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Jun 8th, 2022

Overcoming Inequity in Philanthropy

Advice on how grantmakers can overcome inequity.

Sha-Kim Wilson
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As Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships at Catchafire, I have the privilege of connecting with organization leaders who are serious about equity, intentional about their grantmaking practices, and constantly seeking ways to disrupt the monotony in the philanthropic sector. A common theme that permeates throughout our conversations is how and where grantmakers can identify the starting point. I have found that there are three common principles rooted in some of the most equitable grantmaking processes: candidness, diversity, and trust.

In addition to my work alongside grantmakers, I am the founder of Helen’s Hands, a nonprofit organization I created to honor the giving legacy of my late grandmother, Helen McNeely. At Helen’s Hands, we serve as a resource provider for the elderly, and more specifically caregivers of Alzheimer and dementia patients. We pride ourselves in our ability to never turn a single family away—if there is a need, we find a way to get solutions to those who need it. While we are fortunate to be able to help every family that we meet, it is not made possible through equitable grant funding. For the last five years, 90 percent of our resources have been provided through my personal out-of-pocket and savings funds, while the other 10 percent comes from random donations. For me, equity is only made possible by taking on consulting and part time gig work, and sacrificing my retirement funds. It looks like discomfort, tough conversations, and trust in those in my community who say they need help when they say they need it.

Catchafire’s first live webinar event, “Connecting on Equity: An Honest Conversation Between Two Leading Foundations,” featured Catchafire foundation partners, Aiyana Marcus, Senior Program Manager at the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, and Terry Whitfield, Program Officer at The Skillman Foundation. Together, grantmakers, nonprofit organizations, and the like gathered to review equity findings from Catchafire’s 2021 Impact Report and discuss how foundations can center equity at the core of their grantmaking.

Candid Conversations Equal Candid Solutions

Conversations are valuable steps in arriving at equitable grantmaking solutions. We gathered in breakout sessions to discuss tough, but honest, questions and answers. Were there some awkward moments? Were some uncomfortable about more sensitive subjects? Absolutely. But what this medium did was allow people who would not have otherwise connected to lean into others with lived and marginalized experiences, others who breathe equity, and others who are doing the work to put it into action. Grantmakers should feel uncomfortable giving money to the same cause every year—and get uncomfortable with being comfortable.

Whitfield challenges foundation leaders who are on the edge of equity:

“What is the risk if you do not step out of your comfort zone? All movement, any movement, starts with one person, one thought, one step. Why not you? What’s to be gained is tangible change within your organization. What would it take to start the conversation?”

Attend a community town hall meeting, go to an equity or diversity training event, have a coffee—listen to your colleagues, peers, and grantees that come from these communities and live at the intersection of equity every single day. As a nonprofit owner, I feel the disparities everyday.

Steeped in Diversity

When you want to diversify your grantmaking, look within your organization first. Diversity is defined as the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds, and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc. Achieving equity is impossible without diversity of thought and backgrounds at the helm. When there is a lack of diversity at the top, it's hard to expand diversity in your services and offerings. Is there evidence of diversity amongst your board and staff? If not, what roles can you create or restructure to diversify your understandings, opinions, ideas, and judgements?

The Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, who has become a proven leader in the space of centering equity in their grantmaking, is more than candid about their need to reshape and refocus their grantmaking. After the Charlottesville White Supremacy rallies in 2017, The Foundation restructured and restaffed their board, and hired their current CEO Brennan Gould, to spearhead their discretionary grantmaking efforts. Aiyana Marcus, Senior Program Manager at CACF, says foundations should,

“Stop recruiting people who don’t have lived experience, and those that don’t need to be given more agency. Center the voices of those that have been blocked, not of the blockers.”

Terry Whitfield of The Skillman Foundation adds that implementing roles similar to their Vice President of Organizational Excellence & Impact, who ensures the Foundation is consistently in organizational alignment with advancing its mission, would help grantmakers to focus further on equity. Whitfield suggests that a VP, Director, or Officer of Culture/Impact or similar role would provide added value to internal learning and development, and is a good starting point at taking inventory on any hidden opportunities and blockers in achieving equity.

Trust All Around

Trust-based philanthropy is a term often used to describe equitable grantmaking but what does it really mean? What are the tangible and actionable components that make grantmaking “trust-based''?

For grantmakers centered in equity, the first box often checked is a gut check on the culture and mission within their organization. An analysis of spoken and unspoken, or traditional and non-traditional practices that have made it difficult to trust your grantees, will surely expose the absence of trust. When revealed, these foundations have moved quickly to dismantle the systems and processes that have led to this mistrust. What this often looks like is revisions to their grant applications—where staff size, budget, and income requirements are lowered or removed entirely.

Another way to implement trust into your grantmaking practices is to modernize the application process. Are your grantees required to submit annual reports or lengthy narratives? This could be an indicator of outdated grantmaking processes, and an opportunity to shorten the application process, or add a modern element such as video applications. If you’re not sure, ask the nonprofit community experts for feedback. Besides, they're the ones making change on the ground, they would know best what their community needs and how to achieve it. Marcus affirms that,

“The crux of fear, the notion that if someone else gains I am going to lose—has been stifling to philanthropy.” Furthermore, she poses this question to grantmakers: “Are we all focused on supporting nonprofit organizations? If we’re all aligned, it's easy. Do it! Let’s move beyond zero-sum.”

If you’re a grantmaker and would like to learn more about equipping nonprofits in your community with responsive, high-quality operational support, let’s connect.
Email us here.

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