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

[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. 

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page (maybe scroll down a little) and enter in your email address (If you’re on the phone, it may be at the bottom). Also, join the NWB Facebook community for daily hilarity.

Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.

Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

Oh, and support the maintenance of this website by buying NWB t-shirts and mugs and other stuff.