Historical injustices—perpetuated by racial and cultural conflicts, and exacerbated by a lack of empathy—are at the heart of America’s growing economic, social, and political inequalities. Nowhere is this gap of authentic empathy and justice more pronounced than in the American philanthropic sector, where often well-intentioned people make decisions for communities they do not come from, may not understand, rarely interact with, and almost never step foot into.
“Philanthropy is commendable,” said Martin Luther King, “but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice, which make philanthropy necessary.” Philanthropists and philanthropic advisors who champion equality must work to shift from a framework that grounds giving in “charity” to one that grounds giving in “justice.” A framework rooted in charity alone ignores past realities that forced communities into oppressive situations, and risks reinforcing givers’ lack of understanding with rewards that recognize their benevolence. This sort of charity might relieve guilt and help some people sleep better, but it produces no reflection on either the genesis or perpetuation of inequality. In proposing this fundamental shift, we are not suggesting that giving is not admirable. Instead, we believe the field should seek to reclaim charitable giving by supporting practices that liberate—and that change the attitudes, beliefs, and policies of—society as a whole. It should seek to break down longstanding, intentional, institutional policies that have shaped social divides in the United States and that continue to promote inequality today.
How can we make this shift? To start, grantmakers and advisors must analyze both the inputs and outputs of their philanthropic efforts, with the goal of justice in mind. In doing this, we cannot overstress the importance of beginning with the right set of questions. Here are seven questions that every philanthropist should consider in their analysis:
1. Are you aware of and do you value the existing leadership in the community you plan to serve?
We should begin every initiative with the assumption that there is competent leadership within the communities we aim to serve—people already on the ground, building and changing lives. While some may be under-resourced or untapped, leaders exist in every community. Understand that leadership might look different than what you expect. Seek out people who have a propensity to inspire others to become leaders and who can move a group toward a common goal. These individuals understand the mindsets, perspectives, challenges, opportunities, and attitudes of the community, and unless you spend time with them, you will not see the same assets they see, nor will you be able to truly support the transformation of the community through your collaborative efforts.
Ask: Are we publicly promoting narratives that affirm the leadership of the community? Have we checked our assumptions about whom we deem a leader? Is our organization supportive of the community’s leadership strategies?
2. Do you see and understand the historical factors that underlie the issues you aim to tackle?
Justice-oriented giving is an act of righting a wrong, leveling the playing field, and removing the illusion of recipients as “less fortunate.” It fully acknowledges past circumstances that have driven inequalities, and prompts givers to recognize the advantages some groups and individuals have gained over others from years of economic and racial injustices—advantages that made generational success and prosperity that much more attainable.
In his book The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Du Bois asks, “How does it feel to be a problem?” It should concern the field that most grantee communities could handily answer this provocation, and in basing giving solely on a charity framework, we are, perhaps unknowingly, reinforcing this idea. The popular “problem-based” narratives ascribed to communities of color are inaccurate and counterproductive. Philanthropic strategies must drop the “problem” tag, and acknowledge that the economic, social, and racial disparities in America are the outgrowth of historical injustices.
One core issue we can correct by using a justice-based framework is the current tendency to set up “funding games,” where grantees are pitted against each other, vying to tell the best, most compelling problem-based story about the communities they aim to serve. In this Mad Max "thunderdome-style" of grantmaking, philanthropic dollars too often flow to whichever organizations give the best deficit-based narratives—and the worst statistical analyses as to why marginalized communities are poor, disenfranchised, broken, and in need of being “saved” by a targeted intervention. When disseminating false narratives of inherently flawed or problematic communities becomes a beneficial strategy and necessary to secure funding, we as philanthropists must see that we are incentivizing and prolonging myths that continue to oppress those we aim to help.
Ask: Do we support organizations whose mission and vision are built on perpetuating and supporting problem- or deficit-based narratives? If so, how can we help them pivot to build and implement strategies for change rooted in justice?
Charity is commendable, but justice is transformational. How will you spend your resources?