Pathways to Progress: Focusing Philanthropy on Racial Equity and Social Justice – A New Introduction

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D

Focusing philanthropy on racial equity means, we found, pursuing six different pathways, sometimes one at a time, sometimes together.

Focusing philanthropy on racial equity and social justice is gaining traction.  The work reported here is as timely now as it was when produced in 2010.  It is the culmination of several years’ work evaluating a portfolio of grants concerning Community Philanthropy and Racial Equity in the American South, a portfolio created by the Ford Foundation.  Our goal was to discover and present “benchmarks of progress” in moving philanthropy towards repairing the gaps in racial equity that limit our nation’s well-being.  We present these benchmarks, arrayed along six “pathways to progress,” and include a set of promising practices with examples from the field.  A number of other publications came out of this work, also available on this website.

Focusing philanthropy on racial equity means, we found, pursuing six different pathways, sometimes one at a time, sometimes together. In this paper we show how philanthropy could make greater gains in creating racial equity if it followed the six Pathways to Progress we present in this paper.  For each Pathway we present several promising practices, examples as practiced in the field, and benchmarks for noticing progress.  With increased action on any one Pathway, one can expect increased progress, but with increased action on these Pathways in combination, one can expect even more progress in closing a particular disparity.

Typically it’s community groups and nonprofit organizations, as distinct from commercial ventures or governmental agencies, that sign on to do this work.   The work ––  to reduce a specific racial disparity or inequity –– requires progress along these Pathways, individually and together.  The more your group or organization can demonstrate its ability to make progress along one or more of these Pathways, the more your nonprofit should be favored with support from others, including grantmaking foundations, individual donors, and other well–wishers.  

Pathway 1: Preparing the organization. Too many organizations that want to create fixes to society’s systems and markets that produce disparities are under-resourced and ill-equipped, matching up as David to Goliath. Nonprofit organizations and philanthropic grantmakers alike can bulk up and shape their own organizational activities to close gaps in fields of interest that they care about.  Such organizations must act with clarity, focus and vigor, both internally and in their interactions with others.

Pathway 2: Discussing social justice and racial equity safely. The terms social justice and racial equity often trigger emotional reactions which can get in the way of making progress. This makes trust, a necessary ingredient for bridging divides, a rare commodity. Nonprofit and philanthropic organizations can create and support the kinds of conversations needed to build trust among community leadership for problem-solving.

Pathway 3: Crafting and advancing solutions.  Good ideas – potential solutions that could fix dysfunctional systems – are often resisted, and efforts to move them are often fragmentary and easily derailed. Going upstream – looking for opportunities to create solutions that prevent problems at their source – can pay off, but solutions have to be surfaced and promoted.  Moving solutions along from inception to adoption and improvements can be a long and arduous road requiring persistence and patient support.  

Pathway 4: Strengthening relationships, networks and leadership.  Change requires an infrastructure of support for change – relationships, networks, and associations of people – which is typically under-resourced, stymied, or disrupted. The relationships, networks and leadership in minority communities are often only partially visible or understood in the dominant culture, but are as important. Philanthropic organizations can support the kind of networks and leadership needed to promote and implement good solutions.

Pathway 5: Increasing philanthropic resources – time, talent and treasure.  Philanthropic dollars for this kind of work are in short supply, especially compared to the resources used to maintain these disparities. The time and talent of people wanting to help fix unfair systems is in greater supply, but with too few channels for expression. Too few efforts take direct aim at the disparities. For philanthropy to effect progress, more philanthropic resources devoted specifically to closing gaps in equity are needed.

Pathway 6: Focusing on reducing barriers and changing conditions.  Too many efforts have the effect of helping only individual casualties of badly functioning systems. Strategy has to be directed “upstream” to reduce the flow of casualties. Philanthropic organizations can make progress if they keep focused on the challenge of gap-closing, and work on these Pathways singly and in combination. For philanthropic organizations to close gaps they should work on all the Pathways, especially in combination, and stay focused on the challenge of reducing gaps.

