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We need to change how we give

Institutional philanthropy has a problem - but there are better ways to support charitable causes.

August 31 2022, 12.23pm

Philanthropic capital benefits from a system that has and continues to plunder trillions of dollars from racially and other minoritised communities. When you consider how this money has been accumulated, how it is invested, and who decides who is worthy of funding, philanthropy, as an institution, displays the hallmarks of this extractive economy - but with a ‘good cop’ mask. 

On April 6 1819, an illegal French slave ship La Rodeur set sail from Bonny on the West African coast to Guadeloupe. Two weeks into the journey, an outbreak of ophthalmia spread among the twenty-two crew and 162 enslaved people, rendering practically everyone onboard temporarily or permanently blind. 

Captain Boucher, the ship’s skipper, recognised that he could not sell blind enslaved people or claim insurance. So, as La Rodeur neared Guadeloupe, he ordered his crew to throw thirty-six captives, with weights tied to their legs, overboard to drown.

I didn’t know about this atrocity until I visited Turner-prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid’s exhibition at the Tate Modern. In a series of paintings about La Rodeur, Himid reflects on this ineffable horror and the erasure of Black people.

This story is a living history; then is still now. Black bodies remain devalued and disposable because Western society has been built on an economy where wealth, power, and opportunities are constructed on racial lines.

Consider, for example, that the top-300 charitable trusts and foundations in the UK are worth approximately £72 billion - yet give away only £3.5 billion per year to good causes, less than five percent of their wealth. Overall, the investments that grow this wealth do not align with their charitable giving.

Research commissioned by the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) in 2018 showed that ‘99% of UK foundation trustees are white, two-thirds are men.’

According to the Funders for Race Equality Alliance, only five percent of UK charitable trust funding goes to organisations led by racially minoritised people, despite making up fourteen percent of the population. 

Globally, ninety percent of environmental funding goes towards white-led organisations and eighty percent to organisations led by men. Black feminist movements receive between 0.1 and 0.35 per cent of annual grant dollars from foundations globally. 

What author and activist Arundathi Roy said of NGOs is true of institutional philanthropy (charitable trusts and foundations, donor-advised funds, development agencies, etc.): ‘Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right … They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and reaffirm achievements, the comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of Western Civilization, minus the guilt of the history of genocide, colonialism, and slavery.’

The power of people will drive change to philanthropy’s current facade. My book, Giving Back, offers principles for and examples of everyday giving (philanthropy, in its truest sense is a love of humanity where we give time, money, ideas) that can challenge seemingly insurmountable issues, from climate change to racism. But a reparative approach to resourcing racial and social justice is critical. 

There are reasons for optimism. Institutional philanthropy in the UK started to evolve late in 2020, post-George Floyd’s lynching, due mainly to the activism of Ubele Initiative and Charity So White, among others. 

We are also at the beginning of the most significant wealth transfer in history, where an estimated £50-60 trillion will shift from the baby boomers to their children over the next twenty-five years. The next generation of wealth holders will likely be more radical in their giving. 

How to give better

To be clear, institutional philanthropy will not save us. In a just world, it would not exist. But it must do more to tackle entrenched inequalities. As Luam Kidane, Director of Global Programs at Thousand Currents, recently said, ‘What it [philanthropy] can do is move resources to movements that are creating systemic change that will then make philanthropy non-existent.’

African Diaspora giving traditions offer multiple models for how the institution should advance and what frameworks it should invest in. For example, take Trinidadian activist, Black feminist, and writer Claudia Jones, pioneer of the Notting Hill Carnival. 

Professor Carole Boyce Davies identified five principles of Jones’ practice that serve as a potential charter. These include ‘reimagining emancipatory possibilities’ and having an ‘internationalist vision of Black freedom struggles.’

Jones, who battled tuberculosis throughout her life, took an intersectional approach (before Kimberlé Crenshaw pioneered the theory). Author and journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff has also spoken about Jones’ approach to joy as a form of resistance. During Brinkhurst-Cuff’s NUJ Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture in 2021, she said: ‘If we abandon our ability to find joy in the world, we abandon our politics and our identities.’ The same could be said of philanthropy. 

Imagine if funders invested in the radical imagination, joy and innovation of communities, not just their pain? What if funders became less siloed in their thinking, recognising that we are all interconnected, and that you cannot divorce, for example, racial injustice from the climate crisis? Giving would be far more effective. 

Another example of African Diaspora giving is the pardner system, a partnership where people save collectively, commonly used by the Windrush generation and the basis for the first registered credit union in the UK, the Hornsey Co-operative

Pardner’s fundamental principles include trust, solidarity, self-determination, creating an alternative system, collective care, and racial justice, a cultural practice where everyone shares the risk and reward.

These innovations have endured and benefitted everybody. The carnival serves over two million people and generates over £90 million to the economy annually while, on the Hornsey Co-operative’s forty-ninth and last year in 2013, there were 371 credit unions, with over 1.3 million people benefitting. 

Many social purpose organisations today, from Project Tallawah to YARD Art House, have been created on similar principles. As Amahra Spence, founder of YARD once said to me, ‘Black Imagination and Disability Justice, as frameworks, share a foundational concept: that no one is disposable.’

A change is gonna come. But to be genuinely transformative, we must shift our approach to philanthropy from preservation to reparative redistribution, from the institution to the frontline, and from growing wealth to growing community power. 

Derek A Bardowell is the author of Giving Back: How To Do Good, Better (Dialogue Books/Little, Brown) and CEO of philanthropy education firm Ten Years’ Time.