After taking a hiatus from fundraising this spring, the Obama Foundation is positioning itself to become a major philanthropic force in the fight for racial justice, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation suspended its fundraising efforts to avoid siphoning off donations that might otherwise have supported organizations working to provide food, medical support, and cash assistance to individuals and families impacted by the virus. But after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others sparked nationwide protests against systemic racism, the foundation held a series of online events — including a forum featuring Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) in one of his last appearances before his death on July 17 — and began re-engaging donors in support of efforts to advance racial justice.
"We were receiving thousands of unsolicited online donations and phone calls from people saying that the Obama Foundation has the potential to be at the forefront of the work that needs to be done," David Simas, the foundation's CEO, told the Chronicle. "We want to be part of this."
Founded in 2014, the foundation has been raising funds for the $500 million Obama Presidential Center, which is slated to be built in a public park on the South Side of Chicago, and runs several youth and leadership development programs, including My Brother's Keeper Alliance and the Girls Opportunity Alliance. In one recent online event, participants called on viewers to visit the Obama Foundation website and donate to the Loveland Foundation's Therapy Fund, which supports therapy for Black women and girls, and support groups run by the Brave Space Alliance, which advocates for people who identify as transgender. According to the Chronicle, Simas declined to predict how the surge in donor interest that followed the killing of George Floyd might affect its fundraising totals for the year, after contributions fell 14 percent in 2019, to $141 million.
Some in the sector suggest that the foundation has not lived up to early expectations that it would serve as a philanthropic force in advancing racial justice — and that it is unlikely to do so now, the Chronicle reports. Shawn Dove, founder of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement — which was launched in 2008 as an initiative of the Open Society Foundations, spun off as an independent nonprofit in 2015, and will close its doors later this year — originally envisioned the Obama Foundation as a fundraising juggernaut that could help smaller groups across the nation. But, said Dove, "folks on the ground who were waiting to see a trickle-down effect of resources [donated to the foundation]...did not see it." Others, including Hill-Snowdon Foundation CEO Nat Chioke Williams, noted that the foundation, in focusing on leadership development initiatives rather than directly funding grassroots groups, has charted a risk-averse path, as many foundations do.
For his part, Simas told the Chronicle that the foundation remains focused on leadership development and suggested that while there is consensus on what policies are likely to be effective in addressing critical issues, there is a lack of "Obama-style" leaders who are "hopeful, resilient, accountable, and inclusive" to carry those policies out.