Telling My Truth as a Black Woman Made Me a Better Grant Maker
Hewlett is not known for its racial-justice values. While we’ve recently done meaningful work toward diversity and inclusion, our institution has shied away from taking a stance on racial equity as a cornerstone of effective philanthropy. Our grant making remains deliberately pragmatic and nonpartisan,
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Hewlett is not known for its racial-justice values. While we’ve recently done meaningful work toward diversity and inclusion, our institution has shied away from taking a stance on racial equity as a cornerstone of effective philanthropy. Our grant making remains deliberately pragmatic and nonpartisan, emphasizing data, evaluation, and outcomes. I am convinced that the work we do is good, but I have often wondered if it is just.
Still, as the program fellow for the foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group, I took pride in helping our teams build equity into their grant-making strategy. (Disclosure: The Chronicle of Philanthropy receives financial support from Hewlett’s effective-philanthropy program but does not work directly with the author.) I was comfortable posing and answering research-backed questions about equitable philanthropy, but I rarely sought to represent myself — a queer Black woman — in the process. The ways that I knew grants were good or successful were typically based on rigorous, data-driven evaluation.
Then the racial uprisings hit last spring. Protests went on for weeks outside my Oakland, Calif., apartment. I was terrified, but I tried to make sense of the world using the measured approaches my profession demanded.
Sitting in a Zoom room with my Black colleagues to shape our grant making felt conspiratorial until it felt liberating.
By the summer, however, those very approaches were being called into question for their role in perpetuating white supremacy. “While we [in philanthropy] enjoy the comforts of our positions, we let the organizations doing the real work every day for decades limp along with crumbs. We reinforce the white supremacist notions of merit by insisting that leadership exists only if it comes in a form we recognize and respect,” noted Lori Bezahler, CEO of the Edward Hazen Foundation.
At institutions like mine, that “form we recognize” typically has multiple degrees, usually from the Ivy League, and a background steeped in research or experience at the institutional hub of an issue area. Sometimes we’re lucky and get a bit of lived experience to go along with those degrees, but that’s rare. I am certainly a testament to these trends, even if my skin color and gender diversify our demographics.
These limited ways of assessing achievement led philanthropy to underinvest in the organizers, leaders, and knowledge needed to meet the nation’s moment of racial reckoning. In the face of a people-led movement, philanthropic institutions were woefully ill equipped. By this point, I was, too. I sat in my apartment, looking at facilitation plans for “equitable learning,” and felt like an idiot. Enough was enough. I couldn’t separate my Blackness from my responsibilities as a grant maker. I needed to tell my truth.
And so, I started talking. I cried, too. And surprisingly, people at Hewlett started listening. Those people included Larry Kramer, our president. He heard me, as fearful and enraged as I was. Then he invited me to stand in that fear and do something about it.
Specifically, I was asked to design a grant-making process with two of my mentors that focused on Black lives. We decided on a collaborative approach that included all Hewlett staff but concentrated the foundation’s Black voices. To take the burden off organizations that would receive funds, we also streamlined grant procedures, removing reporting and applications requirements. All grants would go to general operations.
To establish a common framework for making grants and to help staff think differently about the types of organizations we should fund, we began the process with a learning session based on the principles of Ibram Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist. All employees were invited to participate, ranging from facilities and tech staff to program officers and the foundation’s leaders. More than 80 staff, out of about 125 employees, participated in the Zoom session, and many more later watched a video recording.
Interested staff were then asked to research and nominate antiracist organizations as potential grant recipients. Everyone who attended the learning session, no matter where they fell in the foundation’s pecking order, was allowed to nominate one potential grantee. Opening up this process to our entire staff broadened our nominee pool. We received more than 40 nominations for organizations working across a dozen issue areas. Of the final 15 awardees, only two were current grantees.
Enlisting Black Staff Members for Counsel
To put Black voices at the center of our work, these nominations were then handed to our volunteer advisory council of Black Hewlett staff. Our role was far more robust than most advisory councils, which typically offer feedback and ask questions about programs or strategy. By contrast, we were charged with establishing grant-making criteria and making final decisions on which organizations would receive funds.
In our first advisory council meeting, we discussed the values we felt should inform our decision making. Many of those values echoed the foundation’s guiding principles, but we also embraced values that resonated with our experiences as Black people. For example, we decided to embrace conflict — and its resolution — as a valuable aspect of decision making. For the Black women in the group who were all too familiar with “tone policing” from colleagues, this felt like an important value to name upfront. Sitting in a Zoom room with my Black colleagues, discussing such topics and how they should influence our grant making, felt conspiratorial — until it felt liberating.
Once we’d articulated values to guide our choices, we moved quickly and democratically. We built a rubric based on outcomes-focused philanthropy, antiracist literature, and our lived experiences. Our scoring system valued organizations with clear antiracist strategies and strong connections to the communities they served. These funds were not meant for the organizations Hewlett typically supports — the think tanks and universities that do great antiracist work but don’t connect directly to struggling individuals and families.
As a diverse group of Black people, we also allowed our different experiences of Blackness to play into our funding decisions. In a series of four meetings, we selected the final organizations, all of which work within Black communities, to address racial injustice and inequity in areas such as health, reproductive justice, and trans rights.
Everyone Has Something to Contribute
By the time these grants were completed, more than half of Hewlett’s staff had some level of input in the process. By acknowledging that everyone had something to contribute, we widened our nominee pool significantly and gained new insight. For instance, the foundation’s associate accountant, who previously was not involved in Hewlett’s grant making, brought critical perspective as the institution’s longest-serving Black employee and a lifelong resident of Oakland. Since many of us are not originally from the Bay Area, where Hewlett is headquartered, his input was invaluable when it came to deciding which local organizations to support.
The experience provided a vital lesson about the value of personal history in guiding philanthropic choices. What if we’d asked ourselves long ago why a formalized education or the title of program officer was the only way to effectively make funding decisions and evaluate a grantee’s work? To shift power in our country, philanthropy must make room at the decision-making table for those with the lived experience to recognize what this moment requires.
Last summer’s uprisings against systemic racism were led by all types of people, but those at the head of the pack were most often young and Black. To effectively support this movement, our existing measures of efficacy, knowledge, and leadership must change. Separating our grant decisions from our own experiences and abandoning our role as advocates diminish our ability to do the antiracist work our nation urgently needs.