Through an agreement with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles and profiles related to the "business" of improving society.

When White Philanthropy Funded Black Power

When White Philanthropy Funded Black Power

After Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on March 4, 1968, a coalition of black activists and a group of wealthy, white, liberal suburbanites hatched an experiment to improve race relations and the living standards of urban black citizens in Boston.

The black activists, named the Boston Black United Front (United Front for short) were strikingly more aggressive in their approach than the more collaborative National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which worked with funders on mutual goals. Inspired by Stokely Carmichael's Black Power movement and prompted to act by King's death, the United Front demanded more authority in governing the black community and more control over resources — including exclusive say over where donations went.

The white liberals formed a foundation to raise funds for the United Front that the coalition could then use to grant money, at their discretion, to projects, nonprofits, and businesses in black neighborhoods.

The high-minded experiment was short-lived and largely forgotten. But Claire Dunning, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, dug into a recently unearthed trove of archival documents to explore the context that gave rise to the arrangement, what it accomplished, and why it ultimately sputtered.

"Dunning's intervention illuminates a critical moment — the 1970s — when philanthropists were challenged by the demands of Black Power and civil rights; the anti-establishment criticism of the New Left; and the enduring structural inequalities of American life that took shape most dramatically in the urban crisis," says Julia Rabig, assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College.

In a draft research paper (""No Strings Attached': White Philanthropy, Black Power, and the Politics of Giving," working paper, 2019), Dunning documents the central role played by Ralph Hoagland. He had become a young millionaire through the founding and lucrative sale of Consumer Value Store, known now as CVS. A resident of one of Boston's wealthy, nearly all-white suburbs, Hoagland appreciated the pro-business orientation of Black Power activists and their desire for radical transformation. His plan germinated when, after King's death, the United Front presented the City of Boston with a list of demands, including changes in municipal policy, the renaming of public schools to honor African-American heroes, and calls for the immediate transfer of $100 million to the black community, perhaps from Harvard University's endowment.

This aggressive approach was rejected by Boston’s mayor and shunned by the NAACP. But it inspired Hoagland to recruit a three-hundred-strong donor list among his liberal neighbors and friends — a giving circle of sorts — and incorporate the Fund for Urban Negro Development, or FUND, as a pass-through foundation in May 1968. Membership in the FUND required at least $100 in dues, plus a commitment to volunteer business coaching or services one day a week if called upon.

FUND materials explicitly stated that Boston's black leaders had "the ability to solve the problems of the Negro ghetto" but lacked sufficient resources to do so and vowed not to interfere via "white controls, advice, or helpful hints."

This approach may seem naive today, Rabig explains, because "the professionalization of activism and philanthropy has accelerated, as has the emphasis on quantifiable accountability."

But Dunning found that FUND's members listened rather selectively to the United Front. They saw their roles not as mere donors but as mentors, lending credibility and wisdom until the black community was "ready." This thinly veiled paternalism inevitably led to tensions.

Documents from the archives "helped point out and make sense of the seeming contradictions of how FUND members supported Black Power activities in Boston while remaining limited in their understanding of how even their well-intentioned philanthropy continued to perpetuate racial and economic inequality," Dunning says.

Donors' ambitious pledges went largely unfulfilled, prompting the group to propose switching from a philanthropic vehicle to a for-profit investment model offering low- or no-interest loans only. Members abandoned FUND when their mentoring advice was rejected. By 1970, FUND was nearly broke. It formally shut up shop in 1972, although some of the black-led nonprofits and businesses that received funding continued for several years thereafter.

"The question of which 'strings' tether grantor to grantee, and the nature of their attachment, is crucial to the history of philanthropy," Rabig says. “Dunning makes a…contribution to the history of philanthropy by veering away from the work of major foundations to examine a highly local and somewhat informal experiment in direct philanthropy."

Marilyn Harris is a reporter, writer, and editor with expertise in translating complex or technical material for online, print, and television audiences.