Funders’ role in protecting marginalized communities during the next four years

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[Image description: Green stalks of wheat. It looks to be a closeup of a wheat field. The wheat flowers are silvery green, and the leaves are light green.]

Last week, my organization, in partnership with several other orgs, called for an urgent meeting between funders and nonprofit leaders. “Protecting Marginalized Communities During the Next Four Years.” It was just a few days of notice, and I was nervous people wouldn’t show up. Over 100 did, half funders and half nonprofit leaders from diverse communities. For three hours, we checked in with one another, shared stories and ideas, and discussed actions.

There are certain days in my career where I return home exhausted and drained, but simultaneously grateful to get to do this work, and to get to do it with brilliant and passionate colleagues. This was one of those days. Although many of the stories shared were painful and alarming—a Muslim colleague detailed the fear and danger she experiences every day taking the bus; two Native colleagues discussed the challenges their communities face at Standing Rock—the energy and support and sense of community were palpable.

I have several observations that came from this event. Such as the importance of prioritizing relationships during times of crisis. An insidious result of injustice is that it isolates us from one another, and it allows those of us not directly affected to intellectualize, to think about it in the abstract. To combat it, we must be intentional about listening to those most affected, and we must make time to reconnect with and recommit to one another, even before taking action.

But one observation that stuck with me, and which I want to explore today, is the paradox of marginalized communities being expected to lead, while not being given the trust and the resources needed to be successful.  

For the event, the planners and I came up with the guiding question, “What do marginalized-communities-led organizations need in order to protect and advance their communities?” It led to some great conversation. But a colleague stood up and reminded us that this question again places the burden on marginalized communities to take care of systemic injustice. All of us need to be involved, all of us have responsibility to create the world we want, not just communities that are most affected. Another colleague added that we keep focusing on the “needs” and not the assets of diverse communities.

It is so ingrained in our culture to see marginalized communities as weak and in need of protection, even as we expect them to lead the fight. This paradox leads to communities being under-resourced, yet we still demand they be involved with every fight. Someone put it this way: “We have the same expectations of these [marginalized-communities-led] organizations as we do with mainstream orgs, but we just remove a zero when we cut the check to them.”

This is something I’ve written about before in Are You or Your Organization Guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement, and The Infantilization of Marginalized Communities Must Stop. I mentioned how these destructive mindsets are perpetuated by the lack of trust that communities have solutions to challenges, the definitions of what good “capacity” and “data” and “readiness” look like, the aversion to risks, the punishment of communities for not “getting along,” the unrealistic expectations for marginalized communities to prove themselves with no or limited resources.

These and other reasons have led to the severe underinvestment in communities of color and other marginalized communities and the organizations led by them. An argument can be made that this underinvestment over decades helped to bring about this current social and political climate that sees an increase in intolerance, hate crimes, and generalized fear and anxiety. We have not invested sufficiently in these communities to be civically engaged, to understand policies, to vote, to run for office. And now we face the results. It’s like we told a bunch of farmers, “You know what? You guys don’t have enough capacity, or strong enough data, and your grant proposal didn’t score well enough, so we’re not going to help you buy seeds to plant.” And now not just these farmers, but all of us are at risk for starvation.

Honestly, the leaders I’ve been talking to are fired up and ready to fight. But we are also really exhausted. Nonprofits, especially ones led by marginalized communities, are shouldering too much of the burden. Many of the leaders I heard from have been leading and responding to the various consequences of the travel ban and the uptick in xenophobia and racism. They are still running their regular programs, but now there is an increased demand for services, and on top of that, they must also be involved with resistance efforts. With usually the same level of resources. This is a recipe for burnout, and we have to do something about it quick. We must sustain organizations serving marginalized communities, as we need to them to keep going for the long-haul. It’s only been a month into the new administration. We still have at least four years to go, and many leaders and nonprofits at the forefront of the battles are already stretched thin. The role that funders play is more vital than ever, but to be effective, we have to reconsider a few things.

