The shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., and the police response to the protests that followed have galvanized philanthropic leaders to explore ways to devote more attention to long-simmering racial-justice issues.
Foundations at both the local and national levels have been conferring about what needs to be done to tackle questions like the suburbanization of poverty, police accountability, and harmful stereotypes about young black men.
"Maybe this tragic event is an opportunity to make us think differently about the way we give," says Amelia Bond, president of the Greater Saint Louis Community Foundation, who attended a meeting of local grant makers late last month to discuss the events in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb.
"Everyone agreed that this is a long-term issue."
A National Perspective
The St. Louis area is short of philanthropic dollars, she says, because it lacks big private foundations—and needs some kind of endowment fund for community needs.
National grant makers, meanwhile, are looking at the broader implications of Michael Brown’s killing by a white police officer following a string of other killings of unarmed young black men, including Trayvon Martin in Florida and Eric Garner, who died after being put in a police chokehold in New York.
"This has become an all-too-familiar scenario in America," La June Montgomery Tabron, head of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, said in a statement, also mentioning the 2006 police shooting of an Asian man in Minnesota. "The law-enforcement and justice systems in our nation are broken and must be immediately addressed."
Ms. Tabron has joined in several conference calls about Ferguson with the Executives’ Alliance, a group of grant makers who work on projects to improve the lives of young minority men. "We realize this community is in pain that is spreading beyond the community and across this nation," she says.
Kellogg has decided to provide an additional $15-million for its America Healing racial-equity project, which gives grants to programs like the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and the Center for Policing Equity, she says.
The Ford Foundation, which participates in that alliance, also invited leaders of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Center for Constitutional Rights, and Center for Social Inclusion to its headquarters to share their perspectives on Ferguson. Spokesman Joseph Voeller said in an email that the foundation "will continue to follow all of this very closely in the weeks ahead."
Mr. Brown’s death sparked protests and looting that drew police in riot gear who used tear gas and armored vehicles to control the crowds, prompting strong reactions from some nonprofit leaders.
"It’s the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, and as I watch the news of what is happening in Ferguson, Mo., I keep thinking, ‘All that’s missing are the dogs and hoses,’ " Susan Taylor Batten, president of the Association of Black Foundation Executives, said in a statement.
Foundations, charities, and corporations have contributed about $300-million to My Brother’s Keeper, a White House effort to promote mentoring, educational assistance, and other services to help minority boys and young men succeed.
Ms. Batten says grant makers need to go beyond such efforts to examine longstanding issues related to race, for example, by paying to collect data about the number of unarmed black people killed by police and organizing local discussions about community-police relations.
"It’s a challenge to get philanthropy to turn its attention as a field to some of these thornier, tougher issues," she said in an interview.
Angela Glover Blackwell, head of PolicyLink, a nonprofit that promotes economic and social equity, says philanthropy should help improve police practices, for example, by highlighting departments that have positive records. She was one of several hundred nonprofit and community leaders who signed a letter to President Obama last month complaining that local law-enforcement units "too often treat low-income neighborhoods populated by African-Americans and Latinos as if they are military combat zones."
But she says grant makers also need to devote more attention to the growth of poverty in suburban regions like Ferguson, a predominantly black town. "Otherwise, we’re going to see other Fergusons because there are communities like this across the country," she says.
"They are tinderboxes just waiting to explode." Mr. Voeller says the Ford Foundation includes suburbs in its community-development programs in metropolitan areas.
Among its efforts, the foundation provides grants to the Brookings Institution to do research on suburban poverty. Its findings were reported in a book issued last year.
The Rev. Starsky Wilson, president of Deaconess Foundation, a faith-based St. Louis grant maker, says more money is needed for community organizing, advocacy, and voter mobilization in Ferguson, which has a mostly white police force and city council, and other places like it.
"These are historically underfunded by philanthropy, but these are clearly the things that are needed there," he says.
Deaconess recently committed $100,000 from its endowment to support such activities, for example, to pay for youth organizing in north St. Louis County, designed "to take the energies that people saw expressed on the streets and get them to a strategic framework," he says.
As grant makers ponder the lessons of Ferguson, the United Way of Greater St. Louis has been working with other nonprofits to help local residents get through the immediate crisis. The efforts have included setting up a temporary drop-in center to help families affected by street closures, shuttered businesses, and curfews, and counseling for people traumatized by the events.
The charity has raised $1.3-million for a Ferguson Fund, set up to develop local social-service programs. Julie Russell, senior vice president for planning and evaluation, says nonprofits, donors, police, religious groups, and government officials now need to unite to address complex poverty-related problems such as unemployment, youth violence, and educational disparities.
"It’s going to take some exquisite teamwork and collaboration and coordination of services," she says.
Editor's note: This report was updated on September 8, 2014, to include more information.