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What Boards Should Know About Black Philanthropy

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

August is my favorite month! In addition to celebrating my birthday, I recognize and celebrate the legacy of philanthropy that Black people have contributed to in our country. This celebration is Black Philanthropy Month, a collective effort founded in 2011 by Dr. Jackie Copeland. It has been defined as a time to “celebrate and recognize the contributions of Black philanthropic leadership that supports our communities and applaud the impact and power of Black collective giving to transform lives and make a difference.”

As a board consultant who facilitates DEIAB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Access and Belonging) training, it has become painfully obvious that lack of cultural competency is a significant barrier for diversification of boards and inclusionary practices in board work.

I began to ponder whether nonprofit boards really understand the significance of these gaps and why celebrating Black Philanthropy Month is vital for nonprofit work. Unsurprisingly, most white professionals in the nonprofit sector, including board members, are not aware that this national celebration exists at all. My work with them has revealed that even after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the death of George Floyd in 2020, the gulf that divides us continues to widen.

You Won’t Know Us if You Don’t See Us

This reminds me of a quote from The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, by Heather McGee:

I learned that although we knew about white people even if we didn’t live with them—they were co-workers, school administrators, and of course, every image onscreen—segregation meant that white people didn’t know much about us at all. For all the ways that segregation is aimed at limiting the choices of people of color, it’s white people who are ultimately isolated.”

Desegregation in the past and even now has not led white people to learn and understand Black people beyond what they see, hear, and read on tv, radio, magazines, and social media. In most instances, the narratives told through those mediums are not ours and they are not positive.

The Power of Black Philanthropy

There are so many biases and blind spots in the nonprofit mainstream about the power Black communities wield to make change through charitable participation and donations. The truth is the practice of giving in the Black community has been around for centuries. Many of the indigenous forms of giving from tribes on the African continent, such as “cooperatives, rotation and savings clubs, communal collective efforts, and burial societies were later brought to Southern plantations where Africans were enslaved after surviving the Middle Passage.” according to Tides philanthropic research.

The survival of Black people continues to depend on collective efforts of individuals, families, and communities to cover and support one another. It has meant and still means that the act of loving humankind has been our norm for hundreds of years.

“The term philanthropy does not fully embrace just how diverse the nature of giving is, in practice. At its core, the practice of philanthropy is rooted in an unspoken contract committed to the collective benefit of the community.” (Muhmmad, 2021)

Black people embrace and understand this and have relied on our full spectrum of giving to survive and thrive for centuries. It is time to shift the narrative and see the Black community as individuals who are actively engaged in philanthropy by both supporting and creating solutions to uplift one another. We know the definition of philanthropy extends beyond financial giving.

The Truths and Myths about Black Philanthropy

Much research has shown the absence of Black people on boards and in data is based on perceptions of our access, or lack of access to money and power. We are perceived as recipients of charity rather than donors who can pay board dues and support programs. Boards and fellow fundraisers should have a basic understanding about Black philanthropy. Below are a few motivations for engaging and giving from Black donors.

Findings and Motivations for Black Donors

  • Black households donate a higher share of their wealth than white households. They give 25% more of their income annually than white households, and two-thirds of African American households donate to organizations and causes, totaling $11 billion each year. This is significant because 48% of Black households who give report incomes below $50k per year.

  • Donors across all racial and ethnic groups help and give to those they know, but “Black Americans are more likely to help and give money to strangers in need. Seventy-six percent of Black donors said they give to strangers compared with just under 50 percent of donors overall.” (Diverse Donors Led the Shift to Social- and Racial-Justice Giving in 2020, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

  • Giving in the Black community comes in many different forms. Giving through the Black Church is synonymous with service and doing God’s work. Many Black donors, 64% in fact, engage and give because of their faith.

  • More than 30% of Black donors give because of family tradition and to support their unique heritage and tradition.

  • Many Black donors share that they engage and give because of the trust relationship they have with the person asking.

  • One in five Black donors say they would support more organizations if asked more often.

Ways Boards Can Change Behaviors and Embrace Black Philanthropy

  • Nonprofit leaders and board chairs must shift their beliefs about Black people and the contributions they make to the sector. Not only do we volunteer and attend events, but our collective giving to charitable causes is tremendous and respectable.

  • When building relationships with Black stakeholders, leverage faith and their beliefs about giving into conversations. Use discretion and tactful ways to acknowledge spiritual obligations as core values for them. Be mindful that this may not be true for every black board member/donor. Employ savvy cultivation methods to learn what is important to your donors regardless of color.

  • Understand that exclusionary practices that have led to white privilege and contributed to Black omission and rejection, has mandated a sense of responsibility to preserve and build our own communities. Remember this truth when sharing impact stories with potential board members and highlight how Black communities are better because of your mission.

  • It should not be surprising that most Black people do not trust white people. We are more likely to participate or give to a nonprofit if invited or referred by a trusting member in our immediate circle. Find Black champions to partner with as you begin to recruit new board members or invite new donors into your nonprofit’s story.

  • Do not allow your fear of Black people overshadow your desire to secure funds for a great mission. Nonprofit leaders who are courageous enough to ask Black professionals to serve on their boards or make financial donations will be successful and reap the rewards of diversity, lived experience, innovation, and creativity.

  • The National Council of Nonprofits writes “When a nonprofit's board members look like the community they serve, the organization will be better able to access resources in the community through connections with potential donors and/or collaborative partners and policy makers.”

  • To celebrate Black Philanthropy month, encourage your board to volunteer with a nonprofit led by a Black leader and that serves Black communities.

  • At board meetings in August, discuss Black Philanthropy and say the names of great philanthropists such as Madam CJ Walker, Mary McCloud Bethune, Muhammad Ali, and lesser-known philanthropists in your community.

  • For a broader list of Black philanthropists, funders, and grants for Black-led nonprofits, see this list from GiveButter.

Most all remember that Black Philanthropy is philanthropy!

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