Here are some recommendations I gathered from speaking to leaders from marginalized communities, especially communities of color:

Assess how much you’re investing in organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities: Go through all your investments, and determine how much actual funding—and what percentage—you’re investing in these organizations. Led by, not just serving. Everyone can claim to serve diverse communities, a claim that many larger organizations have been using to justify getting funding that should go to grassroots organizations. I’m talking about how many organizations have EDs and board members who are from the communities they serve. These are other factors are critical. A basic tenet of Equity is that the communities most affected by injustice are leading in the fight against it. Larger, more established organizations do important work and are much needed, but we’ve been neglecting organizations led by the communities they serve. 

Add back the zero. This pervasive notion we have that grassroots orgs led by marginalized communities cannot handle large amounts of funding is as patronizing and insulting as it is destructive. I’ve seen mainstream organizations get funding in the multi-millions—sometimes with little backing data, and often to very useless or even damaging results—yet when organizations led by marginalized communities propose a fifth of that, the response is often shock, even offense. If we have any hope of fighting injustice in this political climate, funding to marginalized communities needs to increase tenfold.

Increase your payout: As I mentioned here, “When our communities are hurting, the right response from foundations is not to hunker down and save for a rainy day. It has been raining on many people, and now a monsoon is coming. The 5 percent annual payout rate required by law is the floor for foundations, not the ceiling. If there was ever a time to increase it, it’s now.”

Change your priorities around how you select which orgs get funding: We need to shift funding decisions from which orgs write the best proposal and have the best “capacity” and start considering factors such as do at least half their board members and the majority of their senior staff come from the communities they’re serving. Whether their logic model is awesome is not nearly as important as whether their staff have the cultural and language skills to serve people. Whether they have a detailed enough budget cannot be more critical than the role they play in the community.

Stop punting to individual donations: As I mentioned in “Why individual donation strategies often do not work for communities of color,” the statistics that the majority of nonprofit funding comes from individual donors is misleading and has been used as an excuse to not invest in grassroots organizations. When we disaggregate the data, organizations led by marginalized communities rely heavily on institutional funding. While these nonprofits should develop a strong individual donation strategy, we all know that it takes significant resources and time before it pays off. This is why foundations, which can quickly infuse significant funding when needed, play a vital role to supporting grassroots orgs. Individual donors, meanwhile, can help greatly by focusing their giving on smaller, marginalized-communities-led organizations. 

Stop listening to the siren song of “strategic philanthropy”: If I had a nickel for every time I hear of a brilliant, community-driven solution that runs smack into the wall of “that doesn’t align with our catalytic/strategic/paradigm-shifting/innovative/disruptive funding priorities that we created two years ago,” I would have, like, 70 cents. We have all been trained to think strategically, to have strategic plans. We believe we are most effective, and that we are doing the right thing when we stick to our plans. But plans are often flawed to begin with, because we didn’t have the people most affected by injustice leading in the creation of the plans. Plus, the problem we face is that injustice is often more agile than we are. To be effective, we must be equally nimble, if not more so, and that means abandoning plans and adapting new ones as needed.

Take risks and accept failure. And do it faster: If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today and he said “I have a dream…,” the response from so many funders right now would likely be, “Your dream is great. But where’s your data? Do you have a track record? How do we know this will work? Where’s your logic model? How will you sustain this ‘dream’ after our support runs out? How do you align with our strategies? Is your dream scalable? Why don’t you write this proposal and we’ll get back to you in nine months?” We cannot achieve Equity if we do not accept risk and failure. Injustice is complex. If it were simple, we would have ended it already. It’s not, so we have to be willing to try different things, and accept that not everything we try will succeed. And we must do it all much faster.

All of us must think and do things differently. A colleague from a foundation told me of how when Hurricane Sandy struck, funders and nonprofits quickly responded. Priorities were changed, emergency funds were established, nonprofits and funders dropped everything and worked closely together. The same colleague observed that people have not been seeing this current political climate as severe a threat as a physical storm, maybe because it’s more abstract. But it is just as deadly. Lives are at stake. Families are being torn apart. Communities are in fear.

