Black Philanthropy: Causes that Matter for Black Lives (and a Thriving Society)

The following was written by Halima Leak Francis and Natalie Ossenfort.

Sports legend, Michael Jordan’s recent donations to the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund surprised many. In the announcement of his contributions totaling $2 million, his anguish and call for change was clear, and he backed it with action.

We residents of Dallas and other communities torn by racial tension and violence feel Jordan’s frustration. As we struggle to find a way forward, there is much we can learn by looking more than 100 years back. In 1896, W.E.B. Dubois, co-founder of the NAACP and Atlanta University president Horace Bumstead launched the Atlanta University Conferences to address issues similar to those we face today: race relations, inequities, and turmoil. DuBois identified viable solutions including one critical approach that resonates today: “unified strategic philanthropy.” He urged black Americans to support critical causes for black advancement by giving to organizations best positioned to make systemic change. “The real test…in the advancement of any group of people in civilization,” he wrote in 1898 “is the extent to which they are able to organize and systematize their efforts for the common weal.”

Today, in the face of vast, systemic, interrelated problems, we need to recall DuBois’ wisdom and return to coordinated strategic philanthropy. What better time to do this than during Black Philanthropy Month? Launched in 2011 by the Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network, Black Philanthropy Month highlights the month of August as a time to celebrate black giving.

While acknowledging the importance of black philanthropy, now more than ever, we need to ask ourselves: how do we best leverage our collective wealth and philanthropic resources to address the systemic issues that support the cycle of damaging conditions that lead to such tragic outcomes? In seeking long-term change, we should identify causes that represent the interests of our communities and organizations that embrace advocacy and strive to achieve meaningful policy reform. Three crucial areas need a strategic philanthropic approach to address our current barrage of injustice and tragedy.

  1. The Justice System — Although we may not all have Michael Jordan’s wealth, our strategic giving can make a difference here. A more equitable society requires a justice system where all are treated fairly. That is not happening right now as a disproportionate number of black men are imprisoned or wrongfully convicted of crimes. In seeking justice, black philanthropy should support initiatives working to clear the names of the wrongfully convicted as well as to reform the criminal justice system through legislative action. By coordinating support in this area, we can advance equitable treatment under the law.
  1. Arts and Media — The arts and media are critical in giving voice to underrepresented groups. They influence our biases, and how we perceive the world. With a shortage of prominent, diverse voices, we miss the relational nuances that are essential for peace and justice. Black support for arts organizations ensures that diverse voices can be heard throughout our creative and media outlets. This presence is essential in inspiring policy change reflecting a diversity of community interests.
  1. The Environment — Too often we ignore the impact of the environment in racial inequities. Marginalized groups often bear the brunt of natural disasters and pollution. Environmental racism leads to higher risks for health concerns including asthma, cancer, and birth defects. A strategic approach to black philanthropy should include environmental justice. Supporting groups working to protect the environment safeguards the well-being of our families and neighborhoods.

These three areas do not represent the full scope of issues where our dollars are needed. We sorely need to coordinate our giving toward education, gun control, and mental health care. However, all these systems are inextricably linked. Our justice system supports our civil rights; the arts and media influence how we relate to the world; and access to clean air and water are critical for our health. Shortfalls in any one of these areas causes our entire society to suffer. For far-reaching, systemic solutions, people of all races must now heed Dubois’ call for intentional charity to dismantle structures of injustice. As we celebrate black giving this month and beyond, let us also recognize the power of our strategic philanthropy in healing our communities.

Halima Leak Francis and Natalie Ossenfort are community leaders based in Dallas, TX. Leak Francis is a charitable giving advocate, fundraising consultant, and philanthropic adviser. Her work centers on promoting social justice through giving and volunteerism.  Ossenfort is the Texas director at Alliance for Justice, where she works with the organization’s Bolder Advocacy program to demystify advocacy rules for nonprofit organizations.