How philanthropy fails to support its greatest assets, BIPOC leaders, and what it should do about it

[Image description: A group of protesters, most are BIPOC, most wearing face masks. One person in the center appears to be talking on a bullhorn. Others are holding up signs. Image by Josh Hild of]

Hi everyone, real quick before I get into today’s topic—since the launching of the Community-Centric-Fundraising movement a month ago, the team in Seattle has been excited but also overwhelmed by the incredible response from you all! Thank you for your patience as we sort out the logistics. More is coming, including a meeting to discuss the creation of local CCF chapters (it’ll likely be on 8/20 at 12pm PT, sign up for the mailing list if you haven’t so we can send you more details).


A few months ago, I left my job after being an ED for 13 consecutive years across two organizations. “How does it feel to be retired?” people would ask. “I’m not retired,” I would joke, “I’m Financially Untethered, aka FU!” (This was before the pandemic, when I still had a sense of humor). It was a needed sabbatical, and I was looking forward to recharging by re-watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, Battlestar Galactica, and The Golden Girls.

One day, I got an email from Angie Kim, President & CEO of the Center for Cultural Innovation. “I’m wondering if you have a soft landing? Can our work ( potentially fund you, give you a business card, and act as a platform so that you continue to be in the field in ways that might work for you?”

Through our conversations over the following months, I got to understand what Angie meant by “soft landing.” This is what conservatives do for their leaders. They provide them with support to ensure that their work continues. If a right-wing pundit gets fired or leaves their position, you can be sure the conservative movement will rally around them, help them get a new job, a slot on Fox News, a post at a research institute, a book deal, a litigation lawyer, a spot on Dancing with the Stars, or whatever. They understand that their most effective leaders are their greatest weapon, so they do everything they can to protect and invest in them and their ideas.

The progressive side, meanwhile, treats people like batteries. Batteries are only valuable when they have any juice left to power machines. As soon as they are empty, they are worthless and you toss them and you get fresh batteries. People burn out, they leave and are sometimes never heard from again, and we are OK with it, because we just find new people/batteries to replace them with so that organizations and programs can continue. The machines are what matter, not the people that power them. Nonprofit progressive workers and leaders are constantly feeding the machinery of institutions, which distracts from either investing in people or actually funding real change. As Pia Infante of The Whitman Institute said, “The right invests in people and ideas; the left invests in projects and programs.”

The right understands the importance of leadership. That’s why it puts THREE TIMES more money in youth leadership than the left. We progressives suck at investing in our leaders across all parts of the leadership continuum, from youth to emerging leaders to mid-levels to experienced leaders. This has had serious consequences in our sector. People have been burning out and leaving the sector in droves. This is generally bad, but it’s even more critical when we realize that so many of these leaders are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), and it’s even more alarming when these BIPOC leaders are women.

As a sector we have been delusional, believing that we have an endless supply of leaders of color, so we take them for granted. We underinvest in them. We leave them to struggle on their own. And by doing so, we progressives are throwing away our greatest and most productive years believing that institutions solve problems, when in fact, they often reinforce status quo. Here’s a study that shows how the nonprofit industrial complex holds social justice work hostage. Here’s an eye-opening article by Erica Kohl-Arenas and Megan Ming Francis on philanthropy’s long history of co-opting, redirecting, or neutralizing radical organizations and movements.

Clearly this is not working. In order for us to make significant change, we must invest in leaders, not simply see them as instruments to advance the work of organizations. Given the level of disruption and change that’s much needed and more possible than ever before, real progress will more likely come from unfettered leaders and the new platforms they create than from slow-to-change organizations that are hoping for a return to normalcy.

Here are a few key things foundations must do in order to better recruit, retain, and unlock the full potential of BIPOC leaders, who are more critical than ever as every progressive gain we ever made is quickly being undone. Many of these are lessons that we must learn from conservatives in how they invest in their leaders:

Understand that leaders and their organizations/movements are complementary but separate entities, and both must be supported. What we have instead is funders generally viewing organizations and leaders as single entities and only support them as such. This is why, for example, so many funders have this destructive “wait and see” approach when there’s leadership transition. This is also why when many leaders leave the organization to which they were closely associated, either the leader or the organization or both are basically dead to a lot of funders. This is a terrible pattern. If an organization is good, fund it, especially during difficult transitions, so it can continue its important work. And if a leader is good, support the person so they can increase the breadth and reach of their effectiveness.

Let BIPOC leaders lead, even if their work doesn’t align with your priorities or strategies: It is extremely soul-crushing that no matter how many times BIPOC leaders prove ourselves to be effective, it is never enough, and we must start over every single time we have a new vision or project. I have lost count of the instances where I’ve approached a program officer with whom I have a long and successful relationship to tell them about some amazing, transformative idea I am working on, only to be told, “Hm, I’m not sure, we need to think about this, it doesn’t really align with our priorities.” If we just met, I can understand. But we’ve worked together for 5 or 10 or 15 years and you know my work. This happens a lot to BIPOC leaders, and it is demoralizing. This is a fundamental difference between conservative and progressive funders: The former let their proven leaders lead, the latter expect their leaders to conform to their priorities. If you really want to effect social justice and equity, you need to support the visions of BIPOC leaders who have lived-experience and thus have the solutions.

