News and analysis
May 07, 2015

Foundations Take Broad Approach to Reducing Racial Inequalities

A young man holds a sign that reads 'Black youth are not thugs.'
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

As fires burned in Baltimore last week and thousands of the city’s residents expressed anger at police treatment of blacks, foundation executives meeting in San Francisco renewed their commitment to fighting racial inequality.

The unrest in Baltimore and last year’s standoff between police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., laid bare for many the chasm between police treatment of blacks and whites. Foundations have responded with pledges to channel more support to programs designed to reduce racial disparities in America.

Rather than target specific issues, such as how police treat minorities in a single jurisdiction, much of the effort is geared toward solving broad systemic issues across the country, like health care, economic opportunity, and the treatment of blacks throughout the criminal-justice system.

"Every month a black boy is going to get shot by police," Robert Ross, president of the California Endowment, told a crowd at the Council on Foundations annual meeting. "The prize for us is not that police departments handcuff our kids more politely when they take them away. The prize is a more hopeful future for our kids."

Laying the Groundwork

Mr. Ross and several other foundation executives laid much of the groundwork for foundations’ current interest in racial inequality in April 2013, more than a year before the troubles boiled over in Ferguson, when they created the Executive Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color.

Almost a year after that, President Obama created My Brothers Keeper, a White House push to combine the effort of foundations, corporations, and federal and local governments. Since then, 43 foundations have joined the alliance and pledged more than $300 million in support of programs to help minority boys and young men.

The California Endowment has committed $50 million over seven years to the plan. Mr. Ross, who is developing a similar effort for young minority women, says he is receiving "more requests for funding than we can accommodate."

Other members of the Executive Alliance have been active in supporting efforts to reduce inequities. Open Society Foundations, for example, responded to Ferguson with a $2 million grant to the Center for Policing Equity to create a national database of police behavior and support youth groups that advocate for police reform.

The foundation put $900,000 toward the Center for Popular Democracy to support community-organizing groups in St. Louis. In January, it spun off the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, a program it created in 2008, into a separate nonprofit and gave it a parting gift of $10 million.

Fearing ‘Philanthropic Fatigue’

Foundations are also attempting to address racial disparities in program areas not specifically tied to race.

For instance, in February when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a five-year, $75 million set of competitive grants to reduce jail populations, it stressed an interest in applications that seek to deal with the high rate of incarceration among minorities. The foundation plans to announce initial grant winners this month.

And racial equality was a big factor in January, when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation expanded its campaign to reduce childhood obesity. The $500 million effort, which over the next five years will double the foundation’s commitment to childhood obesity, will include a focus on minority populations, which have a higher incidence of overweight and obese children.

Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, said he didn’t doubt the sincerity fueling the attention major foundations are placing on race. But he said nonprofits that rely on foundations have been strained in the months since Ferguson and need more support. He worries that grant makers will suffer "philanthropic fatigue" if foundations don’t set clear goals to achieve specific results.

"We are in the middle of what could become a movement, but for these issues you have to go the distance," he says. "To save a generation, it may take a generation."

A Focus on Diversity

Some doubt the ability of philanthropy to tackle racial inequality. Leslie Lenkowsky, a philanthropy expert at Indiana University and a Chronicle columnist, says foundations attempting to make big systemic change are guilty of "philanthropic arrogance."

"These problems are easy to posture about but not easy to solve," he says. "They may be helpful on the margins, but these are deeply rooted problems."

One way to make a start is to change the face of foundations themselves, according to Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.

Ford was a major backer of activists during the Civil Rights era and continues to support efforts like Californians for Safety and Justice, a project of the Tides Center that successfully advocated for Proposition 47, a ballot initiative that shifted public funds from prisons to schools and reduced some felonies to misdemeanors. Last year, Ford gave the Tides Center more than $2 million to work on racial and criminal-justice issues.

The foundation is in the midst of resetting its strategy and won’t discuss its planned level of support in future. But speaking at the Council on Foundations annual meeting, Mr. Walker stressed that Ford will put a premium on racial and gender diversity among grantees and inside its own offices. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Council on Foundations, 24 percent of full-time employees at 392 foundations are racial or ethnic minorities.

Creating an ‘Echo System’

Getting many of the nation’s largest foundations to support young minority men has created an "echo system" that makes it "safe, if not popular, to care about a population that has gotten the short end of the stick," says Damon Hewitt, the Executive Alliance’s director.

To make sure foundations sustain their support and have a lasting impact, Mr. Hewitt has invited foundations to focus their work on several subject areas: data and research, criminal justice and safety, education, community engagement, and jobs. Splitting up the work enables grant makers to focus on their areas of expertise, learn who is supporting complementary goals, and define measures of success.

One of the projects Mr. Hewitt is most excited about is Research, Integration, Strategies, and Evaluation for Boys and Men of Color, a three-year project at the University of Pennsylvania that received a combined $8.5 million from the Annie E. Casey and W.K. Kellogg foundations and Atlantic Philanthropies.

The program will attempt to create a "virtual community" of researchers, policy makers, grant makers, and journalists who will be able to sift through a library of peer-reviewed articles on each of the Executive Alliance’s subject areas. The goal of the project is to identify broad, systemic challenges facing young black men.

The approach is different from a grant program that, for example, links mentors with students, because it seeks to address the root causes of racial inequality, Mr. Hewitt says,

"We can’t mentor our way out of black and brown boys being shot and killed by the police," he says. "We have to look at what happens at the family level, at the community level, and the system level as well."

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the California Endowment's committment to My Brother's Keeper. The organization has committed $50 million.

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