Black history and the history of the nonprofit sector are deeply intertwined. Black History Month itself was founded in 1915 by a nonprofit, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Considering how closely ZIM’s work is linked to philanthropy, we took some time this month to understand the history of Black philanthropy. Understanding this history can help us fundraise and support communities more equitably.
History of Black Philanthropy
It is common to see Black philanthropists framed as new or recently emerging, but this framing is incorrect. Black Philanthropy has existed for centuries (for much longer than what we think of as modern philanthropy) and has roots in West African culture. Enslaved peoples brought with them a “tradition of loosely defined kinship,”─ meaning neighbors in need getting help from their neighbors, often informally. During slavery, this tradition of helping each other became a means for survival. Looking after your neighbors and combining resources characterized Black philanthropy from the beginning, and as America’s racial history unfolded, the abolitionist movement, resistance to Jim Crow and segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement continually shaped Black Philanthropy.
Philanthropic giving fueled the abolitionist movement and was largely covert due to a threat of violence. Still, early Black philanthropists including James Forten and Tommy LaFon funded abolitionist newspapers and other mechanisms to end slavery. When slavery formally ended in 1865, Black communities were left to take care of themselves, often through informal structures. In her article “Black Philanthropy,” Yvonne M. Brake writes:
“In fact, in the most difficult years of discrimination and violence against blacks in the south, from 1880-1920, African-Americans turned to themselves to educate the masses of their people, care for the needy, facilitate economic development, and address political concerns largely through their churches.”
The church was and continues to be a major driver of Black Philanthropy. At that time, “fraternal” or “mutual aid groups” were also strong vehicles for giving, predating the modern Giving Circle concept. In this period, education became a major philanthropic focus as many Black colleges were formed. Education and scholarships remain a significant focus among of Black philanthropists today.
The “Separate but Equal” Supreme Court decision forced Black Americans to create separate mechanisms and systems for philanthropy to meet the needs of their communities. During Jim Crow, Madam CJ Walker, America’s first female millionaire, and contemporary of the Gilded Age’s Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, imagined a different model for giving. Instead of giving large sums upon her death, she gave throughout her life as her wealth accumulated.
Black philanthropy also fueled the Civil Rights Movement, funding causes like meals for Freedom Riders, registering Black voters, and desegregating schools. Top Black philanthropists during this time included A.G. Gaston, who did most of his philanthropy in secret.
Black Philanthropy Today
Many Black Philanthropy scholars and advocates are calling to reimagine our definition of philanthropy today to be more inclusive.
"One reason little has been written about black philanthropy is that the word philanthropy evokes images of large foundations and wealthy philanthropists, which are scarce in the black community. When one expands the concept to include giving money, goods, and time; blacks emerge as having a strong, substantial philanthropic tradition.” – Dr. Emmett Carson.
Today, funding distribution in the nonprofit sector reflects systemic inequities Black Americans face. Many studies show that Black families give a higher proportion of their income away than any other racial group, despite earning less and facing structural barriers to accumulating wealth. At the same time, white-led nonprofits access more philanthropic dollars than Black-led nonprofits—one study found that white-led nonprofits’ budgets were 24% larger than nonprofits led by people of color. Another study found that unrestricted assets were 76% smaller for black-led nonprofits. Several factors contribute to this, but one is the way fundraising operates. Any fundraiser will tell you that relationships are central to fundraising, and a study of nonprofit executives found that 50% of CEOs of color reported a “lack of relationships with funding sources,” compared with 33% of white CEOs.
The Center for Family Philanthropy points out that society at large was not designed to help Black charitable institutions survive. For this very reason, Black-led nonprofits are resilient and withstanding. However, although Black nonprofits can adapt, that does not mean they should have to.
Understanding Black Philanthropy for more Equitable Fundraising
Both philanthropists and fundraisers have a lot to learn from studying Black Philanthropy and its history. For example, philanthropists can learn to build trusting relationships with Black nonprofits. Hawwa Muhammad at Tides writes:
“By acknowledging the history of giving in the Black community, institutional philanthropy can more readily embrace trust-based philanthropy and entrust the Black community to be responsible and resourceful stewards of funds.”
This is an important step to solving the disparities in white- and Black-led nonprofits’ access to funding—especially unrestricted funding. For Black Executive Director Tiffany Turner-Allen, “there is no such thing as giving too much,” especially when it comes to general operating and capacity building, given the 400-year history of oppression Black communities carry and still face today.
Fundraisers also have a part to play. Donors have power in nonprofits. They can and do heavily influence how nonprofits serve their communities. Currently, Black Americans are approached as donors less often than white Americans. Thus,