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Opinion | Philanthropists Bench Women of Color, the M.V.P.s of Social Change

Implicit Bias. Philanthropy is still overwhelmingly controlled by middle- to upper-class white people, even though the numbers of donors and foundation staff members of color are growing. Implicit bias affects which prospective grantees they deem risky, credible, trustworthy or innovative, and gives a great advantage to leaders and nonprofits that conform to their cultural norms. Facility in academic English, slick marketing materials and connections with prestigious people and institutions make it more likely that certain groups will gain funding.

I’ve seen repeatedly that it’s far easier for a young affluent white man who has studied poverty at Harvard to land a $1 million grant with a concept pitch than it is for a 40-something black woman with a decades-long record of wins in the impoverished community where she works to get a grant for $20,000. This, despite the epic volumes of paperwork and proof of impact that she will invariably have to produce. She reads as risky, small, marginal. He reads as a sound investment, scalable, mainstream.

Similarly, nonprofits with glossy proposals are often seen as bankable even though some of them have terrible reputations in the communities they serve, while groups with excellent reputations on the ground and less slick proposals are often seen as risky.

Risk. With a few notable exceptions, philanthropy is the white woman grabbing her purse when a black man enters the elevator. People of color applying for funds face an immediate presumption of unreliability. I’m often asked by donors how they can manage the “risk” of funding grass-roots organizing headed by people of color. I ask them to examine how they are managing the risk of not funding it.

A growing number of foundation staff members are admitting the risk in their inherited white-only grantee portfolios that have failed, for decades, to move the needle on the issues their organizations care about. The good news is that there is a new generation of foundation officers, many of them white, who are challenging the prevailing notions of risk and transforming their lists of grantees.

Facially neutral rules. Philanthropy’s eligibility criteria and metrics for impact often reinforce the inequities that are at the core of the very problems it is trying to solve. Many of them are “facially neutral”: never mentioning particular groups and at first glance nondiscriminatory, but producing stark racial and gender disparities in giving.

For example, most reproductive rights grant-makers for decades limited their funding to protecting the legal right to abortion. That was sufficient for most middle- and upper-class white women, but sadly lacking for women of color, who face numerous barriers to access abortion care that the legal right alone does not remove, along with myriad attacks on their reproductive freedom. This had the effect of cutting out women of color.

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