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PEAK Grantmaking

Mentoring for a Seat at the Table

PEAK Grantmaking has long posited that effective grantmaking organizations deliberately connect the “how” of grantmaking to strategy and impact. Though it might sound simple, this goal is difficult to achieve, and few funders have attained it. In a recent survey, only 8 percent of grants management professionals indicated that their job included strategy development.

For grants management staff – whose work and expertise is the “how” of grantmaking – it’s been a challenge to gain a seat at the strategy and impact table, since the field at-large frames our profession as an integral but “back-office” function, responsible for implementing but not for making decisions.

For Black grants management professionals, this adds another layer to their already-challenging position. Is attaining a seat at this table possible and desirable, considering the various forms of institutional racism and lack of positional power they must overcome?

The challenges that Black professionals experience in the philanthropic sector are well documented. They start with representation: Digging into the demographics of PEAK Grantmaking’s membership, Black staff represent about 10 percent of our 4,300-person network. Representation is a low bar, but important in a position where many Black people say they experience loneliness and isolation – in their organizations and in philanthropy generally.

When we narrow the field to focus on Black men, the lack of representation becomes even more pronounced: They are fewer than 1 percent. For them, especially, the work experience can be lonely and isolating, both in their organizations and in philanthropy as a whole.

Mentoring is therefore critical for the survival and growth of Black staffers in the sector. In the face of a layered, philanthropy-wide problem, we believe that mentorship is a key part of the solution.

To break down the challenge, and the ways mentoring can help, consider the issues that new Black professionals must navigate:

  • How much of their “whole self” must Black staff negotiate when coming to work every day?
  • What are the potential consequences for being your “whole self”?
  • What self-inventory must you take to ensure white peers and leadership are more “comfortable” with your presence?
  • How do you react when a white peer or leader causes harm to you through their actions?
  • What coping mechanisms and self-care should you consider?
  • When do you stay in the fight and when do you take a break?
  • How are you expected to perform – and enforce – whiteness in your role?
  • How do you share what’s on your mind, your expertise, or your lived experience when what you share could put your career at risk?
  • How do you respond when your organization says it values “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” but your day-to-day experience demonstrates otherwise?

Often, the personal and professional behaviors of Black professionals are scrutinized at greater heights and depths than their white counterparts, and they must deal with the pressure of white-dominant professional standards while attempting to advance their personal and professional lives. The passion, commitment, and lived experience that so often bring Black staff to this work aren’t enough to navigate the long game.

To address the race and equity barriers that are held in place by white leadership, peers, consultants, and even volunteers and vendors, patience must be learned and taught – in philanthropy, and in America generally. Black staff who have been in the sector for a while can take on the role of mentor, but they must simultaneously navigate their own experiences with racism in the sector. Awareness and stamina are needed to address and redress institutional racism, and ultimately reduce the mental and physical toll it can take on Black bodies.

Black leaders are few in this sector. To increase their numbers, we propose mentoring relationships rooted in trust, human experience, shared empathy, and an unflinching examination of the problems we face. An ideal mentor is someone who can speak to the hopes and hazards ahead, the ongoing opportunities for growth, and how to capitalize on them.

Will mentorship advance the sector beyond the challenges of racism and white privilege? No, not on its own, but it is a critical piece of the puzzle. As we all become more aware of the harm that racism has caused, and seek to remedy it, our local and national philanthropic affinity groups must facilitate safe spaces for Black members, implement ideas for group mentoring, and provide anti-racism tools to their members in order to advance equity in grants management.

Mentoring has the power to spark understanding, courage, and resilience – and, ultimately, assist in navigating the exceptions to the rules, personalities, and norms that underwrite white privilege. If all goes right, perhaps mentors can ignite the audacity to thrive in a seat that was never meant for Black people or grants management staff to occupy.