Last month, I wrote about the need for white folks who are looking for ways to address racial injustice in America to support black founders. I challenged funders and individuals to make big investments in the organizations and initiatives that black leaders create. After reading my article, a few funders asked me to talk in greater detail about how they could better support black founders. 

As a black male founder of TeenSHARP and DelawareCAN, naturally, I have dozens of ideas I can share about what funders can do moving forward. But I don’t find it prudent for white folks to charge ahead as allies in this work without sufficiently acknowledging their own complicity in systems that oppress black folks. 

In moments like this, there’s an inclination for well-intentioned white people to ask what they can do. But funders and those with the ability to control and direct resources should resist the urge to hastily concoct some big new initiative. It is important that they focus first on what they need to undo

Photograph: Amy Katz/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Funders must start with serious and uncomfortable introspection that acknowledges their individual or institutional practices have done real harm. I am sure funders can point to all the good their money has done in the community. But can they also pinpoint the ways racism shows up in how they do business and how that has hurt the community?

Like the anonymous instagram accounts that students created to share stories of racism in their schools, rest assured there are years of untold stories about how the philanthropic community has caused pain. Unearth them!

For years, the black community (and other communities of color) has witnessed millions of precious dollars go to waste as ideas that were cooked up without our input unsurprisingly fail. 

We’ve watched white leaders receive generous funding after repackaging, revising, or outright stealing our ideas only to fumble them given their lack of true connection to our community.

I remember the time when a white nonprofit leader presented my intellectual property in a meeting that I attended and declared it “a mashup of our ideas.” 

We’ve endured funders using black leaders for their credibility and cultural capital but never giving them control or real authority. 

We’ve seen funders “pick our brains” pro bono while they send checks to white consultants for their expertise. 

We’ve watched our ideas and organizations die or subsist on scraps while white-led organizations have resources to bloat up and sustain.  

It has been painful for many of us to watch the bevy of expensive consultants, researchers, and conference organizers that funders have enriched in an effort to get answers that are available and abundant in our community. 

We’ve seen funders divest from critical funding priorities or give black-led initiatives little room for error after decades of making big bets on white-led experimentation in communities of color. 

And we live with the effects of initiatives funders regard as successful that unintentionally ossify racial inequality.  

There are real costs to the extreme lack of diversity and proximity among those who direct the flow of money into communities of color. 

We feel it most acutely but progress for all of us is being curtailed in our “inescapable network of mutuality.”

So the first thing funders can do to undo is assess the damage. 

They must do all they can to surface honest feedback specific to who and what they’ve harmed. 

Then they should unpack the mindsets, orientations, policies, and practices they have that are at the root of the pain they have caused. 

It will require that they lean into discomfort and keep any defensiveness in check. 

It might be painful but it pales in comparison

And there’s true progress on the other side of acknowledgement and atonement.

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