Catalytic Change

The Applied Research Center (ARC) and the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE) developed the Racial Justice Grantmaking Assessment following ARC’s 2003 publication of Short Changed: Foundation Giving in Communities of Color. That report documented, as recent reports have confirmed, decreasing grantmaking with clear racial justice impacts, as well as decreasing support for organizations led by people of color. As foundation executives grapple with the meaning of racial disparities in philanthropy and how to remedy them, we believe that the ARC-PRE assessment can draw attention to some of the ways that foundations can advance racial equity and racial justice more effectively.

We welcome the field’s feedback on this report, and are happy to engage with other foundations that might be interested in undertaking such an assessment themselves. While this is the story of only two foundations, we believe that others concerned with racial issues will find resonance in their lessons.

“When tackling health inequities in communities of color, it is important to look at the root issues of those inequities, and structural racism is one of them. To look those issues in the eye, understand how they affect what we’re after in terms of improving life and health outcomes, and to do so in a way that fully engages our board is exciting. …It’s not easy. But if you want to lead, this is a great issue to lead on.”
Margaret O’Bryon, President and CEO, Consumer Health Foundation

We hope that this report will spark new catalytic changes within specific foundations and, over time, in the larger field of philanthropy. In chemistry, catalyzers are often quite small in their initial scope, such as the introduction of minute amounts of new elements into an existing chemical combination or larger system. Such an introduction can either initiate the transformation of that compound, or speed up a transformation that is already underway. In our work, something as small as a new set of questions can generate a fresh perspective on existing frameworks. Engagement with these questions can reveal new possibilities and projects. The Racial Justice Grantmaking Assessment is a new set of questions applied to an old debate about the role of race in foundation giving. Through the process, both the assessment team and the foundation participants learned that incremental steps — including asking a new set of questions — can help us all progress on racial disparities in the society (as well as within foundations).

Working closely with ARC and other partners, PRE has focused on establishing a racial justice lens in grantmaking, a task for which the foundation world has had too few guideposts and resources. The need for such benchmarks motivated us to create a clear set of definitions, questions and processes to help foundations assess their internal and external systems not only to support organizations led by people of color, but also to drive resources toward those groups that operate with an analysis likely to generate more systemic and racially just solutions. ARC and PRE initially designed a questionnaire to help foundations examine their inner workings as well as the public expressions of their commitments to racial equity.

“…Our initial audience was not foundations that needed to be persuaded that race mattered. Rather, we focused on foundations that were committed to addressing racial inequities, and that wanted to understand more deeply how their institutions were faring and how they could improve.”

“The ARC – PRE assessment has resulted in the foundation using a racial justice lens on our strategy development for issues from the environment to education… It’s aligned us in the importance of being explicit in our communications. We are significantly bolder in both policies and practices.”
Patricia Brandes, Executive Director, Barr Foundation.

We sincerely commend the courage and trust that the Consumer Health Foundation in Washington, DC and the Barr Foundation in Boston displayed by agreeing to pilot the assessment process with their boards, staff and grantees. They were particularly bold to take up the opportunity for deeper reflection using an untested process, and in the context of a heated national debate about race, diversity and philanthropy.

At a time when foundations and nonprofits are increasingly engaging in discussions of legislatively mandated data gathering, criteria about percentages of grants to people of color-led organizations or to those that serve communities of color, calls for greater diversity among staff and board, and greater efficacy throughout, we would like to distinguish the ARC-PRE process from other kinds of assessments:

  • It is not a diversity audit of either foundation’s staff, board, or vendors, although we addressed aspects of the racial composition and operations of each.
  • It is not an evaluation of any given portfolio nor of grantee impact.
  • It is not an audit nor an exact count of either foundation’s racial justice grantmaking, although it recognizes subsets and patterns.
  • It is not a longitudinal study of what has taken place historically at each foundation, nor a projection into the future. It is a snapshot of a particular moment in time and a baseline assessment connected to each foundation’s own goals.
  • It does not set forth bottom line criteria that we expect all funders to consider or meet.

Even with these boundaries, we were able to understand and reflect back to the foundations the degree to which their grantmaking and other processes created racial equity outcomes, and to identify opportunities to strengthen that impact. We welcome the field’s feedback on this report, and are happy to engage with other foundations that might be interested in undertaking such an assessment themselves. While this is the story of only two foundations, we believe that others concerned with racial issues will find resonance in their lessons.

Rinku Sen
President and CEO, Applied Research Center & Publisher,
ColorLines Magazine

Lori Villarosa
Executive Director, Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity

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