How Black Philanthropy Is Transforming The Way Communities Give

Sep 02, 2020

August is globally recognized as Black Philanthropy Month, celebrating the collective power of Black communities and their allies to transform lives through the power of giving – and raising awareness to inspire and strengthen this work. Last month, our President & CEO Juanita James sat down with Bithiah Carter, President of New England Blacks in Philanthropy, to talk about her mission of leading a paradigm shift that is enhancing philanthropy’s ability to address the needs of Black communities.

James: Tell me about Black Philanthropy Month. How did it start, and what does it mean?

Carter: In 2009, the United Nations announced they were creating an international Year and Decade of People of African Descent. And in 2011, Dr. Jackie Copeland decided to commemorate this wonderful movement by starting Black Philanthropy Month. She wanted to look not just at traumatic events that happened in the past that led to deficits such as racism and poverty, but also to celebrate the wonderful things that have happened, as well.

Black Philanthropy Moment is an exciting and wonderful way to learn more about our history and collective gifts to our communities; and to look forward to ways we can give back through our time, talent, treasure and testimony.

17 million people around the globe are touched by this event. They do all sorts of things to celebrate, whether it is launching their own fund or hosting programs to talk about and celebrate Black philanthropy within their communities.

James: How is your organization celebrating Black Philanthropy Month?

Carter: Here in Richmond, we have been working on a new report called Giving Black Greater Richmond. During National Black Philanthropy Month, we will kick off a year of Giving Black® where we will not only celebrate some of our earliest donors, but also learn more about our donors.

Too often, we think of philanthropy as being something that belongs out in the ether, to someone else in other communities – that you have to have a large number of zeros behind your name to be able to give.

What we’re celebrating is the fact that the majority of philanthropy comes through small donors. Black people have been philanthropic for generations, and the work we’re doing is based on 400 years of Black giving in Richmond. This month, we are kicking off those stories of philanthropy that came prior to slavery, through slavery, then through Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, and even until today.

But we also want to think about the future. Another important part of this month is trying to think through where can we take this moment. How do we use philanthropy to our advantage? How do we Give Black® into the future?

That’s the piece we feel is really exciting. How can we help to shape and usher in the world we want to see, and then fund it through our philanthropic gifts? How can we ensure we are using our dollars to drive the issues and entities we want to see survive?

James: How did you come to the world of philanthropy?

Carter: My family has always been philanthropic. I grew up attending a Seventh-day Adventist church, and there was always a mission or something to support. We were made aware every Sabbath that we had to support an HBCU, Oakwood College, that is connected with my faith.

I remember in second grade, the United Way came to our elementary school to ask us to give. We were so excited to get our little United Way pens and know we were contributing to something bigger than ourselves.

So I grew up with the notion of giving back, and supporting things that were important to me and to our community.

When I moved to New York for college, the first thing I thought to do was get involved in my community. So I joined New York Cares. That was one of the first times I started to think about philanthropy as a mechanism of change, because I could see through my philanthropic gifts that we were really starting to make a difference. You know, I worked in the financial sector for years and I wrote the check.

Then my husband and I moved to Boston, and I started searching for what else could I do. I transitioned my career, and started thinking about what I wanted to do and what would make my heart sing. I had an opportunity to work with Milton Little, who was the head of the United Way in Boston. Through that platform, I had a wonderful portfolio and could give away money. But I realized was that while there were Hispanics and Asian American and Pacific Islanders in philanthropy, there wasn’t really a space for Black grantmakers to come together.

So I worked with Ron Crumb and Milton Little to create New England Blacks in Philanthropy (NEBiP). We came along right at the right time. The Association of Black Foundation Executives, a philanthropic partnership for Black communities, got a second wind under great leadership of Susan Batten, and is now really a force to be reckoned with. Under her leadership, Susan was able to help build about 12 other Blacks in Philanthropy chapters across the country.

We were excited about that work and continue to stay involved, but something was gnawing at me. A conversation I had with Barry Schrage from Combined Jewish Philanthropies pushed me to the work we are doing today. He asked some very poignant questions: who were the black donors, and what are they interested in? And I realized I could talk to him about white donors, male donors, women donors; but I really couldn’t say much about black donors.

