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Philanthropic Networks Have a Powerful Role to Play in Advancing Equity


Racial inequities have persisted over generations. Social movements have challenged structural racism and encouraged the societal and policy changes required to alter various dimensions of deep-seated inequities. Whatever progress has transpired over the last several decades, recent developments have reminded us of the depth and breadth of contemporary racism. From incidents of police brutality, to the continued criminalization of people of color, to the normalizing of anti-immigrant sentiments and white supremacist thinking that were exacerbated during the 2016 elections, we have received many reminders how much work is to be done. And it is difficult to grapple with, what feels much more like movement backward in an area where so many had hoped we were on a faster track to progress with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

In this context, conversations about race and racial equity and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) have increased in the field of philanthropy. As philanthropic contributions are often designated to address many of the issues (education, health, etc.) in which racial disparities are highly apparent, it is no wonder more voices inside and outside of the field are wondering about the role of foundations in advancing racial equity. While there is much to be done in society at large, there is also a great deal of work required if philanthropy is going to become a reliable catalyst toward racial equity and inclusion.

Since 2006, my company, Marga Incorporated, has been coordinating learning exchanges among foundations through the Race and Equity in Philanthropy Group (REPG). REPG addresses how to embed a commitment to racial equity and inclusion into foundations’ policies and practices. Through these conversations, we realized that peer learning is crucial to facilitating institutional change in foundations. As we continue to ponder how to influence institutional change among a greater number of foundations, it has become increasingly clear that networks of foundations are uniquely positioned to advance conversations and action regarding racial equity and inclusion.

Many such networks exist and are continuing to emerge. Philanthropy Serving Organizations (PSOs), including SECF, are representing clusters of foundations in specific geographical areas, among particular population groups, and around particular issue areas. The United Philanthropy Forum has been bringing together PSOs in one umbrella network. The Forum has made racial equity a priority. By doing so, the Forum and its members are poised to engage thousands of foundations regarding their ability to make greater contributions to racial equity.

Marga Incorporated has been working with the Forum’s Racial Equity Working Group in order to gain a better understanding of how PSO’s have been addressing racial equity. The results of an initial scan of the Forum’s membership and a few additional PSOs can be found in a recent report, Advancing Racial Equity in Philanthropy: A Scan of Philanthropy-Serving Organizations.

Some PSO’s (Association of Black Foundation Executives, Change Philanthropy, Hispanics in Philanthropy, Native Americans in Philanthropy, Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, and a few others) have been leading dialogue and action to increase attention to racial equity among foundations and donors for many years. The Forum’s report reveals that many other PSOs are beginning to explore programming to educate their foundation members about racial equity and expand their thinking about how they can prioritize racial equity and DEI in their work.

I personally conducted numerous interviews with chief executives of PSOs on behalf of the Forum to inform their report. Apparent from these conversations is an increased dedication among PSO staff members to lead conversations with their foundation members on these issues. This finding only reinforces the pivotal role that PSOs can play in reaching and influencing clusters of foundations. Some PSO staff are organizing speaking engagements, tours, films, and other educational sessions with their foundation members. A Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers’ initiative, Putting Racism on the Table, is one notable example.

Some PSOs have reflected internally and provided training on racial equity and DEI with their staff and board. Some PSOs are developing comprehensive strategic plans focused specifically on these issues. The Forum itself has exposed its PSO members to numerous compelling speakers providing different points of view on racial equity at their national conferences.

Because of the catalytic role that PSOs can play in stimulating learning among foundations, REPG finds great value in collaborating with PSOs. Recently, REPG collaborated with Philanthropy New York to engage a few of its members in intensive dialogue around how their foundations have attempted to integrate a commitment to racial equity and inclusion in their core priorities. REPG has begun to communicate with SECF about organizing a similar event in Atlanta.

Overall, activity to deepen philanthropy’s commitment to racial equity and inclusion has been increasing. Some wonder whether the field will be able to make a substantial leap and sustain interest in these issues. After all, the field has been slow to change in this regard. But if there is to be demonstrable change, it is clear that PSOs will have to play a significant role in moving us forward.

David Maurrasse, Ph.D., is founder and president of Marga Incorporated, a New York-based global consulting firm.

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