What philanthropists need to ask themselves right now

Amid the protests that have unfolded in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many philanthropists are asking the question: “Who can I give to?”  as they seek to stand in solidarity with the Black community in America.

During a period in which many Americans are focused, rightly, on racial inequities in our society, philanthropists are looking for ways to support the work of organizations and individuals committed to racial justice. That deserves praise. But there is another, more challenging question we think philanthropists need to ask themselves: “What can I give UP?”

Forward-thinking funders committed to doing good increasingly recognize that racism in America has resulted in a system of haves and have-nots. Moreover, many white philanthropists recognize that their wealth and their success has, in one form or another, been helped along (or at least not held back) by their race. Asking “What can I give up?” is a starting point for examining with a more critical eye the specific ways they have benefited from America’s racial hierarchy and how they can more effectively empower those who have not enjoyed the status that comes with being white in America.

Philanthropists can give up their pursuit of simple solutions. Too often, philanthropy tries to distill complex social problems into siloed singular issues. It feels much simpler to address, say, ineffective schools in a vacuum without contemplating the way educational achievement is impacted by housing, public safety, economic security, and access to healthcare. But what we see in the frustration and anger animating protests around the country and in the experience of Black and Latinx Americans is a complex system of inequality that stretches beyond any one issue. Philanthropists who are willing to give up the allure of simple solutions and seek to understand systemic problems at their root will achieve deeper and more lasting impact.

Philanthropists can give up a white-centric approach to giving and to evaluating the effectiveness of their giving. Many philanthropists look to apply metrics, timelines, and processes largely informed by their own experiences and values to gauge risk and measure impact. They are often reluctant to support leaders or approaches that don’t fit neatly within their largely white experience. Philanthropists who re-examine their processes and are willing to step outside of their comfort zones to explore and elevate voices and ideas that otherwise get short shrift will expand their impact in powerful ways.

Philanthropists can give up the microphone. Too many proposed solutions and too much of the capital aimed at solving social problems impacting communities of color flows from and to white leaders and culturally white institutions and nonprofits. Intentions notwithstanding, we will not achieve meaningful and sustainable change without elevating the voices and leadership of the communities philanthropy hopes to impact. Philanthropists must think of the diversity of the causes, organizations, and leaders they support not as a “nice to have,” but as a central tenet of their theory of change. In doing so, philanthropists can make space for new voices and catalyze more sustainable change.

When philanthropists and change agents explore the question, “What can I give up?”, they begin to uncover the many ways their privilege affects their philanthropy and limits their perspective. At Building Impact we have been inspired by those willing to embrace humility and lean into the discomfort this question can bring.

As funders look to take action in response to their new awareness of the pervasive injustice that has been the lived experience of so many, asking this question will help them avoid the pitfalls of the past in their efforts to build a more equitable world.