James: I don’t think there has been a lot of attention to Black donors, or there may be a misunderstanding that they are focused on their churches or Alma maters but not other philanthropic causes. Is that what you encountered during your own discovery?

Carter: Absolutely. Everyone felt as if they knew what black donors were doing, but no one could cite anything. When we really looked into the research, we found very little information. So we decided to rectify that.

We were very fortunate that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation came along as a supporter of this work. Dr. Alandra Washington, the Foundation’s Vice President for Transformation and Organizational Effectiveness, not only believed in us, but really pushed us to think through what organizations black donors are giving to, how to better understand their behaviors and patterns, and how to help people think through where they want to be in the future.

James: Was there a catalyzing moment that really inspired you to do this work?

Carter: As I started this work in Boston, I was asked to speak to a group of young black girls about philanthropy. I arrived a little early and started a conversation with a few of the girls. Then their program manager showed up and said, “Oh, great. Ms. Carter is here to talk about philanthropy and her work.”

The girls looked at me and said, “You’re going to talk to us about philanthropy? I thought you were going to be white.”

And I thought, “Oh my goodness. I have to do something.” That is the image I think about all the time that really propels me to dispel the myths of who is a philanthropist, and why.

James: Is there an example of a time your effort and investment made such a difference that it reaffirmed your reason for doing this work?

Carter: We were presented with an idea on how to change the path of technology in Black communities, particularly for young girls. We all know the stats – only 2% the technology workforce is Black, and even fewer are women.

A woman named Bridget Wallace who has been doing this work for a very long time had the idea of having a house where young women could come to learn technology skills, have a safe place to live and grow their entrepreneurial skills. They would be able to move differently in the tech space.

When Bridget came to us, she was struggling with the internal financial piece, with how create a board and really get started. NEBiP was able to help by becoming a fiscal agent and introducing her to other donors and networks. It has pushed her growth and outcomes, and jumpstarted her programs. She is moving towards housing 20 young women in the near future, and is helping them start their own businesses and put them in existing businesses.

That is exactly what Giving Black looks like. Bridget has been able to meet Black donors who want to invest in the community, and use that money to put people on a path to success in a field that doesn’t have a lot of Black representation and you can’t always find an open door. Partnerships like this help NEBiP stay on our path of being able to inform, reform and transform philanthropy.

James: Are there questions or concerns you hear about focusing specifically on Black donors?

Carter: Well, that is a funny statement, right? When we sought to name ourselves New England Blacks in Philanthropy, sometimes people found it to be an oxymoron. They say, “Your name is New England WHAT in Philanthropy?” It’s almost as if their brain can’t quite take it there.

There’s such a focus on deficits and what the Black community lacks, and there’s rarely a focus on what we have to offer – not only now, but all that we have brought from the past. As we think through the history we’ve been fed, Black philanthropy has been left out of that story.

James: How has your work made a difference in the communities you have been involved in, and what difference do you hope it will make in the future?

Carter: This is my favorite question, because I truly love this work. The difference it makes starts the moment we enter a city to start a survey. In every city, from Boston and Cincinnati to Richmond, there’s an excitement. It’s a buzz that starts to happen when they find out we’re going to talk about Black philanthropy.

When we go into a city, we normally meet with a group of people, and you can almost see the transition of them thinking about themselves as a community of receivers to a community of givers.

When we did our first study, a very prominent woman here in Boston who is a mentor of mine said, “You know, Bethesda, this is the first time anyone has called me a philanthropist.”

Indeed, she is a philanthropist and she gives generously, probably $25,000 to $50,000 a year. I would definitely call that a philanthropist. She does a lot in the community, but no one had really looked at her and said, “You are a philanthropist.”

We hear that story over and over. In Richmond, the transition of people seeing themselves as philanthropists and recognizing the power of their philanthropy was tremendous.

We interviewed a woman who, for many years, raised money to support a local library in Petersburg. She walked us through the story of people seeing her as this nice woman trying to do what was good for her community. And she said, “You know what? I’m a philanthropist. As we are starting to talk about this, I’m really seeing myself as a philanthropist.”

And it’s true. She has not only had the ability to transform her community, but to bring others along in that transformation. We hear these types of stories over and over.

The other part of this work is raising up the past, and understanding how philanthropy has been with us since the beginning. For instance, Maggie Walker, who started the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond in 1903, was a tremendous Black philanthropist – but not many people outside of Virginia know of her.

