How Donors Can Advance Racial Justice

George Floyd…Breonna Taylor…Daniel Prude…Jacob Blake. The long road to racial justice in this country has been rocky and painful.  It started long before these four people became household names and will, tragically, go well beyond their injuries and deaths.

Bruce DeBoskey of the DeBoskey Group

In response to these tragedies, many donors – whether in private or public foundations, donor-advised funds, or less structured philanthropy – have, internally and externally, offered important statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice and equity, with a commitment to anti-racism efforts.

These statements are commendable, and they are also just the beginning of the transformational work that must be done in philanthropy.  As Richard Woo, Senior Advisor in Philanthropy and Impact Investing, says: “The pledges of solidarity with the Black Community and standing against systemic racism go far beyond the polite statements of diversity, equity and inclusion that existed before in foundations, if they existed at all. Now is the moment to back bold words with bolder actions to transform broken systems to be more whole and just.”

How do we walk the walk?

Understand that being anti-racist involves much more work and commitment than simply not being racist; the latter is passive while the former is active.  This column’s space limitations make it impossible to address the issue comprehensively.  Nonetheless, here are some steps funders can take toward transformational change.

Begin by looking internally and deeply at your own organization (foundation, family, corporate philanthropy, etc.) and take inventory of what you’ve already done on the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) spectrum. Understand that DEI work is interdependent; you can’t effectively concentrate on one aspect without intentionally doing all. Examine your own personal and organizational barriers to achieving equity by looking at your

  • Leadership, both professional and volunteer, and ask whether it reinforces a culture and system in which positions of power uphold the status quo or whether the lived experiences of the community being served are reflected in the makeup of leadership from the board to executives and staff.
  • Operations, to determine if they serve the wishes of the donor or best support grantees and communities in achieving their vision of social change;
  • Investments and banking relationships, to determine if they perpetuate systemic racism and exploitation of human capital or if they replenish community wealth and build community assets.
  • Pay-out limits, to ask if you are treating the 5% minimum payout requirement for foundations as the floor or the ceiling for grant-making.  Is the goal of growing or maintaining an endowment more important than the goal of serving communities and funding transformational change?
  • Employment policies, to see if they’re less about counting people and more about people counting, seeking to understand and support the lived experiences and needs of the people with whom you work.

All of the internal reflection is a prelude to tangible, external actions in support of Black, Indigenous & People of Color (BIPOC) communities. This means philanthropy that increases funding, builds capacity, advocates just policies, and transfers power—regardless of your philanthropic mission. Race and racial inequities are evident across all missions including health care, education, housing, hunger, employment, the arts, the environment, criminal justice, voting rights and more.

Examine the role that impacted people and communities play in your decision making around grants. Are their voices being heard?  Are they involved in developing grant making strategies and in making grant decisions? Are BIPOC – led organizations the recipients of your grants?

Make a long-term commitment to address racial inequality. Congressman John Lewis taught us:

“Take a long, hard look down the road you will have to travel once you have made a commitment to work for change. Know that this transformation will not happen right away…. We used to say that ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part. And if we believe in the change we seek, then it is easy to commit to doing all we can, because the responsibility is ours alone to build a better society and a more peaceful world.”

Additional resources for a “deeper dive” There are many resources available for people and organizations committed to doing the work.  Among them are: “Just Transition for Philanthropy” by Justice Funders;  “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture” by Equity in the Center; and “We Must be in it for the Long Haul” by the Association of Black Foundation Executives.

This post originally appeared in the Denver Post on 9/13/2020. It is reposted here by the author with permission.

About Bruce DeBoskey

Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a Colorado-based philanthropic strategist working across the U.S. with The DeBoskey Group to help families, businesses and foundations design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans. He is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and workshops on philanthropy. More information at or @BDeBo.

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