Q&A: Black Executives on Equitable Funding
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a common theme of inequity has emerged in philanthropic funding to Black-led organizations.
I recently read an article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy newsletter titled Confronting Philanthropy’s Uncomfortable Truths, which stated, “Most philanthropic organizations are led by white people, resulting in stark disparities in funding provided to nonprofits run by Black [people], Indigenous [people], or people of color.”
To get a firsthand perspective on these disparities, I interviewed three Black executives who have worked in various roles within Black-led organizations: Roshun Austin, executive director at The Works, Inc.; Tim Lampkin, chief executive officer at Higher Purpose Co.; and Martie North, senior vice president and director of community development/Community Reinvestment Act at Simmons Bank.
Responses were edited for length and clarity.
Question: What have been your experiences with equity in funding to nonprofits led by Black Americans?
Roshun Austin: I started in the nonprofit industry with community development corporations (CDCs) in the early 1990s. At that time, white men heavily led the industry and earned salaries, while older Black women who were largely community volunteers ran CDCs. These Black women were the founders and directors of these organizations which had risen out of their activism, yet they were mostly unpaid. These organizations may have received some funding, but nothing that could sustain them. I have experienced stark differences in how philanthropy funds Black-led organizations.
Tim Lampkin: My experience in the nonprofit sector was that Black-led organizations do not receive adequate funding, and the responses from the foundations or funders were, “What is your capacity?” They used capacity assessments to justify why adequate resources are not given to these organizations. There are assumptions that white-led organizations will perform and manage money better; however, we noticed that these organizations were not intent on establishing connections within their community. I saw the need to change my approach, be firm in requesting multi-year support and help funders understand they are not only investing in the work, but they are also investing in the people running the organization. We can’t do the work if we are empty—meaning, if we are financially, physically or mentally unhealthy.
Question: The Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Overcoming the Racial Bias in Philanthropic Funding, cited four key barriers to capital for leaders of color: getting connected, building rapport, securing support and sustaining relationships. How have these barriers impacted your organization?
Lampkin: All four of the barriers have affected our organization. I think at one point, I was dealing with all of them at one time. In the fall of 2018, I was challenged with trying to network and connect to organizations with access to resources. I had to build relationships and help funders understand why the work is needed in Mississippi—particularly with Black entrepreneurs. Some of the conversations led to funding, but it was at a small level. I tried not to appear too demanding while maintaining and cultivating the relationships into a request for additional support. Once I figured out how to navigate the funding process, things started to flow. Those relationships helped to convert funders into Higher Purpose Ambassadors, who in turn sold our work to other funders and/or people in their networks.
Martie North: The first barrier, “getting connected,” is a challenge because the philanthropic community is typically very connected through years of experience. Those within the community are often neighbors, attended the same university or are connected through individuals within their network of influence. It is hard to break into those circles if you don't have any connections; you are considered an unknown entity. If that happens, you have to overcome the hurdle of building trust and capacity, and you must also work harder to prove yourself. Building rapport and getting to know decision-makers can be a challenge due to limited opportunities.
Question: In light of your experiences, what recommendations would you provide to funders on how to support Black-led organizations addressing issues in Black communities?
Austin: In this industry, we lose track when people are of a different economic class, disenfranchised, culturally different or uneducated. The voices of the people who are in need of what you have should be at the table; they should not need a spokesperson. We must allow them to make decisions for themselves. Honor the voices of Black leaders and believe that they are experts in their field. Refrain from using the phrase “lack of capacity” against them, remove additional funding barriers and get rid of logic models. Treat Black-led organizations with the same respect you would offer a white-led organization—especially those with proven results.
Lampkin: Funders should know that, in most cases, the Black-led organizations working in the communities are the experts. The funders’ values and mission should not be projected on the community, and the decision-making for funding should involve the Black-led organizations doing the work.