So it’s our job to not only talk about philanthropists of today, but also about the legacy of Black philanthropy through the past so we can bring it forward with us to the future.

James: I recently read about a relatively young Black Princeton alumni making a $20 million contribution to the university. What are your thoughts on that?

Carter: I was excited about Kwanza Jones’s gift to Princeton. What I thought was fascinating was that it was an equity move as well: she asked for Woodrow Wilson’s name to be removed from the university. We often think of philanthropy as this wonderful charitable thing to do. But philanthropy, I often say, is also the new golf course. It’s where deals are made.

Ms. Jones and her husband committed this gift in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion; and it convinced the president of the university to reverse the way he thought about Woodrow Wilson’s name living on as a legacy of Princeton. I don’t think that reversal of heart would have happened without the donation.

James: The COVID crisis has highlighted our need to address disparities in a very fundamental way, so we can strengthen our entire economy. I’m excited by the successes you’ve already achieved, and to work with you further to help ensure Blacks in philanthropy play a catalytic role in creating systemic solutions that move Connecticut forward.

Carter: I am super excited about that as well. We’ve had some hard-won success in Cincinnati. The Giving Black Cincinnati group has started a giving circle, and is well on their way to raising a million dollars. A fund was also started as a result of our Giving Black work there, and is nearly halfway to the goal of a million dollars.

Here in Boston, we have also started a new fund. We are working with Black executives here, and they have raised almost $20 million towards addressing inequities.

James: Are you expanding beyond the Black community to involve more cultural groups in philanthropy in a way that has not happened before?

Carter: Yes. It’s not what we expected, but when we released our report Giving Black Boston, other communities raised their hand and said, “Hey, what about us?”

There’s not much known about the Latino or Asian community, or even white women. There was some information, but the data we found on philanthropy was rather general.

So here in Boston, we’re completing our report Giving Boston: A Comparative Analysis between Black, Latino, Asian, and White Giving. We’ve heard there are a lot of white people that have been left out of the conversation and have still have this notion that you must be Bill Gates in order to give. Their stories have been left out, as well.

We are hoping to release this report in early January, looking at a comparative analysis between how and where various communities give – what’s different, and what’s similar. For organizations like the community foundations, it will be very helpful.

We know one message does not fit all, but how do we ensure that there is no closed door in philanthropy? We feel reports like ours are necessary to not only understand our population, but to be able to invite our populations in so they can also give of their time, talent and treasure.

James: How is the current environment changing the way you reach out and engage your various constituents?

Carter: The pandemic and social unrest has awakened something in people. I won’t say they’re quite woke yet, but I will say people are listening differently. We recently had a Zoom program with Dr. Kendi on how to be an anti-racist, and were surprised how people responded. People are hungry for change.

We have found ourselves in a space where the current environment is not working. The pandemic was like Pandora’s box, and everything has flown out. No matter if you are affluent or financially deprived, you’re still worried about your child’s education, your economic mobility, your health.

We have found this is an opportunity to really think through how we have become comfortable with inequities. A year ago, if we held a program saying “Do you want to be an anti-racist?” maybe 60 or 70 people would show up. Now, the moment you mention the word, thousands are showing up.

As we can see from the New York Times bestsellers lists, people are interested in “How can I change life for my children?” And I would say not just white people – everyone is having this conversation. There has really been a social awakening that philanthropy has to take charge of and get in front of, instead of riding the wave behind it.

In talking to people, they want change. We even have Mitch McConnell now talking about social justice. That didn’t happen two or three years ago. And through this pandemic, we have seen our lives upended collectively in a way that is usually reserved for one social status or sector versus another.

So we are in this moment to think through, as we come out of this, what does this mean? How do we educate, what does remote learning look like? What is the role of philanthropy? How do equitable education outcomes look different post-pandemic versus pre-pandemic? How do we think through telehealth and all the other basic need issues or outcomes we have been trying to achieve over the last 20 years?

In a way, things sped up and we were just forced to do things differently. And now I’m curious, as we hopefully come out of this pandemic over the next six months, are we going to revert back to old ways or are we going to continue this march forward? And forward is the way that we engage, sustain and maintain communities.

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