To be effective in addressing these challenges, today and for the next four years, we must treat this as we would treat an actual storm. And we must believe that this is everyone’s fight. There is no longer “their communities” or “those communities.” As MLK Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We may not identify as Muslim or Latinx or Native or Black or people with disabilities or rural or poor, but the discrimination against and attacks on these groups affect us all. Most of us in this sector already believe that. The challenge is extending that concept to the organizational level. We must believe that when organizations led by marginalized communities are strong, we all are. And to ensure they are strong, all of us but especially funders have a critical role to play by being an equal partner with organizations and communities. 

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  • Melissa B

    Playing devil’s advocate here a little bit… while I agree with most of your points, you seem to be saying to give more money to small organizations with less than great budgets, less than great logframes, outside of their strategies, etc. Ok, fine, but then we need to talk about accountability.

    What do we need to add in to the selection process that allows the foundations and other funding institutions to be sure that the money is going to something (‘trust us’ is not good enough) and that the financial accountability will be there?

    For some funding agencies, failure of an intervention is acceptable – if we know that the logic behind the original idea was sound, or if we think it sounds like a good idea that we’re willing to see how it works out, that’s fine. But for most, failure from a financial accountability perspective is not at all acceptable.

    We’re ignoring one of the main reasons that money (and larger amounts) go to the bigger organizations that may not be as connected to the communities and/or issues – the financial risk associated with them is often much lower.

    So, how do we make the financial risk associated with the smaller/ more grassroots organizations lower as well (if the answer isn’t smaller, or shorter grants with more often reporting requirements)?

    • CCDC ACTION

      The way you take the risk and deal with accountability is by the reputation of the org in it’s community and by the leaders. One of our funders recently told us his strategy which helped him become hugely successful as a businessman. He said “he bets on the jockey not the horse”. If the organization is trusted by their community and has leadership from their community that will assure accountability. WHY? Because the leaders will be accountable to the people in their own community–the people we are accountable to are not just colleagues but friends, familiy, and our own support system. This does not mean we never fail, never make mistakes but it does mean that this is NOT just a job for us but our lives. The dedication that comes from constituent-led organizations is going to surpass anything else–and the nonprofit community is pretty dedicated so that says a lot.

      Also, if there is a weakness in some area then help that organization. If they do not have a finance whiz on their board find one that supports the values of the organization. While you do that set up a scholarship so some folks from that affected community can get the formal education/credentials. Foundations can be amazing partners and be helpful to constituent-led organizations. You can check in with phone calls and ask how we are doing without making us do endless complicated reports. You can ask if we have any training needs and then provide support to have those needs met. You can ask how our staff is doing and stop to chat when at our offices for just a minute and thank them for their hard work. Recently a program officer that works with us sent an email telling us that they would provide some needed additional support one of our folks needs to complete a particular task. That made all of us feel supported in a way that goes way beyond the dollars. Several of our program officers have called or written over the past month to just ask “how are your folks doing?” This is what is helpful.

      Right now leaders of constituent-led organizations have to put our own fear for the threat to our own lives aside to be supportive to our staff and communities. We have to balance what we say, to whom, and at all times watch for possible retaliation against our staff or our communities. Vu is so right that what we need now is support.

      Many of the constituent-led organizations have been around and doing good work for years if not decades. I know for the organization that I am honored to direct, our ability to be accountable increased dramatically when two things happened. Some wonderful Colorado foundations took a chance on us and provided substantial support so we could do the work instead of dodging creditors. Also, a couple people with skills and credibility from outside of our community were willing to provide assistance as Board members–and they did so with the full understanding that our community must continue to lead and set the agenda. In joining with us they are now a part of our community (in an honorary way). It takes amazing people to be able to do this without taking over but those people are out there. If you are one of those people that has some skills that may be scarce in marginalized communities offer them–and you do not need a seat on the board to do so.
      Mentor a staff member to give them increased skills so the skills will be in the actual affected community. Having the blessing of both increased funds and help from people with skills we were missing without being asked to give up what makes us effective (being run by and for our own community) has increased our effectiveness and accountability greatly–though we were always accountable.

