Growing and affirming community philanthropy

Darryl Lester
Darryl Lester

Darryl K. Lester

In the United States, people of color tend to focus their “philanthropy” on deep and historically intractable social problems.

People of color seek to work creatively at the community level, as well as to open up market opportunities for their communities so that educational and social progress will lead to economic progress and stability.

While the “new philanthropy” that generates eight-figure donations to colleges and universities may grab the headlines, it is those below the fold, or back-page philanthropy in communities of color, that may be making the most creative investments in community-based grassroots solutions to the nation’s enduring social and educational inequities.

Philanthropy among people of color is not new. People of color share a long, rich history of giving that has largely gone unnoticed because it does not fit the traditional image of philanthropy.

Even the word “philanthropy” is not commonly used among people of color because it is considered something that wealthy white people do.

There are various examples of philanthropy in communities of color. An African-American mother takes care of the children on her block so that other mothers can work.

Native Americans join in a “giveaway” ceremony where they shed material possessions.

A Hispanic family shelters relatives from their native country while they get a foothold in America.

Due to many structural and institutional barriers to the tools of institutional philanthropy, African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and other groups of color have created their own giving structures and practices.

According to a publication from New Ventures in Philanthropy, an initiative of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, the policies of philanthropic institutions and the behavior of individuals at these institutions support the belief that communities less familiar with organized philanthropy are not givers and do not participate in the voluntary actions that underpin civil society.

Many African Americans give through charitable vehicles that do not register in mainstream studies. Because most of African-American philanthropy is not captured in mainstream studies, African Americans have been viewed as being on the “demand” side of philanthropy rather than on the “supply” side.

How do we begin to change the “philanthropic lens”?

First, we must broaden the definition of philanthropy to be more inclusive of the traditions of giving among people of color.

The institutional or mainstream philanthropic sector must begin to place a higher value on the time, talent and skill, as well as financial resources, that people of color invest in their communities to raise the quality of living in communities.

The European Foundation Centre in Brussels provides a good definition of philanthropy: “Philanthropy is the act of individual citizens and local institutions contributing money or goods, along with their time and skills, to promote the well-being of others and the betterment of society.”

And we must revive the concept of community philanthropy and the spirit of collective giving that is central to changing the “philanthropic lens.”

As we look at the nature of people’s lives while balancing family and work, there is an increasing disconnect of people from one another.

In many communities today, unless a crisis occurs, individuals do not appear to see the value of coming together to discuss how to make the space, communities, neighborhoods, regions, states and, ultimately, the world where they live better than when they came into them.

Crisis remains the one thing that brings individuals and groups together within and outside their communities.

Even though the giving traditions of the new groups are deep and enduring, many of the newcomers have limited knowledge of the techniques of organized giving in perpetuity.

Many grassroots communities can and will benefit from targeted efforts to provide information on the many incentives and options for strategic organized giving.

Genuine efforts to provide information on a variety of philanthropic options create a place and space for new equitable collaborations between philanthropic institutions and civically minded individuals within communities of color.

To speak of the American civic tradition without reference to the varied traditions within communities of color that are shaping our civic life is incomplete and imbalanced.

The accents, color, complexions and ways of giving are different, but they are often ordinary people with extraordinary commitments.

The face and language of community philanthropy is changing, and collective giving among communities of color is growing. Communities once considered consumers of philanthropy will become producers of philanthropy, changing the philanthropy script to broaden how philanthropists look, sound and give.

These issues will be discussed at the upcoming Community Investment Network Conference, a gathering of community philanthropists engaged in collective giving, to be held Oct. 1-4 in New Orleans. Details about the conference are available online.

Darryl K. Lester is the founder of HindSight Consulting Inc. and the Community Investment Network in Raleigh, N.C.

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