A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Lean Funders Reflect on 2020 and Race Equity

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Last year was riddled with loss. The pandemic changed how many funders practice philanthropy; and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black, Indigenous and people of color by police—and the ensuing protests—put race equity front and center for many funders.

While some lean funders had already integrated race equity into their work, the events of last year increased this focus. We asked members of the Exponent Philanthropy community to reflect on their race equity work in 2020, and how they see it continuing in 2021.

How lean funders are supporting race equity

Of the funders who responded to our survey, just over a third (35%) said they changed their giving last year as a result of reflecting on race equity. All plan to do internal and external work related to race equity this year. And some funders are examining how their own work may have unintentionally contributed to inequities. One funder said,

“The events in the past year made it impossible for our staff and board to avoid actually making some changes. We all agreed that our foundation had been contributing to systems that have perpetuated racism and white supremacy and that we need to make some changes to become anti-racist and work to repair past damage.”

Lean funders recognize that supporting race equity need not be solitary. Another funder said,

“Racial equity issues had been simmering in our community and 2020 brought a number of area funders together to intentionally work together—we joined enthusiastically because we can do more together than one by one.”

Some of the race equity based changes funders implemented in 2020 include:

  • Converting existing grants to more flexible funds (for example, converting project grants to general operating support grants)
  • Delaying or postponing reporting deadlines
  • Making additional grants to existing grantees
  • Board completed training and/or self-assessments on racial equity related topics (e.g., cultural competency, implicit bias)
  • Employees completed training and/or self-assessments on racial equity related topics (e.g., cultural competency, implicit bias)
  • Accepting proposals written for other foundations/funders
  • Asking grantees to disaggregate their data by demographic characteristics (e.g., gender, race and ethnicity)

Supporting race equity work in 2021

Moving into this year, lean funders are still deciding how to best support race equity work, both internally, and in their communities. Many are considering implementing the aforementioned approaches.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Funders are also taking the time to learn more deeply about race equity practices. Dawn Charaba of the Reidsville Area Foundation said that in 2021 she wants to “better define our work around racial equity, and devise a racial equity strategic plan for the upcoming years.”

The Laird Norton Family Foundation‘s Katie Briggs said they’re still grappling with how 2020 changed how they work:

“2020 forced us to take a hard look in the mirror to see that we’d have the privilege to avoid this work, but now that we’ve started, there’s no going back.”

Of the funders who were engaged in race equity work for several years, the events of 2020 motivated them to keep at it. Shona Chakravartty said that the Hill Snowdon Foundation is excited to “double down and be more explicit about supporting the infrastructure for Black-led power building and social justice work.”

Race equity work doesn’t happen overnight

Lean funders said that moving to support race equity takes time, but it is worth it. One funder said they started supporting Black-led organizing several years ago, and they’re finally seeing progress:

“We began the process of working to develop Black-led organizing infrastructure in 2015. 2020 saw the fruition of that work. We have committed an additional $1 million per year toward that work for the next five years. In 2019, we implemented a short-term initiative to strengthen our country’s democracy through community organizing, and we are looking forward to a continuation of that work, which is now more important than ever.”

Jennifer Langton of the Tzedek Social Justice Fund shared how race equity work goes beyond grantmaking. She said,

“We had completed an equity audit in 2019, and we’ve provided funding for such audits to local grantees and organizations via a consulting firm. This was a value of ours already. We have done both internal (HR policies, work culture learnings, etc.) and external work on racial justice and equity, and will continue to do that work moving forward. Our new strategic plan is about redistributing money, resources, and power to invest in systems change and community healing in Asheville, North Carolina. In addition to using this lens in making decisions on grants to organizations and individuals, we just welcomed our first community-based board in 2021, and created a new participatory grantmaking program with dedicated annual funding.”

Questions to ask yourself in 2021

As we move into 2021 and beyond, race equity work will continue to be an important area for funders of all shapes and sizes. Take the time to reflect on the work you’ve done already, and celebrate your wins, but also recognize where you’ve fallen short. Ask yourself, did you make any changes in 2020 that helped promote race equity in your community or funding area? And are there places where you can push yourself in 2021 to have a greater impact? As Robin Ballenger of the Flint Family Foundation said,

“I think if we aren’t a little nervous about our race equity work, then we know we aren’t pushing ourselves hard enough.” Race equity work can be uncomfortable, but that discomfort can help push you and your grantees to make a big difference.”

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