Support BIPOC leaders while they are leading: If you want BIPOC leaders to succeed, then surround them with resources and support while they are leading. Do not let them struggle on their own, as most of you continue to do. Fund professional development. Fund sabbaticals. Provide an additional 5K to 10K to each grantee orgs right now so they can retain the services of an executive coach for one or more of their BIPOC leaders. Executive coaching—a combination of mentorship, therapy, and occasional kick-in-the-ass reality checks—is a vital resource that is often inaccessible to BIPOC leaders. I was talking to a group of leaders of color about the challenges they’re experiencing. One colleague, Saroeun Earm, said, “We are pioneering as we are leading, and we’re trying to discover ourselves while being in a racist system. There is so much complexity in the chaos. Yet we maneuver it every day, and we don’t get credit for it.” She mentioned how she never had a budget for coaching until she got a job in philanthropy. Countless BIPOC leaders have to navigate the difficulty of this work with little support.

Protect BIPOC leaders when they are undergoing challenges: Conservatives rally around their leaders during difficult times. Progressives are more likely to distance themselves in order to not be affected or “tainted.” I heard a story of one BIPOC leader who said something and got on the radar of a popular right-wing pundit, who mobilized his viewers to attack the organization this leader was associated with. Board members and staff were constantly getting hate mail and death threats. Instead of staying away in situations like this, we need philanthropic partners to provide support in the form of money and advice for legal defense, countersuits, etc. As Angie Kim says, “There’s a culture war going on for the heart and soul of America, and philanthropy is helping progressives lose this battle.” You have done that by actively avoiding anything controversial and leaving leaders and organizations to fend for ourselves. You can reverse that. Set aside funding to protect the leaders and organizations that are taking courageous risks or are undergoing challenges for various reasons. We need to know you have our backs, that you are not a fair-weather partner.

Sustain BIPOC leaders when they are in transition. If we care about our BIPOC leaders, and we understand that they should not be defined by the organizations they lead, then it is important to support them during career transitions, when they are most vulnerable personally, and the field is at risk of losing their voices. BIPOC and BIWOC leaders have fewer connections to those with power and resources and thus they are even more vulnerable. Create grants that can go toward individuals during career inflection points. Create individualized fellowships to sustain the leaders you believe in. Don’t overthink it. If you find funding individuals to be distasteful, analyze why, and ask yourself if you’re ok with losing some of the most effective leaders in our sector when a grant from your foundation may be able to help them to pay their expenses, support their families, find footing, and not rush into unwise projects and positions because of financial need. There’s a bunch of intermediaries that can help you fund individuals, so there’s really no excuse.

Broaden your concept of leadership and invest in non-ED/CEO leaders: The field is rapidly evolving from this top-down, hierarchical model with the heroic leader on top. Organizations are exploring co-directorships, collectives, cooperatives, intentional communities, and other models. We all need to change our ideas of what is an “organization” and why we fetishize its “leader.” We need to rethink the archaic and white-centric ways we do “succession planning” and executive leadership search, as Cyndi Suarez discusses here. This means not only do we need to support leaders who are not the ED/CEO by providing them with professional development, sabbaticals, coaching, fellowships, educational growth opportunities, networks, etc., but we must also shift how we define and interact with leaders. If you are used to only seeing leadership as “the people on top,” you need to grasp that as our sector evolves, there might not be one person “on top,” and this is a good thing. Frankly, if you are looking to be relevant for the next several years, you’d probably be better off building relationships with less senior, more diverse “support” staff.

Provide significant, multi-year, general operating funding to organizations and movements led by marginalized communities: I know I say this a lot, but it remains true and needs to be mentioned often. Many leaders burn out because they are constantly scrambling for funding and have no ability to plan for the future because grants are often tiny, restrictive, and for only one year. Philanthropy has often lamented the lack of diversity in the sector. A simple solution is to fund organizations and movements led by marginalized communities. When you do that, these organizations have the resources to hire and support BIPOC leaders, which benefits the entire sector.

AmbioUS/CCI provided me personally with a small grant. It has been extremely helpful during the pandemic when I have no stable employment and all my speaking engagements were canceled. “What’s the catch?” I asked Angie skeptically. Funders had reached out with encouraging words, but almost none had offered financial assistance. “Are there metrics, outcomes? Do I need to pay it back?” I asked. “No,” she said, “just keep writing or working on your sketch comedy show or whatever. Your voice is important, and for everyone who wants to see the nonprofit sector and its funders change, we need you.”

I am grateful. But this should not be a rarity. If progressives want to make real progress, we must invest in the people who reflect the world we want to live in, which are our BIPOC leaders, of whom I am just one. There are many more out there who are doing incredible work with unrealized potential to shape our “new normal.” Most do not have the same privileges that I have. Women of color especially. We need to stop extractive practices—using leaders as batteries that are only useful for a short period of time and then tossed out when they are out of juice or are no longer affiliated with the “right” professional credentials. Let’s try a different analogy. Let’s think of BIPOC leaders as suns providing energy, light, and warmth for myriad things to grow and communities to thrive. We need their visions to be the fuel for realizing a just society and a sustainable world. For that to happen, we need you to invest differently.

Please help the victims of the explosion in Beirut.

And continue to support Black Lives Matter