems, and much more effective use of philanthropic resources.

We think this Pathways approach has application to addressing a variety of inequities, not only those framed in racial terms.  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 in philanthropy’s approach to creating progress.   We elaborate some of this thinking 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 / lightly revised November 10, 2020