How to be a more equitable philanthropist

Fred Blackwell, CEO of San Francisco Foundation

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted entrenched inequities in our society, with people of color being hospitalized and dying of the virus at disproportionately high rates compared to other races. 

In the midst of this health crisis, an unarmed Black man named George Floyd was killed by police, refocusing the nation on the issue of police brutality toward Black people. Protestors took to the streets, and many philanthropists contacted Fidelity Charitable asking: What can we do to help prioritize racial equity in the United States?

San Francisco Foundation CEO Fred Blackwell has dedicated his career to facilitating and promoting positive social change. Under his leadership, the community foundation has made a point of structuring their programmatic and policy work around alleviating and eliminating racial inequity in the Bay Area. Blackwell sat down with us to share insights donors can use to achieve greater racial equity through their philanthropy.

See the five action items from the San Francisco Foundation to advance equity

Q: How do you define equity?

A: Growing up in Oakland, I spent a lot of time riding my bike around town. One of the things that always struck me was how people who lived so close to each other could have such different lives. Why, I wondered, did some neighborhoods have grocery stores, nice parks, and a sense of safety when others didn’t? And why was it people of color who lived in the neighborhoods that lacked these things? When I got to the San Francisco Foundation in 2014, the first thing I did was a whole lot of listening. We held community listening sessions in each of the five counties we serve, and over and over, residents told us that what they needed most was a good job, a safe and affordable home, and the ability to exercise their political voice. Those are the priorities that have helped us define equity – a society where every person feels they belong, and can reach their full potential, regardless of their race or zip code. That definition is the North Star that we use to center all our work. 

Q: The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted so much inequity in our society. What lessons can you offer to our donors as they look to develop a philanthropic response to this crisis alongside their longer-term strategies?

A: Racial equity is not a concern that comes up only during a pandemic or following the senseless murders of Black people. We have known for some time, based on our research, that racial equity is the top concern of residents in the Bay Area. That’s why, back in 2016, we moved away from traditional funding “buckets” and instead centered racial equity in all of our work. What this means is that we haven’t made any sudden pivots in order to do this work. We had a team in place that is knowledgeable and passionate about racial equity. We had longstanding partnerships with the nonprofits, policymakers and donors who are making this inclusive Bay Area a reality. My advice to donors is to let go of the notion that racial equity is a cause to support only at this moment. It is the issue of our time. You can apply its lens to all of your giving to make sure that everyone has enough to eat in this country, has a roof over their head, lives in a clean and green neighborhood, sees themselves in the arts, and more. In every action you take in your giving, you have an opportunity to apply this lens, to consider who you are centering and the near- and long-term impacts of that work. 

Q: What advice do you have for donors as they think about engaging with direct service and community-based organizations at the forefront of responding to the Covid-19 crisis?

A: It's important to consider the new realities of the people you may be trying to connect with. They are working under very difficult circumstances -- in many cases, they may be supervising staff who are struggling with the impacts of this crisis, and the communities they serve are suffering. They themselves are likely living and operating under new conditions. But you can still get to know the organization by setting up a call with their executive director. Try to learn what about what motivates the leaders you're speaking to: What keeps them up at night? What are they most proud of? What’s their vision for the communities they serve? Focusing on the technical details of a program will only get you so far. You can build trust by expressing a genuine interest in why they do what they do and what their communities are experiencing – and consider adapting the way you carry out your giving to meet their realities.

Q: What are you doing at the San Francisco Foundation to respond to non-profits, organizations or communities that are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic?

A: We knew that a swift-moving virus would require a swift response. Two days after San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, we established a COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund to support workers in low-wage jobs, protect renters and prevent homelessness, provide food to those who need it, and counter racial harassment and hate crimes that have spiked since the beginning of the outbreak. We streamlined application processes and reporting requirements so nonprofits can focus on the work at hand. But beyond grant dollars, we’ve been offering trainings to help nonprofits manage their finances, raise money in a virtual environment, navigate federal assistance programs, and support emotional wellbeing for their staff. To capture the immediate needs of nonprofits, we also partnered with other local funders to ask grantees what they and the communities they serve were struggling with most. Our findings, published in June and gleaned from the responses of nearly 200 East Bay nonprofits, revealed that 80 percent of organizations have been highly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, particularly when it comes to fundraising and cash flow. And 90 percent said their clients are at high risk, especially when it comes to work, food and housing. 

Q: What are key principles you can offer our donors on how to support equity on social issues spotlighted by—but also reaching far beyond—the COVID-19 crisis?

A: Before the pandemic, a full third of Bay Area residents had virtually no savings to pay for an emergency like a car repair to make sure they can get to work or medication for an illness. What this tells us is that both communities and the nonprofits that serve them (especially those led by people of color) had little to no cushion to weather a crisis of this magnitude. We need to invest in that type of infrastructure not just right now, but as a tenet of our long-term giving strategies.

Editor's note:

It’s hard to believe it was just a couple of months ago that I was with Fred and his team in the San Francisco Foundation’s offices, meeting with a group of our Fidelity Charitable donors to explore the important topic of Giving with Impact in the Bay Area—and how applying an Equity Lens can accelerate that impact. For many years, we at Fidelity Charitable have been incredibly inspired by the work that Fred and his team have led to focus their work to advance racial and economic inclusion. As we’ve seen significant growth in our donors’ supporting community-based organizations, there are many lessons that we can all learn from the mindset, strategies, and approaches that the San Francisco Foundation is using, and can serve as a model for how other communities may want to approach implementing their own strategies. We are pleased to share the San Francisco Foundation’s curated list of organizations in the Bay Area working to achieve equity. This list also includes the San Francisco Foundation itself.

Elaine Martyn, VP & Managing Director, Fidelity Charitable Private Donor Group

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions of the interviewee is their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Fidelity Charitable.  Fidelity Charitable does not guarantee the accuracy of the information delivered.  We encourage you to explore a wide variety of sources in implementing your charitable giving strategies and values.

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