14 June 2022

What if funders played a stronger role in advancing racial and social justice? Questions and outcomes of the 4th edition of the “What if? Reimagining Philanthropy” event series

How can we bring more foundations on board with the idea that racism is relevant to their work, no matter their area of work? How can we reframe risk as the risk of not taking action to tackle racial injustices now? How can we shape different forms and practices of accountability, with funders being accountable to movements? How can we shift philanthropy to be a tool for reparations?

These provocative and pertinent questions topped the “question burst” of the 4th edition of Philea’s “What if? Reimagining Philanthropy” event series, an inclusive space for thought-provoking debates aimed at generating new possible routes for philanthropy. Organised jointly with Ariadne, the Association of Charitable Foundations and EDGE Funders Alliance, the event took place on 7 June 2022 online and was aimed at exploring how funders can play a stronger role in advancing racial and social justice. It brought together over 40 participants representing foundations, philanthropy support organisations and advisors to look at philanthropic action in ensuring racial and social justice through the lenses of investments, grantmaking and operations.

Philanthropy & racial and social justice: Outcomes of the event

“We need to fundamentally shift our mind-set from giving to giving back”

The event kicked off with an igniting speech by Derek Bardowell, CEO, Ten Years’ Time and author of the soon-to-be published book “Giving Back: How to Do Good Better”. Atrocities committed in the past do not stay in the past –the current economy is embedded in a system in which wealth, power and access has been decided upon racial lines, a system which fundamentally disenfranchises and causes huge disparities. According to Derek, nowadays philanthropy seems to be playing “good cop” to capitalism’s “bad cop”, when in reality racial injustices are embedded in the DNA of philanthropy as well:

“We know that in the UK only 5% of charitable trust funding goes to organisations led by racially-minoritised people. And of that money, 9% goes towards campaigning, 3% towards Research and Policy, and only 3% towards capacity building. We know that only 0.3% of funding in the UK goes towards community organising. And we also know that black feminist movements globally receive somewhere between 0.1 and 0.35% of annual grant dollars from foundations. These disparities live in philanthropy today.”

Rebalancing power by investing in community wealth and movement building is key. Derek shared an inspiring example of the “Partner system” which was formed by a group of people with Caribbean backgrounds in the UK 60 years ago. The system allowed Caribbean people to save collectively and helped many of them become economically stable. The principles that underpinned the initiative were crucial – it was a generative partnership (no hierarchy) based on trust, self-determination, sacrifice (“Change does not come without sacrifice”), community care, racial justice, flexibility and solidarity.

These principles are well-suited to philanthropic action for racial and social justice, and there are some inspiring examples such as the Edge Fund or the Resourcing Racial Justice fund by the Thirty Percy Foundation. Ten Years’ Time invites philanthropists on a learning journey of honest reflection and radical action to dismantle harmful practices, and to resource racial and economic justice.

“Not investing with a social lens is negligent”

As a sector, we lag behind on progress in diversity, equity and inclusion, argued Ise Bosch, founder, investor and CEO, Dreilinden. Silos prevent foundations’ staff from having a say in how their organisations invest. While we seek to empower communities of colour, we don’t address the core part of empowerment – capital creation.

“Fund in ways that accrue capital on the other side,” suggested Ise. The transfer of capital can be achieved via businesses, property and careers: impact investment can be a tool for philanthropy to support businesses created by or for excluded communities; grants or loans can go toward buying or building property to be owned by community organisations; and philanthropy can also invest more in job training and facilitate income creation.

Participatory grantmaking as an entry point to achieving racial and social justice

Chantelle de Nobrega, Programme Officer, Mama Cash, based in Cape Town, challenged the participants to interrogate the sources of philanthropic funding and how this applies to grantmaking:

“If philanthropic money has and continues to be accumulated through systems that advantage just a few people, maybe we should be asking whose money is this really?”

Chantelle suggested reimagining philanthropy by practising participatory grantmaking, whereby those most affected by historical and current inequalities are also the ones deciding how some of those resources will be used. While this does not completely change the power dynamics, it is a potential entry point to a process which challenges the foundations of philanthropy.

Philanthropy as an agent of change or an instrument of the status quo?

There is no social justice until all black women and black non-binary people are liberated, not one, not two, not ten percent – all of them,” said Laurence Meyer, Racial and Social Justice Lead, the Digital Freedom Fund. She argued that the statistics shared by Derek Bardowell on the scarce funding allocated for black feminist movements show the barriers put in place by the philanthropic world that are blocking access to resources for black feminist organisations. Though the barriers might be unintentional, they are not accidental and are rooted in structural inequalities.

Laurence invited foundations to reflect on the mission of philanthropy, accountability and risk ownership in order to integrate a racial lens into their external and internal work. Deliberating on the title of the event series, Laurence shared her vision of reimagining philanthropy: “How are we redefining philanthropy as an enterprise to repair historical injustices? We might want to imagine philanthropy as a reparation tool.”

Action points to take forward

Advancing racial and social justice is far from being a mainstream impulse in philanthropy, and there are varying levels of awareness within the sector on racial inequalities. While there is a group of organisations more embedded in this work, there is a clear appetite for breaking out of the bubble and making the case for intersectional justice within philanthropy. The learnings from the Philanthropy Coalition for Climate in terms of target-setting and movement-building can be particularly helpful in putting forward racial and social justice as a cross-cutting issue in the work of foundations.

The lack of representation in boards and in programmatic themes, along with the lack of inclusive hiring and retention policies within philanthropic organisations, show the persisting challenges in foundations’ operations. The participants also identified a need for more accountability and transparency when it comes to foundations’ budgets and investments and shared inspiring examples on responsible investment such as Confluence Philanthropy, ShareAction, or the recent pledge of the Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation on the £100 million impact investment allocation.


Outcomes of previous “What If? Reimagining Philanthropy” events


Hanna Stähle
Head of Foresight and Innovation
Alina Shenfeldt
Programme Manager – Membership and Foresight