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Reimagining philanthropy’s commitment to racial equity

The realities of white supremacy, systemic racism, and violence against people of color and LGBTQ+ people — always present but rarely challenged by those with power — demand intense reflection and tangible action.

Tonya Freeman Brown, right, of the national nonprofit Resilience Force, comforts Darlene Poole, who helps run a family-owned nonprofit business engaging youth, as Tonya distributes flyers for COVID-19 testing to businesses in New Orleans on Oct. 5, 2020.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Living through the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 6 million people so far has changed us, and we will be navigating ongoing implications for years to come. From disruptions in the social, emotional, and educational well-being of our young people to the “Great Resignation” shifting our workplaces to the profound tragedy of losing nearly 25,000 Massachusetts residents to COVID-19, we have been altered.

As challenging as the past two years have been, we must seize the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned and how the pandemic could actually lead us to do — and be — better. Indeed, if there is one takeaway to embrace, it is this: We cannot go back to the way things were.


In the work of the philanthropic sector, of which I am a part, we have no choice but to reimagine our work to illuminate the path forward. The realities of white supremacy, systemic racism, and violence against people of color and LGBTQ+ people — realities that are always present but rarely challenged by those with power — demand intense reflection and tangible action.

Today, philanthropy finds itself with a critical opportunity to act in new ways. Many of our institutions were created to exist in perpetuity with substantial endowments that have grown even larger during the pandemic. We are in a position to act quickly when the moment calls for it, which is precisely what many of us did by moving resources in an expedited manner and enabling leaders to make decisions about their best use when COVID exploded across the region, and when our communities took to the streets to stand up for each other’s humanity.

So what are some of the key lessons that should animate philanthropy going forward?

First, foster authentic relationships with leaders and organizations closest to the challenges we aim to address. Such relationships build trust on both sides. They shift the funder-grantee relationship from a transactional one to a mutually supportive one, grounded in learning and shared commitment to action. As Crystal Hayling at The Libra Foundation, a philanthropy that embraces practices that reflect social justice, recently wrote: “If you want to create systemic change, step out of the driver’s seat and strap in as a passenger . . . funders need to give up the wheel and foot the bill for the fuel.”


The pandemic has illuminated once again the importance of investing in leaders on the front lines in our communities, as they are trusted resources and agents of change. We must also make shifts in our own practices as funders and demonstrate trust by simplifying application processes, listening more and talking less, investing unrestricted funds, and enabling leaders to have latitude, all of which will serve our own effectiveness as funders.

Second, work in partnership with others given the immense challenges before us. We should not confuse our substantial resources as funders with an ability to solve challenges alone. An emphasis on constructive and engaged partnership with other funders, with the public and private sectors, and with our nonprofit partners must drive our work. Private philanthropy plays a valuable role in catalyzing solutions, uplifting promising models, and investing in those who challenge power and question the status quo. Our most intractable challenges require these investments, and partnering with others is the only way to address the scale and scope of challenges today.


Third, seize this opportunity to eliminate obstacles to racial justice. The recent reckoning with our own racism as a country and its implications have been in bold relief during the pandemic. In part due to our isolation, we have been forced to confront these ugly realities. Many organizations and leaders quickly lined up to assert that Black Lives Matter, and resource commitments flowed.

That, however, is just a beginning. We cannot expect a burst of support to achieve racial justice. Rather, a commitment to racial equity must be integrated into all that we do and the lens through which we make choices as funders. Now is the time to redouble our commitments and to recognize that achieving racial equity and advancing racial justice does not result from a statement, a set of grants, or a funder initiative. It is the result of hard, sustained work across many areas in authentic partnership with others.

Further, as part of this, we need to interrogate our own cultures with clarity and empathy. Our leadership, which includes our boards, must be willing to have difficult, even uncomfortable, conversations. Indeed, these same boards should consider how to share their power with leaders who bring a diversity of lived experiences and expertise to the table, pushing us past conventional wisdom.

We have a rare opportunity now to ensure that we do not merely repair broken systems that perpetuate the deep inequities of American society. Rather, we must seize the opportunity to build something better for future generations.


Jim Canales is the president and a trustee of the Barr Foundation.