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Reflections on a Radically Honest Conversation: Funding Black and Brown Organizations Like We Want Them to Win

It is more vital than ever that Black- and brown-led organizations have the resources they need to combat the many issues confronting their communities and to build durable and sustainable power. 

Last week, Demos held the third webinar in our Radically Honest Conversations series, “Funding Black and Brown Organizations Like We Want Them to Win.” In light of the compounding crises of 2020, many of which disproportionately affect communities of color, it is more vital than ever that Black- and brown-led organizations have the resources they need to combat the many issues confronting their communities and to build durable and sustainable power. We assembled an all-star panel of experts to discuss why philanthropy has historically failed to sufficiently support these organizations, and what funders and donors need to do differently to effect real change. The following summarizes the discussion, and you can watch the full video of the event here.

Watch this Radically Honest Conversation

The webinar was expertly moderated by Demos’ Dr. Carol Lautier, Associate Director of our Inclusive Democracy Project, and featured a panel of leaders in the philanthropy and movement space: Brianna Brown, Deputy Director of our IDP partner Texas Organizing Project, which organizes around voting rights, immigration, education, health care, housing, and climate justice in Texas; Ashindi Maxton, Co-Executive Director of the Donors of Color Network, a groundbreaking network of donors of color committed to building power for Black and brown communities; Crystal Hayling, Executive Director of the Libra Foundation, which supports social justice movements that focus on transforming the criminal justice system, environmental and climate justice, and gender justice; and Vivian Chang, Grants Director at the Sandler Foundation, which seeks to improve the rights, opportunities and well-being of the most disadvantaged communities.

A common theme was the administrative burden of the application and reporting process.

Over the course of an hour and a half, this powerful panel of women dissected the traditions and practices of American philanthropy, highlighting the approaches that undermine the longevity and success of Black- and brown-led grassroots organizations. A common theme was the administrative burden of the application and reporting process. Crystal Hayling pointed out, poignantly, that current foundation practice is to put organizations into debt in order to receive funding—they often spend hours of valuable staff time putting together complicated and esoteric applications, before even knowing if they have a chance at receiving a grant. Much of the information required is available publicly under federal tax laws or could be found easily on organization websites and in public reports. More, funders often require narratives that center on trauma and hardship, rather than the aspirational visions of change that drive organizations’ work. Thus, philanthropy encourages organizations to do their work through a lens of oppression rather than a lens of liberation—which contributes to the guise of philanthropic saviorism, while throttling the creativity and inspiration of organizations. As Brianna Brown summed up: “The application process needs to be decolonized.”

[The] impulse [for quantifiable "metrics"] reflects the dominant white supremacy culture of worshipping the written word and valuing quantity over quality.

In both the proposal and reporting process, funders often require organizations to quantify their impact through quantifiable “metrics.” This impulse, as well as the requirement to submit written reports, reflects the dominant white supremacy culture of worshipping the written word and valuing quantity over quality. More, these metrics often represent a “fundamental disconnect over what the work of power building is,” argued Vivian Chang. Numeric outcomes such as voters registered or doors knocked, while important, often do not indicate the deep organizing and relationship-building work that forms the core of the work of grassroots movement organizations. Brianna Brown gave an excellent example of this: A few years ago, Texas Organizing Project (TOP) filed a Freedom of Information Act request to receive Houston city government emails about a potential deal with Amazon. The emails revealed that city officials, while trying to push through massive tax breaks for the company, were actively discussing how to handle TOP’s dissent and political power. Although there are no numeric metrics that could capture this, the emails clearly indicated that TOP has built strong political power and influence for working communities in Texas. The tax breaks eventually failed due to TOP’s organizing, along with other local efforts.

Even when organizations jump through all the hoops to secure the funding needed for their success, the money often comes in boom-or-bust cycles. Funders flood movement organizations with money ahead of elections and key events, without funding the ongoing efforts required to lay the groundwork for these critical moments and build long-term power. This has been especially relevant recently, with funders suddenly giving millions of dollars to racial equity efforts in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and worldwide Black Lives Matter protests. Many people doubt the longevity and authenticity of these investments, seeing them as PR decisions because, as Ashindi Maxton critiqued, “Racial justice was discovered in June 2020 and is polling well.” Between inconsistent funding cycles, burdensome application processes, and restrictive deliverable and metric requirements, it is a wonder that any local, grassroots Black- and brown-led organization ever achieves sustainable, long-term growth and political power.

