Institutional Philanthropy Must Heed the Call to “Black Philanthropy”

One of my earliest experiences of “Black philanthropy” happened when I was a freshman in high school. My parents opened our home to one of my sister’s friends who was having a very difficult time relating to her mother. She stayed with us for the better part of 6 months until she and her mom worked out their differences. Now, let me draw a very clear picture. Our family was neither wealthy nor rich–not even “hood rich.” In fact, our lights were out for about a week when Lisa lived with us because we were months behind on the bill. But sharing what we had with someone in urgent need was instinctive. And this practice is a cultural norm for Black folks in many parts of the world. We rise to the urgency of the moment to meet the needs of fellow humans.

This is the call of “Black Philanthropy” and Black Philanthropy Month. Founded in 2001 by Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland, the theme of this year’s Black Philanthropy Month–Fierce Urgency of Now! From Dream to Action–utilizes the call to action made popular by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement to make an even stronger demand for mainstream philanthropy to make racial equity real in the sector.

The word “philanthropy” has many meanings. Some of the most popular definitions include, “love of humanity,” “giving of one‘s time, talent, and treasure,” and “goodwill to fellow members of the human race.” The impacts of many philanthropic investments often run counter to these uplifting and people-centered descriptions of the word while masking the horrors inflicted upon the people who have and still do the actual work that results in the wealth of philanthropists.

Institutional philanthropy can do better. It is time that we stop “dreaming” with funding priorities that hamstring grassroots organizations by boxing them into specific and limited programs. We must rise to the moment of urgent action that trusts Black-led organizations to devise and direct their own solutions with funding that matches the urgency of the needs in their communities.

In 2022, more than 19 million people from 60 countries will count themselves as celebrants of Black Philanthropy Month and practitioners of Black Philanthropy Month’s Global Black Funding Principles. These ten concepts define steps to making funding more equitable and beneficial with our collective efforts to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. They include calls for institutional philanthropy to give “long-term, multi-year funding,” to “support an intersectional human rights agenda,” and to respect the “Preservation of the Black philanthropy practice of self-reliance and mutual support.” There is synergy between these principles and the tenets of culturally restorative fiscal sponsorship that lies at the core of Nafasi Fund’s approach. Both recognize the accomplishments and center the needs of Black people and the Black-led organizations that serve our communities. Both call for philanthropy to make significant investments in the infrastructure of Black-led organizations and the healing of Black people and Black communities from the harms of white supremacy. And finally, both invite mainstream philanthropy to be in “right relationship” with Black-led organizations–meaning that trust must be at the root of our relationships.

Black philanthropic pursuits are not only demonstrative of goodwill, but they are also an expression of deep love for humanity. In Black communities, these charitable activities show up in many ways from planned giving by the wealthy among us to rent parties, “passing the hat”, and more formal burial scheme societies. Our generosity comes from a fierce urgency. We don’t have the luxury of simply dreaming of a better world. The elders that slipped a few dollars into our hands at our last church services before we ventured off to college or the military knew that. They were moved to action by the urgency of now where the manifestations of their dreams stood before them in need. While the call for institutional philanthropy to be more equitable is important, I truly believe that the sector needs to become more Black in principle if it is to live up to its ideals.

E. Bomani Johnson is executive director of Nafasi Fund, a Black-led fiscal sponsor founded in 2021 that champions the skills, strengths and insights of Black-led organizations audaciously spearheading social change in their communities.