How Can Lean Funders Proactively Advance Racial Equity? Don’t Go It Alone - Exponent Philanthropy
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How Can Lean Funders Proactively Advance Racial Equity? Don’t Go It Alone

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Recently, efforts to incorporate antiracism into philanthropic work have surged. What does this mean for lean funders who may not have the capacity to launch major initiatives?

At Brady Education Foundation, we focus on addressing disparities in educational opportunities associated with race, ethnicity, and family income. Our mission is clearly aligned with racial equity work. We primarily fund research that can inform practice, public policy, and other philanthropic funders.

However, many of our grants are multi-year efforts. It often takes time for our support to bear fruit. While our small team has worked to advance racial equity, we have also increasingly sought out strategic partnerships. In doing so, we have found that we can go further and faster together.

Below are a few things we have learned from these efforts, and we look forward to continuing to learn and accelerate racial equity work in partnership with other philanthropic organizations.

Be explicit about race, racism, and racial equity

Many of us have taken this step. Even if we don’t know how to advance antiracist philanthropy, we can acknowledge harm, and we can commit to advancing racial equity in our commitments and mission statements. While words alone do not advance practice, they are a critical step to holding ourselves accountable and for paving the way for communities to hold us accountable, too.

If you haven’t yet taken this step, here are some options to consider:

  • Develop a racial equity statement, ideally in partnership with the communities of color you serve. Consider this statement a living document that can be changed as you learn more. Commit publicly to what you can and will do to advance racial equity.
  • Include racial equity funding in your budget, and make sure that your dollars are following your values.
  • Participate in ongoing racial equity trainings with your entire team and board to develop shared language and buy-in.
  • Work to include racial equity in every aspect of your organization, rather than treating this work as a separate initiative. For example, update each of your staff’s job descriptions to include active work to advance racial equity. Similarly, update your staff meeting agendas to include sharing about racial equity tools and resources.

Examine and acknowledge power, and work to shift it

Who has power over your grantmaking? Do those in decision-making positions reflect the communities you hope to serve? Brady Education Foundation requires the leadership teams of the grants we fund to represent the communities impacted by our support. We have also participated in several jointly funded grant pools with Trust for Learning. This has included seeking out and compensating external reviewers of color to score proposals against a transparent rubric.

Here are some suggestions to shift power in your work:

  • If your grantmaking process is not already documented, audit and document where you are starting from. Look closely for ways that your current process may unintentionally prevent racially diverse applicants from accessing your funds.
  • No matter what your current application process is, make it transparent by creating a one pager or by updating your website. Make the implicit explicit. For example, if your funding decisions rely heavily on the individual judgment of program officers, make it clear how new applicants can build relationships with program officers. If you are not open to new partners, make that explicit, too. This way, applicants won’t spend time pursuing funding that’s not available.
  • From this baseline, work to make your funding more accessible to all communities. Here, you can use resources like Exponent’s racial equity report and others. Keep in mind that you don’t have to make every change at once. Each step can help make your grantmaking more accessible.
  • If you do not identify as part of the racial group that will be impacted by funding decisions and you’re in the room where those decisions are made, support those in the room who do identify as belonging to that racial group. Ensure their experiences and perspectives are driving the decisions being made.
  • If no person in the room identifies as belonging to the racial group that will be impacted by the decisions made, use your influence to amplify the words and work of experts in your topic area from these groups. Further, work to ensure those voices are present in the room in the future.
  • Audit the current composition of your staff and board and compare it to the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and linguistic characteristics of the communities you hope to serve. Does your team reflect these communities?

Use your platform to build strong partnerships and call for action

Many of us working in small or leaner foundations might not have the personal platforms of larger philanthropists, but we have a larger megaphone than we realize. For example, a few months ago I co-wrote an op-ed for the Hechinger Report calling for an explicitly antiracist scientific method. My background is in research, and I had recently co-written an academic paper focused on the details of antiracist science. My co-author, Dr. Iheoma Iruka, and I had an opportunity to translate those insights into a more public-friendly venue.

It’s also critical that lean funders learn from each other and work together to accelerate racial equity work. We work to expand high-quality early childhood learning opportunities for all children, birth through eight, through Trust for Learning. In these efforts, we are explicit in our intent to work with children and families in communities that have historically experienced, and currently face, barriers to access and equity.

We participate in other funder collaboratives focused on antiracist action, nationally and within our state. Through the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative and Invest Early NC, we are able to learn from and work with other early childhood funders on key racial equity initiatives.

If you are a lean funder with a small staff like ours, continue to seek out these partnerships. Don’t feel that you have to figure racial equity out on your own. Many of us are working to advance racial equity in philanthropy. The more we learn from each other, and partner with the communities we hope to serve, the more effective we will be.


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About the Author

Elizabeth Pungello Bruno is president of Brady Education Foundation.

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