PACS Blog/February 24, 2021

Actionable Steps to Diversify Funding for Social Change

When funders miss the mark on explicitly supporting leaders and communities of color, they curb the innovation and impact needed to create a more equitable future. Today, funders need to do the long-term work to address their role in perpetuating inequities and act in the short term to rapidly respond as current health and social crises expand the divide.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

I started my social innovation career when I co-founded The Family Van, a mobile health clinic in Boston, in response to unconscionable health disparities experienced by Black mothers and babies in the shadows of one of the world’s best medical systems. In those early days, my co-founder Nancy Oriol and I blended our medical and health system knowledge with the expertise of members of the communities we served. We had the trust of one of our first institutional funders, Echoing Green, to develop an organization that was genuinely reflective and responsive to our Boston community’s needs. However, research shows that the kind of trust we had as founders of color was the exception and not the rule.

In this piece, I’ll share three ways funders can take immediate action to shift this dynamic.  

1. Expand and create new relationships.

We know implicit and explicit bias shows up in how funding applications are solicited and vetted, which compounds and maintains funding disparities between leaders of color and their white peers. To counteract this reality, create opportunities to review decision-making, impact assessments, and even how networks influence funding pools. Diversifying sourcing pools and expanding networks is one way to move toward a more racially diverse grantee portfolio while placing the systems-change we want to support at the center of our activities. One way to begin expanding funder networks is to ask a current grantee if they’d be willing to introduce you to others in their field or seek out a peer who does this well to introduce you to some of their network. A simple introduction can go a long way in forging progress.

2. Work with your grantee partners to set and track progress—and realign as necessary.

While we know that proximate leaders of color are well-equipped to address longstanding inequities, funding disparities persist even as their organizations grow and experience success. Dismantling barriers to capital requires addressing the root causes of why leaders of color struggle to secure sustained funding.

One theme is communication and trust: far too often, funder-defined metric targets become rigid stand-ins for feedback loops—but the funder-grantee relationship should be a partnership. A relational approach yields alignment on the organization’s theory of change, progress measurement, or what constitutes a strategic priority. Seek to understand and set priorities and metrics with the input and decision-making driven by the people and communities directly impacted by the issue. Nonprofit leaders deeply embedded in their communities have the most effective, relevant, and targeted solutions for those communities and can optimize philanthropic dollars’ impact.

3. Support leaders of color as they build and share power.

The same inequities that deny nonprofit leaders of color and their organizations’ access to funding also show up regarding the sector’s approach to capacity building.

Fortunately, a growing number of organizations (including Echoing Green) have been working to develop new methods for capacity building—approaches that deeply and authentically support both the health and growth of nonprofits led by people of color while encouraging more partnership within the sector. Offer to make connections, convene your grantees to promote collaboration and community building, and find ways to be a resource and partner to the leaders of color in your network.

From Reflection to Action

Funders have shared a variety of reasons for why they have not directed more funding to nonprofit leaders of color, including lack of awareness, uncertainty on what steps to take to reach or support these leaders, and even so far as not viewing these documented barriers to capital as a significant impediment to impact. But the truth is, if we don’t get this right, we’ll continue to leave impact on the table.

I harken back to my medical training and Dr. Atul Gawande’s work on the power of checklists for improving procedural outcomes. What if funders started this journey simply by making the complex mundane? Ask, what would be on my inclusive-funding checklist?:

  1. How many organizations in my portfolio are led by people of color?
  2. How broad is my sourcing network, and how often do I reach out to networks I’m less familiar with to meet new potential grantees?
  3. Are there funding disparities in my portfolio between organizations led by people of color and white leaders?
  4. Do I consider my grantees as true partners? How am I demonstrating that?
  5. Do I engage with my grantees over time to reach consensus on a plan that honors their expertise?
  6. Do I think about investments in leaders of color and their organizations in a way that is relevant, respectful, and responsive to their needs?

Commit to asking these questions repeatedly. And once these answers begin to change, that shift is one towards transformation.