Foundations pursue racial justice in philanthropy

Funders reexamine their roles and processes as community calls for more equitable decision-making.

At a time when the nation is facing a reckoning for centuries of racial injustice, no sector is exempt from the rising calls for change, including philanthropy.

As the Business Journal reported last month, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University’s 11 Trends in Philanthropy report for 2021 largely focused on the impacts of wealth inequality, systemic racism and the need to address those issues with a better philanthropic model.

Juan Olivarez

Juan Olivarez, Ph.D., is distinguished scholar in residence for diversity, equity and inclusion at the Johnson Center, was president and CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation from 2008-11 and also previously was president of Aquinas College and Grand Rapids Community College. 

He said the complex issues the country and region are facing call for a more collaborative approach by donors, foundations, nonprofits, governments and community members — and that those affected by these pressing problems should be invited to the table and trusted to help make good decisions about solutions.

“We’ve had a long, long history of poverty and that somebody rides in and saves the day. Usually, philanthropists have been in that role by giving money out to charity, to people who are hungry, people who need shelter, people who don’t have work, all kinds of ways that we have used charity,” Olivarez said.

“But at the end of the day, people really don’t want charity, especially ongoing. They want to feel like they can get help to help themselves, and so, (we should trust) that the people in our communities, the people who live in these situations, have a good idea of what it would take either to get out of that situation or to better themselves so that they learn how to take care of themselves rather than continue to keep depending on charity or government to take care of them.”

Olivarez co-wrote an essay for the 11 Trends report on reparations, a conversation that dates back to post-Civil War times and is again gaining attention following the racial unrest of 2020. He said when people hear that word, they react against the idea of direct monetary payments to wronged populations. Cash payments are part of the conversation, he said, but because all of the philanthropic institutions in the nation combined would not have enough money to cover the estimated $13 trillion cost of that, that doesn’t mean they can or should do nothing, he said.

“For hundreds of years, people of color and immigrants have been used, wealth has been built on their backs, and if we think about how do we now help them catch up, that’s when it’s a good thing for philanthropy to think that they have a role in reparations, not in terms of handing money directly to a person, but how can we help our community? How can we help these families do better?” Olivarez said. “Maybe it’s through their children, maybe it’s through employment, maybe it’s through capacity building, helping them get training so that we’re … bringing them forward so that they can compete in the marketplace.”

He said building a philanthropic model with a social justice lens would mean making grants to nonprofits led by Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC); educating donors so that they know where the greatest needs lie before they make restricted gifts; and building human capital through affordable homeownership, child care, education and workforce development.

Olivarez said one of the issues in America today is the decrease in upward mobility. His parents did better than his grandparents, and he did better than his parents, but statistics show only about half of today’s young people — a more diverse bunch than the nation has ever seen — will do better than their parents financially. This is for many reasons, including the systemic inequities young people of color face, the college debt crisis and the lack of career preparedness.

“I don’t want to (imply) that everybody needs a Ph.D. and that everybody needs to go to a four-year college for a degree. What I’m talking about is getting educated to have a career, a skill, a vocation where you are certified or you have some sort of a credential that makes you employable, that makes you attractive to employers and that opens doors for you,” Olivarez said.

He said philanthropy can effect social change in this area by supporting people at the very beginning of their lives — by investing in mothers and prenatal and infant health and development, so that children are ready and stay on track from preschool all the way up through post-secondary education.

Olivarez noted funding isn’t the only role foundations can play when it comes to creating change in communities. If an institution is small and underfunded, it can leverage its assets by partnering with bigger organizations (businesses, schools, local governments); it can participate in community roundtables on who is funding what and where the needs lie; it can be a catalyst by seeding initiatives that will grow over time; it can be a thought leader; it can spread information using its platform; and it can be a convener by calling meetings with other organizations.

Teri Behrens

“When a foundation calls a meeting of different sectors — health, education, and so forth — they’ll come, because it’s a foundation, and there’s definitely respect there,” Olivarez said.

Teri Behrens, Ph.D. and executive director of the Johnson Center, said local organizations such as United Way and groups like the Council of Michigan Foundations have been working to make equity the centerpiece of their work — gathering to review their processes, reducing obstacles for smaller nonprofits led by people of color when it comes to grantmaking by streamlining the review process, loosening reporting requirements, simplifying applications and providing general operating support instead of only program-specific support, especially now that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on nonprofits’ budgets.

At the same time, foundations are starting to ask nonprofits applying for grants to supply evidence that the vulnerable communities they serve will have input into the funding to make sure it goes where the needs are.

Diana Sieger

Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, said while GRCF has long had a focus on racial equity, the foundation has “leveled up in recent years.”

“The historic and entrenched racial inequities that exist in our community (have) truly intensified over the past year,” she said, noting as a result, the foundation is increasing its focus on addressing structural racism through equitable education opportunities, health care access, workforce and economic development, environmental justice and the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Erika VanDyke, program officer with GRCF, received the Business Journal’s 2020 Newsmaker of the Year award in the nonprofit/philanthropy category for her work convening Latinx community partner organizations to establish the La Lucha Fund, which provided hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 relief dollars to about 1,200 undocumented and mixed-status Latinx families in West Michigan.

A year ago, Sieger convened a group of the region’s largest foundations and Heart of West Michigan United Way to brainstorm how to meet basic needs while also addressing racial inequity in the philanthropic sector.

“The key thing that we’ve really done and will continue to do is walk alongside the community,” Sieger said. “That’s not just words; it’s developing the networks that we have in the community and developing a trust that we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do … (and) that we are listening to people.

“We do not have all the answers as a community foundation; the community has those answers. … We need to make sure that the actions we take, and the policies and procedures that we have really reflect that.”

During the past few years, GRCF has forged convening, listening and funding partnerships with a plethora of West Michigan organizations led by people of color, including the region’s first racial equity lending firm, Rende Progress Capital; the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Public Agency at WMCAT; the Women’s Resource Center; the Latina Network and Latino Network; Urban Core Collective; and Heart of West Michigan United Way.

The foundation currently has over 800 funds, some restricted and some donor-advised, and its team is working with the donors to understand what is happening in the community. The donors “have really stepped up,” Sieger said.

“We have a lot of work to do in this community, and as a community foundation, we need to continue to actively move on supporting Black-led and Black-founded organizations, so we’re doing it,” she said.

Olivarez said he is encouraged to see that same level of openness from corporate, family and community foundations all over the region.

“I was on a call (recently) with a foundation CEO who said to me, ‘I’ve looked at our numbers and where our money’s going. I feel good about it, but we can do better.’ I was really pleased with that because it’s that ‘We can do better’ attitude that’s important. Any good businessperson should never be satisfied with what we’re doing; we should always be looking at ‘How can we do better?’ It’s called continuous improvement. Things change, life changes, markets change, and what that means is you’ve got to always be on top of what’s going on and ‘What does that mean for us?’

“For foundations to be more successful, it is learning what haven’t we done, where have we misstepped and being honest with (ourselves). Our foundations in this community are really trying, and they have done and continue to do good things. Are there issues, and can we point to areas of improvement that they need to make? Yes. But their willingness to own up to it and to figure it out together is what I’m seeing, and it’s going to take time. … Life is changing, and all of us, including philanthropy, have to continue to learn and to stay with it.”

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