I’m attending the Gathering of Leaders conference in Detroit this week, which is focused on promoting opportunities for young men of color. It’s sponsored by an array of leading foundations including The California Endowment, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Knight Foundation, Skillman Foundation, WK Kellogg Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Open Society Foundations, The Heinz Endowments, Casey Family Programs.
Unlike many foundation-sponsored conferences, this one intentionally encouraged a mix of participants, including nonprofit and community leaders, policy makers, communications specialists, and researchers.
In the opening discussion, conference organizers Marcus Littles and Micah Gilmer of Frontline Solutions asked participants to identify challenges they are experiencing in their work to support and advance the lives of young men of color. I found it interesting that five of the questions and comments focused on concerns about and mistrust of philanthropy and even of nonprofit organizations in general. All are legitimate questions and concerns—applicable to grantmaking on any issue or community, and I wanted to share them with you:
- Do funders and nonprofits have our best interests at heart? Communities are often asked to do work at the behest of foundations and nonprofits, and they aren’t always sure these organizations fully understand the communities’ needs or are truly working for their best interests. Foundations and nonprofits must ensure that the people who will be impacted by their strategies and initiatives are represented in planning, framing, and development. Authentic community voices must be heard “so that we don’t inadvertently support white supremacy and racism.”
- What is the lens through which funders view their work supporting young men and boys of color? Most foundation staff and trustees bring different race and class perspectives and experiences than people living in low-income communities and communities of color. We need to ensure that there is diversity in philanthropy at all levels– staff, executives, and board. The D5 Coalition is one example of an organized effort to encourage diversity in philanthropy. Foundations can also get creative about additional ways to engage diverse perspectives. For example, the Saint Lukes Foundation in Cleveland has a community advisory board for each of its funding areas, comprised of people who live in the communities being served.
- Recognize that your funding, theories of change, and frameworks are unlikely to reverse the past 400 years of oppression and racism. One participant wanted to remind foundations that however well-intentioned, strategic, and evidence-based their grant programs are, and no matter how much money they want to give, they won’t reverse hundreds of years of institutionalized racism and the problems that have resulted. They also encouraged foundations to to “be a little looser with your results based accountability framework” and come into their communities with “open hearts and understanding” about the myriad ways that community members are already working to help young men of color that don’t neatly fit into these frameworks, but which will exponentially leverage philanthropic investments if funders would only see and appreciate them.
- Expand the pie and ensure that funding is not disproportionately spent on research, analysis, convenings, and yet more research. One participant was concerned that it seems more funding is provided for research, evaluation, reports, analysis, and convenings than for grassroots organizations doing the work on the ground. But rather than think about how to redivide the pie, let’s think about expanding the pie and increasing funding and political will to support young men of color.
- Stop “flavor of the month” grantmaking – Too often funding is tied to specific projects, making it difficult for nonprofits to plan, grow, and do their work effectively. Youth organizing was given as an example of a strategy that is critical for changing policies to support boys and young men of color, but it appears to be fading in interest and appeal from foundations. Participants advocated that more foundations provide general operating support to nonprofits.
What do you think? What are your challenges in supporting young men and boys of color in your communities? In what ways does philanthropy inadvertently make it difficult for you to do your work, and what changes should be made? Feel free to leave a comment!
© Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2013.