Blog Post

Facing racism: A call to action for philanthropy

Today’s blog post is from Tiffany Donelson, vice president of program for the Connecticut Health Foundation. In September 2020, she will become the foundation’s president and CEO.

We are in unprecedented times. Evidence of the deep racial disparities in our nation are painfully clear, whether in the unequal toll of COVID-19 or the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many who came before them.

I often find myself in a peculiar place, especially at times like this. I understand these disparities and disadvantages firsthand as a Black woman in America. At the same time, I face them from a privileged profession as a leader in philanthropy. I’m left asking myself: What should I be doing? What should philanthropy be doing?

Philanthropy is a mighty industry. We have money. We have influence. We have the luxury of speaking out without worrying about losing votes or customers. Yet, are we living in a world that reflects our visions of an equitable world? I would say, no. This leaves me asking, why are we not seeing our visions in the world and in our communities?

Philanthropy has not fully tapped into our power – to convene, to advocate, and to galvanize communities for change. As a field, we may be afraid to upset our donors or our partners in government and we’re concerned about taking too many risks with our endowments. But at a time when our nation is at a turning point, we must move beyond these concerns and use our influence and dollars.

So what should we be doing? Here are a few of my thoughts:

  • We have to name it to change it. Philanthropy often dances around the problem by talking about “inequities” in our communities, but few of us name racism as the reason for these disparities. We need to be explicit that racism is the driving force behind most of the issues we are trying to solve. If we continue to dance around race and racism, we will dance around the real solutions for change.
  • Know what you don’t know. For years philanthropy has told our communities and grantees the solutions to their problems. As this moment shows, we need to recognize that we don’t know what is needed. We need to listen to those who do know. We need to step aside from our limited solutions and start to fund those in community who have the real solutions.
  • Money speaks. We need to rethink our funding. We often fund projects that aim to make small adjustments in communities without addressing underlying systems that are inherently unfair. Typically, we also fund programs with defined beginnings and ends. Together, these common features of grantmaking limit the chance of yielding systemic change. Programs are critically important AND policy is equally critical. We can’t depend solely on programs to make much needed systemic change. We also need to fund organizations that will advocate for policies that will bring about structural change. Fund policy and advocacy, fund community voices, fund strategic communications and pay attention to your funding in underserved communities. Ask, are you perpetuating our systemic problems by your funding strategies, and does your funding reflect the systemic change that you’d like to see?
  • Use your power. Historically, philanthropy has been a trusted industry. We have the power to convene, to ask tough questions, to bring unheard voices to the table and to drive change even if it makes others uncomfortable. Now more than ever is the time for us to do so.

The Connecticut Health Foundation has been on this journey since inception. We talk about race and racism explicitly. We fund advocacy and policy work. We invest in future leaders. We track the racial and ethnic diversity in the organizations we fund, the vendors we do business with, and the funds that hold our endowment. Yet we still have a long way to go.

Who will join this journey with us? Recognize and name the role of racism in the problems you are addressing. Listen to your communities and grantees to help guide your work. Fund advocacy and community voices, and track where the money goes. Hold yourself accountable to what we ask of others and who we serve. Use your power to bring people to the table and ask tough questions. If not now, then when? When will we choose to be bold, take risks and really create the world that we describe in our mission and vision statements? We can’t continue to fund the world as it is; we have to fund the world as it should be.