Philanthropy in Black communities in the U.S. dates back 400 years to when West Africans were first forced to cross the Atlantic to prop up colonial agriculture as enslaved laborers. While they could not bring much with them, they did bring their traditions of community support. African American philanthropy is not new; however, investment in Black communities by philanthropists outside of those communities is gaining ground.
Following national uprisings against inequity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many charitable organizations and foundations faced a reckoning. These nonprofits have taken a hard look at staff and funding and found both in need of change. According to 2017 data from the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation, CEO and trustee positions in the field of philanthropy were 86% white. This is not without consequences, and the effects often manifest in a lack of grant-making to support needs in communities of color.
But while nonprofit organizations catch up, they should look to the established mutual aid organizations already present in underserved communities for ideas on how and where to invest.
Institutional Isolation and Black Communities
Black communities give more not only because it is tradition, but also because of institutional isolation. A controversial 2020 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, “Black Funding Denied,” states that “only 1% of grantmaking from the 25 [community] foundations” analyzed was “specifically designated for Black communities, even though a combined 15% of these 25 cities’ populations are Black.”
More positively, a 2020 study, “Foundations Respond to Crisis: Toward Equity,” found 75% of 236 participating foundations surveyed had “initiated efforts to support nonprofits that serve communities of color.” However, this study also found that these were not “permanent structural changes” that could lead to long-term solutions and investment in minority communities. Such changes would include policies regarding allocations for hiring and grant-making as well as finding diverse candidates for their boards of directors.
Key Facts About Black Philanthropy
Neighborhoods have many avenues of aid, such as cooperatives for housing and goods, mutual-aid organizations, church groups, community centers and food shelves. These groups have filled the gap left by a lack of access to traditional banking institutions, grocery chains and other organizations, all of which have avoided red-lined areas.
In an op-ed, the Tides Foundation laid out what they consider to be the “Five Facts to Know About Black Philanthropy” in order to better understand its evolution and practice. The first of which, “The practice of giving in the Black community has been around for centuries,” is outlined above. A few more key points, written by Hawwa Muhammad, a writer and social entrepreneur, we summarize below.
- The Term ‘Philanthropy’ Doesn’t Adequately Articulate Aid in Black Communities
Muhammad writes that “‘philanthropy’ is not commonly used to describe the altruistic nature of African American communities,” because it’s a grassroots practice and a way of life. It is not considered charity. Families and individuals give for the “collective benefit of the community.” She asks organizations to look beyond traditional definitions of philanthropy.
To those outside of these neighborhoods, the general mischaracterization of underserved communities is that they are needy or receive funds from NGOs or the government as an act of charity. Rather, these communities ought to be viewed through the lens of engaged community members who are already in touch with the needs of their community, have likely already engaged to solve the problem in some form, and require additional funding and/or aid to tackle those needs.
- Percentage-wise, Black Households Donate More
And, according to the Washington Post, Black donations can largely be categorized into three groups: ‘Cornerstone’ (giving to higher education and the arts), ‘Kinship’ (donating to organizations serving the Black community) and ‘Sanctified’ (supporting Black churches).” These three methods are outlined in a 2015 report from the nonprofit New England Blacks in Philanthropy.
There are philanthropists within Black communities working on initiatives and policies to uplift the wider Black community across the United States. Robert F. Smith is one. But who are the others?
Givify’s 2019 list identified five Black philanthropists whose collective charitable giving totaled nearly $1 billion. This list includes Smith, Eddie C. Brown, Charles Phillips (CEO of Infor), Gail Snowden and Deloris Jordan (mother of Michael Jordan).
More recently, the Grio’s 2021 list of celebrity philanthropists includes Tyler Perry, Megan Thee Stallion, Ciara and Russell Wilson, LeBron James and Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Over the last two decades, they have each given between $1 million and $2.75 million to nonprofit organizations, and each has started their own foundation.
An op-ed published by the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) in 2022 lists a number of Black philanthropists targeting historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Smith’s over $34 million donation to pay off the Morehouse Class of 2019’s student loan debt was included as the catalyst. Other major donors on the list include Oprah Winfry, Frank Baker, William F. Pickard and Michael Jordan.
In the op-ed, Jordan shares his belief that “Education is crucial for understanding the Black experience today. We want to help people understand the truth of our past and help tell the stories that will shape our future.”
Read more about solutions and opportunities in educational justice focused on by Robert F. Smith.