On the whole, the panelists agreed that the core of the problem with philanthropic practice is an issue of trust.

On the whole, the panelists agreed that the core of the problem with philanthropic practice is an issue of trust. The long-standing relationship between foundations and the organizations they support has been one of distrust—funders require grantees to justify, project, enumerate, and report on every penny of the money they spend. In the context of white philanthropists restricting money that flows to Black and brown organizations, this distrust replicates the very structures of racism and white supremacy culture that grassroots organizations are working to dismantle. In this way, practicing trust-based philanthropy is, in itself, an exercise in undoing the systems of oppression that underpin our society.

A recurring theme in the conversation was the need for foundations to give more general operating support grants.

So how does philanthropy overcome these regressive, inefficient traditions to truly fund Black- and brown-led organizations like we want them to win? A recurring theme in the conversation was the need for foundations to give more general operating support grants. This means that instead of funding specific projects and requiring organizations to track exactly how the money is spent, a funder invests in the organization’s entire mission and work. General operating support gives organizations more flexibility in how they spend their funds, allowing them to allocate money as needs arise and respond more quickly to developments and changes in their work and priorities. This type of funding tends to be easier and less time-consuming for organizations to administer, reducing the number of new budgets, proposals, reports, and deliverables that need to be developed for funding. It also allows for critical “wiggle room” for organizations to invest in staff, build additional fundraising capacity, and spend the time needed to serve as thought leaders. This is particularly important in grassroots movement building, where constant innovation is needed to overcome the ever-changing forces of structural racism, oppression, and inequity. If we want grassroots organization to win, they need the space to “fail forward,” as Brianna phrased it—to experiment with new strategies for power building and learn from their failures on how best to move forward.

Beyond giving general operating grants, the panel urged funders to give multi-year funding. With multi-year grants, organizations can plan for years of work—a time frame of forethought that is required in the space of political change, organizing, and movement building. As Crystal pointed out, if we want grassroots organizations to be able to build durable political power and effect long-term change, the organizations’ funding must be durable too.

Beyond these 2 changes, Ashindi gave a succinct checklist for funding durable power building in Black and brown communities:

  • Who? Do you know who is organizing for power? Funders have to do the work of understanding the field and the players in the movement. Funders should also consider, Ashindi said, “who is making the [funding] decisions and what their lived experience is, and know that it matters… Know who’s on your board, and change it.” In other words, representation of Black and brown communities within philanthropy matters.
  • What? What are you actually trying to help organizations achieve by funding them? Can that really be captured in a number or metric? The deliverables and priorities should come directly from grassroots organizations. “You have to be comfortable with the fact that the people who are building power may be using different tools and strategies than you would use.” Or, as Crystal argued, “We are not hiring organizations to achieve things on our behalf. We are partnering with organizations to achieve the goals that the community has for itself.”
  • When? “All the time.” Not in boom-or-bust cycles around elections or high-profile police murders.
  • Where? You have to find them. The organizations doing the best power building work are often operating at the local level and can take time to find. Finding them, and supporting them, is the work of the philanthropist.
  • Why? Ashindi’s answer was concise: because wealthy funders, most of whom are white, need to give up power in order to fund durable power building for Black and brown communities.

“It has felt for years like we are in the business of funding a kinder, gentler suffering. That is no longer adequate. We actually have to be thinking about what it takes to fund liberation.”
—Crystal Hayling, Libra Foundation

Vivian added a helpful 6th question for funders designing application and reporting processes: “Do we need that [information]?” The panelists also highlighted several other resources for funders looking to decolonize their practices, including intermediary funds and donor networks such as Justice Funders, Emergent Fund, and Way to Win, and giving guidelines such as the Donors of Color Inclusion Principles.

On the funder side, Crystal summed up the needed changes in this way: “It has felt for years like we are in the business of funding a kinder, gentler suffering. That is no longer adequate. We actually have to be thinking about what it takes to fund liberation.” This powerful statement points to the complexity of the issues within American philanthropy, which will likely require years of conscious work to overcome. Even still, from her vantage point as a leader in a grassroots organization, Brianna was able to summarize the lessons from the conversation in a pithy “bumper sticker”: “Give large grants. Trust us. Require as little as possible. And let us determine what our deliverables are."