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PEAK Grantmaking

How ABFE Is Speaking Truth, Cultivating Black Leadership, and Driving Change

Since it was founded in 1971, ABFE has been a vocal advocate for effective and responsive philanthropy in Black communities. In 2020, the organization rose as a leader in the sector amid the upswell of anti-racist activism in this country. “We stepped out with 50 years of experience behind us,” ABFE CEO Susan Taylor Batten told PEAK’s Satonya Fair in our latest CEO:CEO interview. “We felt it was important to organize Black foundation CEOs to give some direct, clear guidance. We published our call to action on anti-Black racism and it has since become a framework being used by foundations across the country,” Susan told Satonya.

In the following highlights from their conversation, Satonya and Susan discuss the evolution of philanthropy-supporting organizations (PSOs), the structures that deter Black professionals from pursuing careers in philanthropy, and, more specifically, how to cultivate Black women leaders in this sector.

Fair: As you think about 2020, what’s on your agenda at the moment?

Taylor Batten:  We are in the midst of a $25 million, 50th anniversary campaign to raise resources, unleash the power of our membership, and bring more resources to Black-led organizations around the country. We have plans to do deeper funder organizing to leverage our membership in ways we have not done before. With this campaign, and the work that we did last year to build our own infrastructure, we’ve been able to put more time and attention into direct funder organizing to build a stronger infrastructure for Black-led social change organizations in this country. These are organizations that are about building political and economic power in Black communities.

Fair: What are your thoughts on how we describe the value of the sector’s affinity groups and supporting groups? How do you go about describing, not just ABFE’s value, but emphasizing the value of the few of us that have taken on foundations as our clients?

I think PSOs drive the innovation of the sector and make philanthropy better.

Taylor Batten: My own experience of being a program officer at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and then joining ABFE helps me describe the value of PSOs. I didn’t fully understand the power of philanthropy until I joined ABFE and had a fuller picture of the sector. I think PSOs drive the innovation of the sector and make philanthropy better. For these reasons, I encourage all foundation staffs to engage with PSOs. It’s also important to note that ABFE started as an affinity group, but we are much more than that now. We provide programming to equip grantmakers with the tools and skills that they need to be effective advocates for Black communities; we network funders to leverage resources for our community; and we are a critical partner in public and private initiatives to support Black children, youth, and families.

Fair: Let’s dig into that more because I have been grappling with the term “philanthropy-serving organization.” While I see myself as a servant leader, I’m not serving philanthropy. I’m focusing my career on changing philanthropy from the inside. I am philanthropy-focused and philanthropy-supporting, but for me, the serving piece has to stop because we’re dealing with power issues. Are we more accurately described as being focused or supporting, or is serving right?

Taylor Batten: I’ve been in this work for so long, I lived through several changes of terminology. First, we were affinity groups. Then we were called infrastructure organizations. Now it’s philanthropy-serving organizations. The fact of the matter is, the ways in which we describe our goals and our value will continue to change because this is an evolving sector, and one that hasn’t been around for a long time. The most important thing is to continue to lift up the roles and the values that these organizations bring to make philanthropy more effective. We drive innovation. We are the key resource for professional development in the sector. We are extremely important when it comes to retaining diverse talent in the sector. And we drive issues of accountability in the sector.

We are extremely important when it comes to retaining diverse talent in the sector. And we drive issues of accountability in the sector.

Fair: How should we, as Black women CEOs, go about being better advocates for the change we want to see in these institutions?

Taylor Batten: First, we need to speak our truth. Our voices are often muted in these institutions. Find your tribe so that you can speak in unison, have a greater impact, and last longer in these organizations. Second, be more accountable to each other by being our sister’s keeper. I have so many Black women mentors in this sector, and it’s so helpful when they take the time to just text me, drop me a note, send me an email, to ask how I’m doing or congratulate me on something that I’ve done. We’ve got to do more of that.

Fair: So, the advocacy starts with us and depends on us being healthy, connected, talking in unison and then just upending everything. Because the nonprofit model is really broken. I am figuring out what kind of a Black, female nonprofit leader I want to be, and I think that this is a moment for nonprofits to change the model that people expect us to follow in order to be effective. I also think that Black women leaders are going to reshape what nonprofits can be.

Taylor Batten: Absolutely. Our Black Women in Philanthropy Leadership retreat brings together Black women who work in foundations, women from the C-suite, as well as rising sisters. Over a course of three days, a group of 50 to 60 people have the opportunity to talk about what it means to lead in this sector as Black women. This is one of the most important things that we’ve done because we make a space for Black women who are natural leaders, natural philanthropists, and who are navigating the sector with grace and impact for real talk, for respite, and for peer support.

Fair:  To stay on this theme of supporting career development, we’ve been thinking about how to engage HR departments more because we have to intentionally build pipelines for Black professionals to come into philanthropy, especially into operation-level roles like grants, investments, and finance. What are the things that you think are critically important from ABFE’s perspective to bring more Black and Brown people into the sector?

We don't have a diversity problem in this sector, we have a retention problem.

Taylor Batten: In 2014, ABFE published The Exit Interview. For that report, we interviewed approximately one hundred current and former Black program officers. Three major themes emerged. One was that Black professionals did not see growth opportunities in the sector. They did not see a path for career mobility. Two, those who were leaving the sector, were leaving because of issues around institutional culture. Three, there is a lack of urgency around pressing issues facing Black communities.

We don’t just have a diversity problem in this sector, we have a retention problem.

Our Connecting Leaders Fellowship Program each year brings in 10 mid-career, African American professionals and, over the course of a year, we support their professional development. These are folks who have been in the sector for about two to three years, and many are ready to leave. By the time the fellowship year ends, three out of the 10 may decide to leave the sector. We are able to retain a number of them because the fellowship provides extensive networking for Black professionals early on in their careers.

HR departments need to pay attention to the data around retention, disaggregated by race, to understand why people of color are leaving. And executive leaders and boards need to pay more attention to these issues as well.

Fair: In this moment of chaos and unrest, many of us are working hard to be movement builders. What does allyship mean to you and what’s your call to action for the sector writ large?

Taylor Batten: Allyship means being a vocal advocate. Speak up and speak up loudly. It also means action. This is the time to move more resources to organizations that are focused on racial justice and to BIPOC-led organizations. This is the time to invest in people and communities. That’s how we get to substantive, sustained change.

Fair: We’ve been using the term, “hold the line,” which is to say, all the things that foundations did quickly during chaos can be done when times are normal because they make sense.

Taylor Batten: And how do we get funders to understand there has always been urgency? There has always been disaster in certain communities. Rapid response funds are needed because communities have been neglected for quite some time. We need to move money differently. That’s why grants managers are critically important in this moment. And because we have to help the larger philanthropic sector understand that this is about policies and practices around moving money, there’s no better partner in driving change than grants managers.