Our Nonprofit Could Have Done Better to Measure Grant-Making Data on Race

Christel Deskins

To the Editor: The controversy surrounding the National Committee for Reponsive Philanthropy’s latest report, “Black Funding Denied,” has been intense. (“Community Foundations Say Report Undercounts Support for Groups That Serve Blacks,” September 8) Many of the 25 community foundations in our sample set have said that the data detailing grant […]

To the Editor:

The controversy surrounding the National Committee for Reponsive Philanthropy’s latest report, “Black Funding Denied,” has been intense. (“Community Foundations Say Report Undercounts Support for Groups That Serve Blacks,” September 8)

Many of the 25 community foundations in our sample set have said that the data detailing grant making explicitly designated to Black communities does not adequately capture their overall racial-equity efforts. Some have even gone so far as to call for the NCRP to retract the report. Yet, movement groups, including Black-led NCRP nonprofit members, tell us that the research reflects their lived experience.

As our country engages in the deepest national reckoning with anti-Black racism and violence since the civil-rights movement, we felt it was a moral imperative to shine a light on this disconnect.

The NCRP was founded to bring the voices of nonprofits — especially those by and for marginalized communities — into the philanthropic sector. Most nonprofits are reluctant to be publicly critical of foundations because of the power difference inherent in their status as potential future (or current) grantees. Funders too often hesitate to criticize their peers, in part because of a pervasive “politeness” culture that can inhibit and insulate the sector from productive discomfort necessary for growth.

As one of the few philanthropy-serving organizations with both foundation supporters and nonprofit members, the NCRP serves as a bridge between these two sets of change makers. Our value to the sector lies in our willingness to play the role of critical friend, provoking difficult conversations like this one. We have an obligation to our philanthropic colleagues to be collaborative, but also an obligation to hold a mirror up that reflects the reality of our movement partners. It is a tough balancing act.

We have learned a lot from this controversy and want to share our reflections. The nuanced and sometimes painful discussions catalyzed by this research have crystallized two consensus points among critics and proponents alike, notably that:

  • Community foundations can and must do more to support Black lives and liberation.
  • Funders have a shared responsibility for and self-interest in the creation of a better system for transparent, accurate, and timely sectorwide data.

We believe these areas of agreement represent fertile ground for ways we can move forward together.

No one denies the report’s central conclusion: that community foundations can and must do more to promote the thriving and liberation of Black people.

However, initial confusion around what was and was not being measured (and why) contributed unnecessarily to muddying the waters. That could have been avoided by greater precision in language used in the body of the report and the press release (both of which have since been edited for clarity) that the analysis was specifically and intentionally around grant making explicitly designated for Black communities. We also should have included an in-depth explanation of why we chose that standard as a measure for accountability in the first place.

Secondly, we could have been more proactive in our outreach to community foundations in our data set. We did contact each funder via email to inform them that they were being included in this research brief and offer a conversation prior to release. However, we could have engaged further with staff and leadership working to rally support internally and externally to do more to support Black communities.

Lastly, we defined the geographic service area for some of the foundations differently than they define their service area. At a minimum, we could have noted this distinction in our analysis.

We know several community foundations are taking bold steps in 2020 to benefit Black communities, and the NCRP will continue to highlight and share announcements of those efforts as they become public.

Foundations concerned about their reputations have the power to show the field exactly what they’ve accomplished and how frontline groups addressing structural racial injustice can access those resources. Foundations looking to improve their racial-equity giving have a plethora of resources and organizations at the ready to support them (including ABFE: A Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, and Equity in the Center, among others).

But there will be no way to measure progress or hold ourselves accountable without a serious, sustained effort to make philanthropic-sector data intersectional, transparent, and accessible.

Candid expects to have complete data for 2019 available early next year. The NCRP and other groups will likely publish reports in 2021 using that data to analyze important issues in philanthropy.

As a first step, we encourage community foundations who feel their data was miscoded to work with Candid to make corrections. And we encourage all foundations to take the time now to make sure their 2019 grant-making data is as accurate as possible so that we all have an updated picture of the state of the sector.

The NCRP has been part of discussions for years with Candid and other groups that make up the infrastructure that supports philanthropy about how to improve sector data. There’s no doubt the data isn’t perfect (see this helpful post from Candid’s executive vice president, Jacob Harold, for details), and there are important steps that Candid should take to make it better.

But funders need to take responsibility for the fact that ultimately they are the ones that determine what universe of data Candid — and all of us — have to work with in the first place. They should be working with Candid to create systems that enable faster data submission to avoid multiyear time lags, taxonomies that reflect the intersectional nature of grant making, and greater data access for communities and others seeking to understand the sector better.

Foundations have an obligation to be transparent with communities they serve by making their data publicly accessible, either through working with Candid or on their own websites. The existence of external and internal obstacles to making this transparency a reality does not absolve foundations from being held accountable by us or anyone else.

The urgency of the issue, not just the moment, demands purposeful, explicit funding and transparent accountability. We encourage funders to approach this conversation with honest vulnerability and to use it as an opportunity to strengthen and build community relationships and trust.

Aaron Dorfman
CEO
NCRP
Washington

Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson
Chair, NCRP Board of Directors
President, Deaconess Foundation

St. Louis

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