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PEAK Grantmaking

By the Numbers: Exploring the Black experience in philanthropy

In exploring the Black experience in philanthropy, it’s necessary to start by naming the roots of philanthropy and its continuing challenges around diversification – of boards, executive leaders, staff, grantees, and partners. Despite, or perhaps because of, philanthropy’s roots in oppressive practices, it becomes even more important to have the conversation and to take action aimed at creating organizations and practices that foster greater inclusion for those it has traditionally left out.

Drawing on research from the Association of Black Foundation Executives, the Building Movement Project, the Council on Foundations, BoardSource, and PEAK Grantmaking in partnership with Frontline Solutions and Arabella Advisors, we can lay the groundwork for understanding the experience of Black professionals within the philanthropic sector in general, and in grants management in particular. It is always complex, and often troubling, yet still hopeful.

The statistics are stark. Philanthropic organizations (and nonprofits) are largely led and heavily staffed by white people, and the diversity of employees increases as their power within the organization decreases.

The lack of diversity in foundation boards and staff shows up again when you check to see where grant dollars are flowing: According to D5’s State of Work report, less than 7 percent of grants go to diverse communities.

DEI is a value, yet…

Conversations in the field have centered racial equity, diversity, and inclusion as key to improving impact both in the way we fund and in the way we operate. With an increasing sense of urgency, more and more foundations are lifting up the values of diversity, equity, or inclusion. In our recent survey, a majority of foundations reported a formal statement of commitment to these values, with another 8 percent either in the process of creating one or taking action in other ways.

Despite that progress, philanthropy continues to fall far short in instituting equitable practices. The experience of Black, indigenous, and other people of color in the sector continues to stand in conflict with these stated values in two important ways: organizational culture and grantmaking practice.

Where is the DEI in organization culture?

Research across the nonprofit sector continues to show that people of different racial identities experience organizational culture and career development and advancement differently. When we begin to understand that the traditional tenets of a “good” organizational culture were defined by members of one particular identity group (white men, to be exact), we begin to see organizational culture as it looks to all of those who sit outside that white-dominant framework. “In the workplace, white supremacy culture explicitly and implicitly privileges whiteness and discriminates against non-Western and non-white professionalism standards related to dress code, speech, work style, and timeliness,” observes Aysa Gray in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

In the 2017 report Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap, over one-third of people of color ranked their race/ethnicity among factors negatively impacting their career advancement, compared with 6 percent of whites. A textual analysis of write-in explanations provided by 380 people of color who reported that their career advancement was negatively impacted by their race shows that 40 percent talked about a perceived inability to lead, a lack of human resources support, and/or an exclusion from important social networks. Thirty percent cited negative experiences with others, ranging from microaggressions to tokenizing to managing white colleagues’ guilt and emotions about race.

Already starting from a deficit mindset, many in the sector assume that their colleagues of color need support in the form of additional education, training, and credentialing in order to be more successful and move into positions of leadership. However, the Race to Lead report debunks that theory, finding few differences between white people and people of color in their “aspirations or preparation for leadership roles.” Those findings demonstrate that the underrepresentation of people of color in leadership positions is not attributable to differing backgrounds or qualifications, or to a lack of aspiration, skills, or preparation. Rather, the data points to an uneven playing field, the frustration of “representing,” and the system’s shortcomings .

These findings are echoed in a report on Black professionals in philanthropy. In 2014, the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) published a report titled The Exit Interview. In it, 72 percent of respondents said they believed that leadership roles are not substantial for Black professionals at grantmaking institutions. In particular, most Black professionals named the following when asked what challenges they faced in their philanthropic institutions and the reasons they left their organizations or philanthropy altogether:

  • Feeling isolated
  • Having limited access to professional-track training, pipeline networks, and support systems
  • Feeling that colleagues do not value their expertise
  • Roles that do not allow them to work directly with communities
  • Finding their jobs frustrating and overly bureaucratic

Further confirmation can be found in research for emerging leaders of color. In the 2018 report Dissonance and Disconnects, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy stated that “practitioners of color tended to report more challenging experiences related to identity in the workplace, are less likely to have an ally on the senior team, and have a more critical outlook as to whether grantees are able to provide feedback without fear of reprisal.”

Where is the DEI in organization grantmaking practice?

When we asked grantmakers what they needed the most help with as they worked to embed equity in their grantmaking practice, their answers broke down like this:

These are among the practices that support equity in funding decisions, allocations, and requirements, and are all concrete ways that grantmakers can demonstrate to their Black employees – and all other indigenous people and people of color – that they understand what it means to operationalize equity.

Everything that goes into a grant – from guidelines and applications to reporting, monitoring, evaluation requirements, decision-making criteria, and processes – are influenced by an organization’s values and culture, including the implicit, the explicit, and the aspirational. Whether decisions are being made about internal policies or grant allocations, who is in the room makes a big difference. Those elements of white dominant culture that dictate our organizational culture also dictate decisions about practices and processes.

These systems, at their core, are built to let certain people and organizations in and keep other people and organizations out. Risk management and compliance practices, for instance, are tied up with who exactly decision-makers think is risky and what kinds of organizations need more due diligence.  In essence, Black grants management professionals are being tasked with enforcing white-dominant culture on their communities as they work to help those communities navigate traditional philanthropic practice.

It’s a unique and conflicting position to be in, but one that is fueling the drive to put grantmaking practice into the service of equity, and to question notions of implicit trust (or bias) that show up in the day-to-day work of philanthropy.

You’ve reviewed the research. Now hear the voices of dozens of Black grantmaking professionals in this issue, giving testimony on the dynamics of organizational culture for your colleagues of color. Reflecting the findings above, their experiences and perspectives contain an extra layer of complex hierarchical power interactions that come with being on the operations side of the house in philanthropy. Our Black members have trusted us with their stories in the hope that they will advance the state of the sector, and that the cognitive dissonance those stories highlight – held in place each and every day by anyone navigating the world of philanthropy – can be resolved with the power of common understanding.

These stories and perspectives tell us more about how far we all have to go if we truly want to support Black professionals (and all professionals) in this field, and create a truly inclusive culture that builds equity into its structure, its operations, and its aspirations.


Our gratitude to philanthropy-serving organizations for these initiatives, which have been instrumental in providing insight into the experience of people of color in philanthropy.

The Exit Interview
Association of Black Foundation Executives, 2014

Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap
Building Movement Project, 2017

Dissonance and Disconnects
Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, 2018

2019 Grantmaker Salary and Benefits Report
Council on Foundations, 2019

Leading with Intent
BoardSource 2017

State of the Work
D5 Coalition, 2016

Research on Equitable Practices
PEAK Grantmaking and Frontline Solutions, 2018

Research on Equity and Risk Management
PEAK Grantmaking and Arabella Advisor, 2018

“The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards”
Aysa Grey, Stanford Social Innovation Review, June 4, 2019