      People from marginalized communities understand that resources of the organization are resources of their community. I have to remind my staff to turn in reimbursement for mileage or out of pocket expenses and often they say things like “I don’t want to take the community money”. People lucky enough to have staff positions in our communities often experience a “survivor guilt” because even if it appears we are underpaid compared to the rest of the nonprofit world, we are usually better off than our peers. We feel a deep obligation to make sure that every penny spent either on salary or other items is money well spent. This is personal.

      Vu is correct in that marginalized communities are often expected to just take on more and handle issues -we are too used to doing this alone and this would be a great time for those with more privileges to step up and pass through some of their funds and then ask their funders to fund more equitably. This is where the rubber hits the road. Even constituent led organizations have a responsibility to help each other.

      As a disabled, Jewish, lesbian I have spent a lot of time studying the holocaust (for years not just recently). The biggest different between then and now is that now people are speaking out. The outrage is great and justified but it is important to remember this is a long-term fight and the problems did not begin overnight. We are seeing a culmination of decades of civil rights backlash and we need to be in this for the long haul. So it is great to see many people tweeting and rallying and protesting and writing letters. Please keep it up. I will end with a paraphrase of one of my favorite quotes. “If you have come to help me because you feel sorry for me–no thanks. If you have come to join me in our movement because you feel that as long as any of us are oppressed none of us our free –welcome and thank you.

      I promise you will find no more accountable organizations than organizations that are genuinely run by and for these affected communities.

    • maggie osborn

      Why are foundations willing to risk their dollars in the stock market and in financial investments but not in people and communities. Isn’t there risk on both sides? My money is better spent learning from the investments in people and communities.

      • Michael Brand

        Investment strategies for foundations are intended to MINIMIZE risk. They are, both morally and legally, required to spread out investments in a way that preserves capital.

    • Justus Eisfeld

      One financial risk that you are not addressing however is the risk of the money not doing what it is intended to do: serve the community. I have seen it time and again that a program was perfectly accounted for in fiscal terms, but completely failed to do ANYTHING for the communities is was supposed to be serving. That in my mind is a much bigger financial failure than smaller organizations doing the job, even though their accounting may not be 100% in line with professional accounting practices. (And actually none of the reputable grassroots organizations that I know squander money – if anything they really know how to stretch a dollar, even if they may not have a receipt for every penny spent. That doesn’t mean that the money wasn’t used wisely or purposefully.)

  • betty barcode

    “…the paradox of marginalized communities being expected to lead, while not being given the trust and the resources needed to be successful.”

    Well put.

  • John Mulvey

    All great suggestions, which IMO speak to the value of old fashioned shoe-leather philanthropy. Get out and visit with organizations on the front lines. Spend more time seeing their programs in action, as opposed to analyzing log frames and theories of change. Also understand the strengths of these organizations and avoid requiring them to step outside their central focus as a requirement of funding.

  • Mehitabel

    I’m struck by this: “It is so ingrained in our culture to see marginalized communities as weak and in need of protection, even as we expect them to lead the fight.” Is it at all possible that what is perceived as an expectation of these communities to lead the fight may be a well-intentioned effort to respect their power and their right to speak for themselves, rather than swooping in with a ‘we’re here to rescue you because you can’t rescue yourselves’ mindset? (I don’t disagree about the underfunding part, although that’s a problem shared by pretty wide subset of the nonprofit sector.)

