Opinion: Celebrating the untold history of Black philanthropy

Aug 14, 2023

In an Op-ed originally published in the CT Post on August 11, 2023, Mendi Blue Paca, President & CEO of FCCF, discusses how Black Philanthropy Month brings attention to the significant and often overlooked charitable efforts of Black Americans.

Photo credit: Alex von Kleydorff/Hearst Connecticut Media.

Black Philanthropy Month spotlights the too-often untold stories of Black Americans’ far-reaching and unwavering commitment to philanthropic investment and action.

In every community across our country, Black philanthropists support causes as diverse as arts, education, homelessness, social justice and health.

Yet when many Americans are asked to picture a philanthropist, the first image that comes to mind often isn’t a person of color — a perception that significantly undervalues the historic and current contributions of Black Americans, who give a larger share of their wealth to charities than any other racial group in America. Nearly two-thirds of Black households donate to community-based organizations and causes, donating 25 percent more of their income per year on average than white households, according to a 2012 joint study from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

These investments often go under-reported and underappreciated, in part because many in the Black community don’t implicitly view these good deeds as “philanthropy.” It’s just what we do.

And it’s what we have always done. The fundamentals of philanthropy are so deeply embedded in Black culture that “philanthropy” happens without formal definition.

As author Valaida Fullwood poetically wrote in Giving Back, her book that profiles Black philanthropists: No building bears their names. No boardroom displays their portraits. No foundation sustains their legacy. And yet, the philanthropists best known to me are the ones in my family, church, and hometown.

These reflections ring true in my own life. I come from a family that is deeply rooted in philanthropy and public service. But growing up, we didn’t call giving back and helping others philanthropy — even though it was important in my family to not only support each other, but also those in our community.

My great-grandmother was the only Black midwife in Rock Hill, S.C., delivering countless Black babies in the community in the segregated south where Black women didn’t have the same access to hospitals and quality of care as white women. Her daughter, my grandmother, frequently provided financial support for members of our extended family as they migrated north in hopes of more opportunity.

Nobody called these acts philanthropy. But they unequivocally fit the definition.

Regardless of how they were defined, these acts of kindness had great worth. Yet the lack of recognition as philanthropy has helped further the false perceptions that feed inaccurate stereotypes in the broader culture about who philanthropists are. It can also limit the level of pride and inspiration around giving that should exist within Black communities.

Words have power. And philanthropy, originating from the Greek meaning “love of humanity,” is a powerful word.

That power should belong to all who look beyond themselves in service to others, regardless of the size of the donation or the amount of time or effort required to ease a burden for a family member, friend or stranger.

Supporting our neighbors, and by extension strengthening our communities, is not a zero-sum game. Those who fit the description of the so-called stereotypical philanthropist certainly deserve recognition and deep gratitude. In my work leading Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, I am privileged to count many of these philanthropists as mentors, role models, and friends. I am constantly inspired by their generosity and commitment.

Yet they are not the only ones who make a difference each and every day.

Fortunately, today, our community is beginning to finally recognize the longstanding philanthropy that has been happening in the Black community organically for generations.

Here in Connecticut, organizations like Fairfield County’s Community Foundation and the Prosperity Foundation are creating on-ramps that make it possible for more Black individuals and families to support the important work that’s happening in our communities in ways that make sense for them financially.

When you connect your giving with these organizations, you’re getting the added benefit of working with people who are doing the hard work of identifying the organizations and leaders that are making change happen at the community level. You are helping build the capacity of those closest to the issues and best positioned to create sustainable solutions.

Black Philanthropy Month provides the opportunity to highlight that philanthropists exist in every neighborhood, and every community. They make our world a better place. And they should be recognized and respected for their immeasurable contributions.