Reducing Racial Disparities Requires Focusing Philanthropic Resources

For example, say you want to fix Disparity X.  You would want to learn as much as you can, from sources with genuine and authoritative experience, about this particular disparity and the forces that maintain it, as well as the possibilities or avenues for doing something productive to close it (Pathways 1, 2, and 6).  You would also want to ally with others with similar intentions and discover ways of combining your organizational assets productively (Pathways 4 and 1).  You would also want to articulate and promote certain ideas or solutions that can be worked on collaboratively and that stand a chance of fixing the disparity (Pathways 3, 4, and 6).   And you would want to raise funds, gather communications and tech assets, enlist the help of influential others, and attract other resources that can be used to push this effort (Pathway 5, 1, 4, 6). 

That example is one of dozens one can imagine, depending on the current state of local efforts to address this particular disparity, your own role in the community. You can see, especially as you read the primary document you can download below, that there are many ways to combine these different Pathways.

Download Three Companion Tools, “Tools For Moving Philanthropy”

“Moving Past the Silence: A Tool for Negotiating Reflective Conversations About  Race,” developed by Vanessa M. Stephens, offers a framework for beginning these conversations inside a philanthropic organization and then broadening these conversations to engage constituents and partners.  September 1, 2006, 9 pages.  Download PDF

“Becoming a Catalyst for Social Justice: A Tool for Aligning Internal Operations to Produce Progress,” developed by Betty Emarita, encourages board and staff to align values, intentions, and internal processes in order to expand the impact of social justice activities.   September 1, 2006, 8 pages.  Download PDF

“Choosing Promising Ideas and Proposals: A Tool for Giving That Closes The Gaps,” by Steven E. Mayer, can be used to choose among competing proposals for funding; monitor the progress of a project or organization over time; assess the readiness or capacity of an organization to address racial equity; and identify areas of an idea or organization that need strengthening.  September 1, 2006, 11 pages.  Download PDF

The Philanthropic Organizations Engaged In This Project

Ford Foundation
Alliance for Justice
Appalachian Ohio Regional Investment Coalition
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families
Arkansas Public Policy Panel
Association of Black Foundation Executives
Beloved Community Center
Black Belt Community Foundation
Boston Indicators Project
Brett Family Foundation
Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund
Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro
Community Foundation of Ottawa
Community Foundations of Canada
Community Investment Network
Council for Crime and Justice
Diversity in Philanthropy Project
Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy
ERASE Racism
F.B. Heron Foundation
Faith Partnerships, Inc.
Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children
Ford Foundation
Foundation for the Carolinas
Foundation of the Midsouth
Hamilton Community Foundation
Headwaters Fund for Social Justice
HindSight Consulting
Hispanics in Philanthropy
Humboldt Area Foundation 
Initiative for Nonprofit Sector Careers
Jacksonville Community Council
Lee County Community Development Corporations
Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation
Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation
MDC, Inc.
National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy
Native Americans in Philanthropy
New Generation of African American Philanthropy
New Mexico Community Foundation
Norfolk Foundation
Parkersburg Area Community Foundation
People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond
Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity
Resource Generation
Social Justice Funding Collaborative
South Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations
Southern Good Faith Food
Southern Partners Fund
Southern Rural Development Initiative
The Community Foundation of South Wood County (Wisconsin)
The Heifer Foundation
The Jessie Ball duPont Fund
The Long Island Community Foundation
The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation
The National Center for Black Philanthropy
The National Rural Funders Collaborative
The New World Foundation
The Saint Paul Foundation
The Twenty-First Century Foundation
The Winston-Salem Foundation
The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation
Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation

How to cite this cover article: Mayer, Steven E., Pathways to Progress: Focusing Philanthropy on Racial Equity and Social Justice – A New Introduction. Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from, [month, date, year]. 

Our original reports, created with support from the Ford Foundation, can be cited this way: Mayer, Steven E., McKendall–Stevens, Vanessa, Emarita, Betty. Pathways to Progress: Focusing Philanthropy on Racial Equity and Social Justice.  Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project, 2010.