    And as far as being perceived as “weak”… I can only speak for myself when I say that I’ve never seen it that way. I don’t equate ‘marginalized’ or ‘vulnerable’ with ‘weak’. Maybe it’s a superfine distinction, but to me being marginalized or vulnerable speak to the position a community or individual has been placed in by the government or the larger community. That’s not weakness; weakness is internal, not imposed. Example: The native Americans at Standing Rock are certainly marginalized, and they are definitely vulnerable. They are absolutely not weak. And as a non-native American I think it would be the height of disrespect to swoop in there and announce that I’m going to lead their fight. Support it, yes. Lead it, no. But maybe this is just about semantics rather than substance.

  • Upendo Shabazz

    As always Vu- you nailed it!

  • Anonymous11

    Thanks. This has me re-considering my own charitable giving. I agree it’s important to support communities of color through non-profits, including those led by communities of color.

  • Jeff

    You were on fire this week, Vu! These are words we can share.

  • Larry Kaplan

    Once again, you seem to have written off individual donor strategies. Yes, I agree that in the short run, organizations from communities of color must rely on institutional funders, but you need to put some energy into the long-term project called individual donor programs. You wisely recognize that achieving social justice is a long-term proposition, and take the proper “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” approach — the same is true for an individual donor program. Damn right, it’s daunting, but please take the same leap of faith that inspires your advocacy and work on behalf of your community. Yes, pursue foundations, but don’t throw up your hands in dispair over individual donors and DO BOTH — I’d like to see you write about the potential of individual donor cultivation for disadvantaged community organizations, how it can work with perhaps with some examples of success.

  • Kimery Wiltshire

    Ahh yes that darn logic model thing (I have $1.55 I can share with you.) As the head of a primarily white organization that is doing it’s darnedest to be a good and effective ally with water justice leaders, I would add that all partners need to get clear on what their assets are. e.g. we’ve been using our communications tools to promote water justice issues with our network of western water leaders. We’re very clear that e.g. the Community Water Center are the community organizers, state legislative mavens, and have the on the ground knowledge.

  • joebeckmann

    The real problem with your model is that it’s only half way. Promoting “community engagement” ought to go a little further and “engage community investment.” Marginalized communities will stay in the margins as long as you relegate them to beneficiaries rather than respect them as partners. They ought to be earning equity for their efforts, rather than continue to inadequately meet long un-met and un-recognized needs.

    For one example, converting housing subsidies into limited equity investments gives value and captures the mortgage interest tax deduction to “affordable” populations at 50 to 90% of the Adjusted Median Income. For far too long housing “advocates” have hidden – from both those in need and those philanthropists who want to help – how to access that subsidy which, now, goes largely to the rich.

    For another example, converting jobs into value creating activities that offer both salary and their community impact. The incubators that are blossoming for geeks and nerds can also incubate artisans and contractors. As Livingstone so brilliantly put it (https://aeon.co/essays/what-if-jobs-are-not-the-solution-but-the-problem), full employment is a chimera that obscures most of the real value of working – getting to know others, solving real problems, and continuing to learn as a community. We work for more than income, and should build those other purposes into what we can inspire in communities.

    Move as quickly and as efficiently into empowerment, and those who you help will learn more quickly and – probably more effectively than you, yourself – that value is more than a buck.

    • JKoz

      / This /

      Truly empowering communities means encouraging them to organize their own resources in order to build social and financial capital. Relying upon grantmakers is akin to permanently being a beggar on the street corner with a cardboard sign reading “Anything helps”.

  • Michael Brand

    Far too often over the decades we’ve witnessed leaders of community organizations get co-opted by their institutional funders (foundations and govt as well) This is why emphasis upon local donations is so important. It keeps the leaders of those NGOs focused and accountable to the people they aim to lead. Funders should never swoop in to be ‘the savior’ of an organization.

  • Justus Eisfeld

    Thank you!
    When I researched the funding situation for trans* and intersex communities worldwide, it became clear that organizations led by trans* and/or intersex people had far less money for trans/intersex specific work than organizations that were not led by trans or intersex people. I know all of the trans program officers at foundations by name (there are less than 10 worldwide, and most are in junior positions), and do not know of a single intersex person employed at a funding agency. This has got to stop immediately.