Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox
The National Interest: Once a month, this column is tackling broader questions about what the country should do about gaps in achievement and opportunity, especially for boys of color, in a partnership with The Root.
There are wealthy, white philanthropists in every city saying they want to change urban education, but few are able to save their own organizations from whiteness. That’s because few funders are serious about social justice. And taking their money erodes the seriousness of those who take it.
What makes an organization serious about social justice? Show me the board members, executive staff and the grant recipients. They better look like the public school students they allegedly serve.
Funders are not the experts – communities are. Nonprofits that take money from wealthy donors who aren’t serious about taking on the values of the communities they fund are a major reason why the rich continue to hold on to more power than they deserve while urban schools stay in reform mode.
“Funding practices that get in the way of infrastructure-building for social change need to be confronted,” the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) says in its new “ten-year strategic framework.” Translation: black and brown people must resist people who give money to our causes but aren’t really down for our struggle. But let’s not be quick to label people sell-outs. The problem is less about who takes money as much as it is about who gives. The NCRP framework is meant to guide philanthropic organizations in how to contribute to “a fairer, more just and more democratic nation.”
Wealthy donors give money through private foundations and grant-making public charities to reduce their taxable income and maintain a positive reputation in the community, which isn’t all that altruistic. Just as Trump adorns his name on his towers and hotels as branding for his economic and political goals, donors allow their names to be placed on colleges, hospitals and scholarships for the same reasons.
Charitable contributions by individuals, foundations, bequests and corporations were $358 billion in 2014, according to the National Center for Charitable Contributions. Education takes the second largest cut at 15 percent. (Religious organizations received 32 percent.)
One of the planks of NCRP’s framework is to increase the number of serious social justice funders. “A serious social justice funder devotes at least 25 percent of its annual giving for advocacy, community organizing, civic engagement and other systems-change strategies,” the framework says.
“We want to provide a minimum bar for foundations to reach,” said Aaron Dorfman, president and CEO of NCRP.
But all numerical benchmarks are subject to gaming. There are too many shady ways to count towards them. Too many funders funnel money to nonprofit organizations simply to put a different face on their own agenda, to squelch community dissent and to influence public policy. Checking off diversity boxes is strategic.
There are other ways to see if a foundation is serious about social justice.
“Philanthropy should be a representation of the community it serves,” says Flozell Daniels, president and CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana. “And that means the board [of the foundation], the senior staff and the representation of the grants that it makes.”
Most national foundations in education don’t meet Daniels’ definition of a serious social justice funder. “The major national education foundations are funder-driven – not oriented toward empowering local organizations or representing community,” said Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State University economist who studies philanthropy in education. “They are not bringing that community representation back within their own organizations.”
Daniels says that after Hurricane Katrina, the new nonprofits that funders trusted to start from scratch were largely white led, in a city that’s majority black. Existing organizations led by local people of color, by contrast, had to prove their capacity to receive funding.
To keep their philanthropic funding, nonprofits have to live up to metrics that often come from the business world. These are measures funders understand, because that’s how they gained their wealth. But that money often was acquired through privilege and sometimes exploitation of impoverished groups. Expecting black and brown organizations to perform like their white counterparts often means working against their interest. For instance, the rush to the white standard of no-tolerance policies in schools, which was a bad derivative of police forces’ adaptation of broken-windows theory, hurt individual students and black communities. But, hey, suspension and expulsion helped schools meet their bottom lines (insert sarcasm). Funders are better off funding existing community organizations to ensure they can keep doing the core work they were founded to do.
And when funders, including foundations, are not reflective of community, they reinforce the power dynamic that creates the need for so much nonprofit work in the first place.
But funders do change. Aaron Dorfman of NCRP has witnessed foundations undergo major transformations. Dorfman says the pressure to change doesn’t usually doesn’t come from grantees. It usually stems from peer organizations or from within. “There is at least one person in a foundation that can drive the change. Sometimes it’s a board member, a president or someone in management. But that person pursues change systematically over time,” he said.
Dorfman recalled that Robert Ross, president and CEO of The California Endowment (TCE), was skeptical of the value of advocacy and organizing work. Dorfman said that Ross believed in effective programs and innovation as catalysts for improving the health of Californians. “He gradually embraced why foundations should ultimately fund community-based nonprofits…so communities can organize and grow their powers,” Dorfman said.
We are not going to “nonprofit” our way to educational justice. Communities need government and economic systems to work for marginalized groups. Funding nonprofits that are disruptive to school boards isn’t enough to make you serious about social justice. Helping communities organize around their own goals is.