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.
Our report, which you can download free below, provides many lessons and productive avenues for creating a significantly improved level of racial equity and social justice.
Focusing philanthropy on racial equity means pursuing these six Pathways
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.
Focusing philanthropy on racial equity means using resources to reduce racial disparities
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.
Focused philanthropy and program evaluation
Our publication reveals the power of “appreciative inquiry” as an evaluation strategy. No one project holds the key to success, but by examining a number of projects, one can discern the elements of activity that can lead to success.
“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
Philanthropic organizations engaged in this project:
Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / October 2010
Lightly revised March 17, 2021