Reforming Philanthropy With a Racial and Social Equity Lens

Daniel J. Downer
6 min readDec 4, 2020

The coronavirus gradually spread throughout the world this year and altered many aspects of our lives. As time progressed, we began to understand more about COVID-19. It became increasingly apparent that race was a factor in who contracts and dies from the disease — across the U.S., a Black person is nearly 2.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than a white person. These tragic disparities laid bare the results of generations of systemic racism. We already knew that those living in lower-income neighborhoods, with less access to clean air or water, residing in substandard housing, in food deserts, with limited access to health care, and beyond, were more likely to experience worse health outcomes. Introduce a pandemic, and you have a magnified crisis for populations that have disproportionately lacked access to healthy lifestyles and experienced discrimination that compounded that lack of access.

As the pandemic began to take more lives, and societies around the world began to shut down businesses and other aspects of life to slow the spread of the virus, various economic consequences began to emerge. Here again, race became a factor. From mass unemployment to small businesses unable to secure capital, communities of color have been bearing a heavier burden. So many of the brave frontline employees working in supermarkets, buses and subways, drugstores, post offices, factories, and other places, while more privileged populations worked remotely, have been adversely affected by the spread of the virus. These populations are disproportionately people of color. We have to survive, so we go out and work. Because of pre-existing socioeconomic conditions, many people of color have not been able to physically distance, even at home. And many children have not been able to learn at home because they have limited access to computers or the internet. These are all components of a troubling picture of an economic crisis.

As the public health and economic crises developed, and set the table for several years of necessary rebuilding and reimagining, we were gruesomely reminded of another persistent crisis — racist violence, particularly against Black people. With roots in generations of slavery and lynching, modern-day police violence has remained fairly consistent. There are so many names of African Americans who have been murdered by police or by those who felt empowered to act like law enforcement. Sometimes these incidents are caught on video. This is increasingly the case. On many occasions during the 21st century, mass protest follows an incident of police brutality. In most of these instances, the perpetrators are not convicted of their crimes. In many cases, no one is even charged.

The month of May 2020 had already included two notable examples of unarmed Black people being murdered under these conditions — Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. On May 25, there was something of a tipping point: the slow crushing of George Floyd’s neck by one police officer while two other officers dropped their weight on the rest of Floyd’s body. Another officer watched. The roughly nine minutes in which the life was drained out of George Floyd were all on video, as he repeatedly indicated he could not breathe and called out for his deceased mother. The uncaring look on the face of the officer whose knee was placed on Floyd’s face was a striking and emblematic aspect of this horrifying scene. It demonstrated what so many activists have been suggesting — that Floyd’s life did not matter. Indeed, this incident was a spark. It lit a fire or ignited a bomb. While the month’s acts of fatal racist violence were not new, they pushed many people of all races to cry out. Activism in the streets has now spanned the globe.

The world has been grappling with a pandemic, with record numbers of people out of work, and now these struggles are converging with the most graphic reminders of seemingly intractable systemic racism displayed in shootings and asphyxiation. This is where we are right now.

There has been some pressure for philanthropy to take more racially specific approaches to their giving in recent years and to their credit, philanthropic responses to our public health and economic crises are on the rise. But that is not enough to truly create a transformative social change in policy and life.

My call to philanthropy: fund racial and social justice. Fund the hell out of it. Fund racial and social justice work that centers organizing and power-building to counter anti-Blackness. Fund racial and social justice work that centers the lived experiences, leadership, and communities of Black people. Fund organizations that foster a radical imagination and the creation of new ways of being that could potentially replace centuries of systemic and structural racist practices in our society.

And have the staying power to give Black activists and allies the space to develop effective organizing strategies to achieve lasting change.

Understand that specific programmatic interventions and strategies must serve a larger collective vision. Our struggle is mutual — and our liberation is mutual. Collective liberation cannot fully be realized until Black people are free. When philanthropy takes its focus off of addressing anti-Blackness, Black death continues to happen. Threats to Black life continue to happen.

Black lives have always mattered.

Black lives mattered when Tony McDade, a Black trans man, was shot and killed by police in broad daylight in Tallahassee, Florida.

Black lives mattered earlier this spring when data began to show that the mortality rate for COVID-19 is double that for Black people than for white people.

Black lives mattered in 2005 when the levees broke in New Orleans, flooding Black and low-income neighborhoods and leaving thousands of residents stranded on rooftops and in football stadiums pleading for help from FEMA after Hurricane Katrina.

Black lives mattered when 14-year old Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman in a grocery store in Mississippi.

Black lives have always mattered.

While many white people are feeling discomfort, this is no time for white guilt or white tears. This is the time to acknowledge the white privilege that keeps you safe is a weapon to most of us Black and Brown folk. This is the time to disarm yourself from this weapon of racial privilege. This is the time to gather your white family members, friends, colleagues, and community members and fight for the rights, freedoms, and self-determination of Black people.

Now, think of philanthropy as one big white family. I know first-hand the work that Black people, people of color, and white allies have to do inside of philanthropic institutions in order to move forward a racial and social justice vision and strategy, both in its grantmaking and its organizational culture. This is the unseen sweat equity that we often put into institutions so that we can do what we consider mission work that can fundamentally change society outside of these institutions.

Institutional philanthropy needs to acknowledge how it benefits from white privilege and commit to actively working to disarm this weapon of privilege before it can earnestly and holistically support racial and social justice.

Absent continual vigilance, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy will subtly sneak into organizational culture and practices. It shows up in the types of organizations that are funded and how those organizations must be structured. It shows up in how the work of grantee partners is evaluated, and which ones are disproportionately criticized or praised.

It also shows up in narrowing the focus of Black-led organizing efforts to specific program and project areas that fit specific and siloed grantmaking portfolios. It shows up in the silencing and/or removal of foundation staff that speak out against how white supremacy shows up in their own philanthropic institutions. It shows up in the shuttering of entire grantmaking programs and strategies that center Black people and people of color for the sake of issue-specific approaches.

Philanthropy has been down this road far too many times, and we know where it leads — to Ferguson, to Minneapolis, to Louisville, to Tallahassee.

Much like a virus, white supremacy is mutating and taking on new shapes that follow flows of capital and power. Philanthropy, you can help quell this by reimagining how your own capital and power can be redistributed to support creating a society where all of us have social freedoms, political agency, and personal autonomy.

Fund us like you want us to win.

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Daniel J. Downer

Champion for Black Queer rights, co-founder of the Black Boardroom Leadership Institute, and DEIB Consultant.