We are witnessing a proliferation of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic from the philanthropic sector, as private foundations, other grantmaking institutions, and philanthropy-serving organizations design and launch a variety of efforts.
For those funders that have articulated a commitment to racial equity in their work, the call to prioritize equity is all the more imperative during times of crisis. We know from experience that when institutions act fast, they are more likely to act on biases that reinforce, generate, and/or exacerbate inequities that negatively impact people of color, disabled people, and queer people.
In order to curtail the harmful impacts that acting fast often has on communities of color, in particular, I offer a list of questions that funders prioritizing racial equity should be asking. These speak to common racial biases often observed among grantmaking organizations — biases the sector should be more aware of and skilled at addressing as it designs, implements, and evaluates its responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Is your response race-silent or race-explicit? Experience tells us that race-silent analyses and strategies often reinforce and exacerbate racial inequities. Race-silent language in philanthropic work also tends to reinforce racial biases among staff, grantees, donors, and organizational partners. A better strategy is to name race and racism in your diagnosis of the problem and the design of your response to it. Are you clear about the root causes of racial inequities at play? Do you understand how the problem is negatively impacting Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, and Arab/Middle Eastern people? Do your strategies address the specificities and nuances of the increased threats communities of color are facing?
Are you addressing multiple systems of oppression, in addition to racism — for example, hetero-patriarchy and ableism? In other words, is your approach intersectional? Racism does not work in a silo. Rather, racist systems and structures have a co-dependent, conspiratorial relationship with ableist, patriarchal, and capitalist ones. Together, these systems of oppression have produced the racially inequitable structures and outcomes we see around us today. In other words, racial justice is explicitly tied to economic justice, disability justice, gender justice, and other forms of social justice.
Are there non-funders at the table? Funder-only teams exclude your MVPs. Effective and needed expertise resides within the grassroots, community-based leaders who often are themselves people of color, disabled people, and/or queer people. If you are designing your funding responses without the expertise of the people most affected by racist systems and structures, your equity efforts run the risk of being superficial. We urge all funders to co-create and embrace what disability rights activists have been saying for years: "Nothing about us without us."
Are you only funding incorporated 501(c)(3) nonprofit institutions, or can you direct funds to both incorporated and unincorporated groups? Only funding incorporated nonprofits is a limitation that members of the philanthropic sector need to acknowledge and respond to in both the short- and long-term. If your organization is not currently set up to provide funding to worker cooperatives, mutual aid networks, and unincorporated community groups, you are leaving out a critical part of the social infrastructure that provides support and services for historically marginalized communities. Many social justice groups have intentionally decided not to incorporate as 501(c)(3)s because of the limitations that status would place on their work. Interrogate the assumption that incorporated nonprofits alone are able to get the job done.
Are you assuming that "responsive" means "first-come, first-served"? When funders assume that the first organizations to apply for an opportunity are ones most in need and most capable of responding to a problem or crisis, they most likely are ceding an unfair advantage to historically and predominantly White institutions. Without checks and balances in place, processes that accept and respond to grant applications on a rolling basis fail to account for the fact that not all organizations have the same infrastructure and bandwidth in place to take advantage of institutional funding opportunities. More often than not, these disparities in infrastructure and bandwidth mirror inequities in the larger society, with nonprofits led by and serving people of color more likely to not have fully-staffed development teams or even one paid full-time staff person dedicated to fundraising. Funders should proactively reach out to groups led by and serving historically marginalized communities to understand the types of funding needs they have and respond accordingly.
Are you only talking about grant funding, or are other resources on the table? Your grants budget is not your only racial equity tool. It is common among funders who want to do racial equity work that they look for that work to happen in their grantmaking/programs departments. In reality, foundations oversee other resources — financial, social, and human — that can be directed toward more racially equitable outcomes, both internally and externally. One example: endowments. The vast majority of financial assets held collectively by independent foundations in the United States — an estimated $800 billion — are not being channeled outside the walls of those foundations in the form of grants. Rather, they are invested in the capital markets. How funders invest these endowments has always been a racial equity issue, and the opportunity today to direct those investments to industries and companies that are creating positive impact in communities of color and for other historically marginalized groups during the pandemic has never been more urgent.
Are you articulating and holding yourself accountable to a long-term vision for racial justice? Short-term responses without a long-term vision for a more racially just economy and healthcare system are likely to reinforce the racist status quo. As we respond to the COVID pandemic, the question at hand is less about whether or not we "return to normal," as many pundits are articulating. That "normal" has been unjust, dysfunctional, and ineffective, especially for people of color, disabled people, and queer people. Instead, get clarity on the long-term shifts and changes you are working toward in the short-term so you can actively re-imagine and re-calibrate for a more just future.
These questions are intended to be an exercise in better priming our funding institutions to be racially equitable in their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, asking different questions is a means of arriving at different answers — the kinds of answers we need from philanthropy to actualize racial justice in our communities.
Michele Kumi Baer (she, her, hers) is the philanthropy project director at Race Forward. Michele lives on Tongva and Chumash Land, what some currently call Los Angeles, and is a dedicated social justice practitioner, writer, and dancer. Connect with her on Twitter at @michelekumibaer.