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Philanthropy and Racial Justice: Responsibility, Progress, and the Outlook for 2022

January 31, 2022 - By Mae Hong and Greg Ratliff

In 2020, amid the worldwide protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, the philanthropy sector saw dozens of pledges and commitments toward advancing racial justice. At the turn of yet another year, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Vice President Mae Hong and Senior Vice President Greg Ratliff look back at whether philanthropy made progress in its racial equity and justice efforts in 2021—and provide the outlook for additional developments in 2022.

What did we see in 2021 in terms of philanthropy’s efforts to pursue racial equity and justice?

Mae Hong: In 2021, there was a separating of the wheat from the chaff in terms of how funders and donors made good on their commitments to racial equity. There are clearly some funders that are working toward making long-lasting change—and this has become a permanent part of how they now see the world and work as a funder. And there are those for whom these commitments were sort of a one-time reactive thing and are now going back to where they started.

Funders that are getting deep into it are doing some serious internal work. Whereas 2020 was very externally focused, on how grant programs and strategies are showing up in the world with racial equity, 2021 was focused on internal work and the necessary changes to how philanthropic organizations operate, who’s on their staff, who’s on their board, how they make decisions.

Greg Ratliff: Overall, we’re seeing more initiatives that are focused on racial justice. We’re seeing more funders try to incorporate a racial equity lens or racial justice lens in their current programming. Additionally, in our conversations with prospective clients, people want to see our own diversity numbers. And in different planning engagements I have, they’re starting to push for more diversity among their vendors and service providers, which is a great sign. I’m seeing a larger number of companies and donors asking for diversity stats and asking, “Where are the women?” or “Where are the people of color?” or “What is your own racial equity plan?” That’s a big shift that we saw in 2021.

What’s next on the horizon for racial equity and justice in philanthropy?

Hong: I would say that the next frontier involves two things. The first involves a shift from equity being about individual disparity to about systems-level challenges and naming that as being race-based. Historically, funders have generally attempted to address racial disparities at the individual level, at the direct service level—for example, obtaining Medicaid coverage for 20,000 uninsured individuals (who also happen to be Black) —as opposed to acknowledging that there are systemic forces that are race-based.

Second, some people of conscience are wrestling with the question, “How am I willing to give up my power and privilege to make things more equitable?” And that’s not just about giving more money through their foundation. It’s about, “Am I willing to resign my position because I believe this position needs to be occupied by a person of color?” I know a couple of funders who have done that. Those are the kinds of questions that I think foundations are having to reckon with. And I’d say that, by and large, they’re doing a poor job—because nobody wants to give up their power and privilege.

What is the philanthropic sector’s responsibility toward addressing inequality?

Hong: I think that is the central tension for the sector that is going to define our work for the next 5 to 10 years. Ultimately, in the United States at least, all wealth has its roots, as its core DNA, the source code of it was built on slavery and genocide. Philanthropy must think about what it’s going to do about its complicity. How much is philanthropy willing to undo itself to make restitution and reparations?

This is also part of a larger conversation about concentrated wealth in the world and the extreme inequality that is now so pervasive, and philanthropy is just one example of that concentrated wealth. Philanthropy cannot have a reasonable response unless we have a conversation about wealth and the growing global inequality that exists. And that conversation is also happening outside of the sector, about the amount of power that a small group of billionaires has in the world.

Ratliff: There’s also a whole conversation happening around wealth and wages—about unionizing, about increasing the minimum wage. Workers have decided they’re not going to take it anymore. And they’re starting to get a response from the corporate sector.

What’s interesting is so much of the racial justice movement and language are viewed as uniquely American. But the reality is that you can find issues of oppression and wealth inequality everywhere. There are issues of exclusion and there are classes of people who are fighting for inclusion all around the world. There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t have these issues; they just play out differently depending on the context. And in the United States, you can see how the demarcated by race more than anything else.

In 2022, what will you be looking for in this space from the philanthropic sector? 

Ratliff: In 2022, I’m interested in watching and learning, of the people who are going deep with their equity work, how deep do they go?  And what does going deep mean?  Of the people that are new to the space, I’m interested in how quickly they can move forward. Will they sprint or are they going to be as slow as the last 40 years in terms of going up the learning curve?  And then, what can be done to bring alignment around a few key issue areas? What will emerge as the top issues to address?

Hong: I would honestly like the sector to just get comfortable acknowledging its complicity in benefitting from racial injustice, and in many cases perpetuating it. Right now, I feel like philanthropy still thinks of itself as being pure and untainted from how the wealth was created.

Ratliff: I’m also curious about white supremacy and the plight of white middle-class people. I feel like there’s been this myth or veneer that has protected lower-income white people from believing they are oppressed, too. And now they’re coming face to face with the reality that they are not part of the wealthy class that is deciding the rules. As that segment of society gets angrier, will that force more white people to reckon with wealth and power to think not only about people of color but their own people? And will we get a more equitable outcome in the long run? No idea. But I do feel like the dynamics are changing.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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