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Race equity and philanthropy: Asking ourselves tough questions

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Jump to: White-dominant cultural norms | Equity in evaluation | Staff reflection

We envision an equitable community where opportunities for growth and quality of life are shared by all.

At the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, we prioritize equity in all we do. It is one of our guiding principles, and an equitable community is our vision for the future of the areas we serve. But our understanding of equity continues to evolve, and we are doing our best to hold ourselves accountable for deepening our understanding in all possible ways.

Our partners at Funders Together to End Homelessness have introduced Foundations for Racial Equity, a community of practice. Angela D’Orazio attended FRE’s latest convening, which included an eye-opening discussion on the organizational norms of white-dominant culture that pervade many of our community nonprofits, schools, corporations and philanthropy.

Some of the most prominent norms are:

  • Fear of open conflict –a right to comfort. Politeness is valued over honesty. White fragility goes unchecked. Those who bring up discomfort for others are scapegoated. Useful feedback is not given in a timely manner, resulting in underperformance, lack of growth and distorted sense of how one is doing. Smaller problems left unattended become bigger ones down the road.
  • Priorities and timelines that perpetuate white-dominant culture – a sense of urgency for funder-driven deliverables, but not for community building, capacity building or equity work implementation.
  • Paternalism – no consultation or transparency in decision making. Taking over campaigns, mediating and facilitating others, instead of setting clarity early on about who makes decisions and engaging in deep listening with those affected.
  • Power hoarding – ideas from less senior people are treated as a threat; information and decision making is confidential. Holds onto resources; embraces a scarcity mindset. Strong leaders will make sure teams understand that their role is to empower, develop skills and support growth.
  • Progress means bigger/more – focus on quantity; less focus is put on the cost of growth on people, communities, and relationships.
  • Equity washing – signing onto big, lofty values/goals around equity but not enacting them. Hiring people of color but not supporting a cultural shift to retain them.

Funders from across the country learned how they participate in the perpetuation of these norms, often implicitly and without realization. The discussions were telling: “As we learned about the white-dominant norms, I discovered so many of my own blind spots,” D’Orazio said. “Norms that I didn’t even realize were rooted in white culture were showing up in my work. It made me ask what other blind spots do I have, what else am I missing?”

Exploring these norms is deeply uncomfortable, D’Orazio said, but necessary for growth and change. This is referred to as the “principled struggle” (attributed to NTanya Lee), and all must cultivate spaces for members, coalitions and communities to move through conflict in a way that makes everyone better.

This struggle is for the sake of deepening collective understanding and getting to greater unity.

Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) offers a list of commitments organizations can make to work through this struggle:

  • Being honest and direct while holding compassion.
  • Have side conversations and one-on-ones to help us get to better and build us up.
  • Be responsible for our own feelings and actions.
  • Seek deeper understanding. (We ask and read first).
  • Consider that this may not be the container to hold what you need to bring.

Equity in evaluation

In a similar vein, director of knowledge & learning Christine Mitton recently attended a convening of Midwest foundations organized by the Equitable Evaluation Initiative (EEI). EEI founder and convening facilitator Jara Dean-Coffey challenged attendees to consider how white-dominant cultural norms are rooted in the development of evaluation as a field. This examination including recognizing and coming to terms with several philanthropic evaluation “orthodoxies,” or recurring beliefs about evaluative practices within philanthropy that only serve to reinforce inequities.

These evaluative practices include:

  • Foundations define what success looks like – Foundation staff and boards look to definitions of success based on previously established models and literature that fail to account for historic and structural discrimination.
  • Evaluators are selected based on traditional notions of expertise – Selection criteria including academic credentials, subject matter expertise and methodological approach/skill restrict the development of evaluation frameworks that reflect principles of equity.
  • Quantitative data and experimental research count as credible evidence – These types of data and evidence are viewed with value and legitimacy regardless of their fit to the situation, while systematically collected and analyzed qualitative data is dismissed or treated with suspicion.

“We must break down the continual tension between what counts as valid evidence and the need to authentically analyze the multiple truths lived in our communities,” Mitton said. “What are we doing as a foundation to change our understanding of what qualifies as evidence? Are we perpetuating this tension if we do not make questions about race, racism and structural racism core to our evaluation work?”


D’Orazio and Mitton offer this reflection on their learning:

As we both sat through our separate meetings, we shared with the groups that we weren’t consciously aware of ascribing to these norms—and certainly not aware that these are norms of dominant white culture.

Those of us with privilege are most blind to it. And this is why we have an obligation in our work to confront these truths and to critically re-examine other practices within our organizations through a race equity lens. What else are we doing unintentionally that promote these norms? How do we need to show up differently to our relationships with grantees, recognizing the inherent power dynamic that exists between funders and grantees and the racist roots of philanthropy? 

We don’t have answers to these questions now; we are sharing them in the hopes that other organizations will also begin to look inward. We are committed to continuously asking ourselves how to grow and embrace change, and reckoning with the fact that though we did not create these norms, philanthropy in many forms continues to operate within the same framework. We are joining conversations, putting topics on the table and challenging ourselves to think differently, because as long as systemic racism and white culture prevails, eliminating poverty at its roots will be impossible.

Angela D’Orazio, Senior program officer, homelessness

Christine Mitton

Christine Mitton, PhD, director, knowledge and learning

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