There’s no denying the power of purse strings. Those who control money control much of the world. And that’s as true for charity work as it is for politics or business.
Here in Seattle, home to powerhouses like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we understand the global influence of foundation giving. But despite its scope, philanthropy remains largely white. A recent study found only 8 percent of CEOs and 17 percent of “senior executive staff” working at charitable foundations are people of color.
“There’s not a pipeline for people of color to enter the field of philanthropy,” says Sindhu Knotz of Philanthropy Northwest, a Seattle organization that does philanthropy consulting for corporations and foundations. “It’s traditionally a very white field.”
In response, Philanthropy Northwest has launched the Momentum Fellowship. The program aims to prepare professionals from underrepresented communities for careers in the philanthropic sector through mentorship, training and short-term salaried positions at existing foundations.
“When you’re in philanthropy, you can see the underbelly,” says fellow Janelle Choi, who worked on development projects in Burma. “People with very good intentions can also do a lot of destructive things to vulnerable communities if they aren’t really listening or haven’t removed their own biases.”
Choi says she watched well-meaning donors displace indigenous communities while attempting to “save” tiger populations. That tragedy, she says, was a product of a philanthropic culture that doesn’t always value voices on the ground, or involve diverse people in the decision-making process.
Fellow Liz Posey had a similar experience while consulting for the Ministry of Health in Liberia.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t know about Liberia. But I knew how to listen and how to take time to really deeply understand their perspective,” says Posey, who grew up in Anchorage. “And part of that was my experience as an African American growing up in American society seeing … what happens when you don’t listen to the community.”
Those misunderstandings, between foundations and their grantees, can be just as intense in this country. For example, donors often prefer to give project-specific grants to nonprofits rather than general operating funds, a strategy that can be insensitive and tone-deaf in poor communities.
“Maybe someone needs a bus pass or someone needs gas … or they need money that is not restricted so they can order pizza for a meeting,” says Posey, explaining that foundations without diversity often misunderstand the reality on the ground. “I know what it’s like at those grass-roots levels when you’re trying to mobilize poor communities. I know what it takes.”
And through the Momentum Fellowship, Choi and Posey get to apply that real life know-how at the Seattle-based Marguerite Casey Foundation. There, they work on all aspects of grant-making for organizations, advocating for low-income families across the country.
When I caught up with them, they were on a lunch break from a two-day retreat hosted by Philanthropy Northwest. And even the résumé class they’d just left tackled inequity and bias. The facilitator suggested fellows not include the dates of their education or previous salaries to mitigate ageism and classism in the hiring process.
“Right now, philanthropy is based on networks and who you know, and you hire based on who you know,” says Choi. “Philanthropy is really white. And so the decision-makers and power players are also white.”
But that’s going to have to change as the country grows more diverse, Posey says. Even Anchorage — like the nation as a whole — has grown far more diverse in recent years, she added. It’s a reality that the philanthropic sector must acknowledge if it really wants to help, says Knotz of Philanthropy Northwest.
“If companies don’t start reflecting the communities they serve,” she says, “They will become irrelevant.”
Whether or not they hold the purse strings.