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The RACE to Philanthropy

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I remember as a young girl, my father would have church in the living room of my home. After my father finished his congruous sermon he would occasionally say “sister or brother so-and-so is not doing well. Be sure to keep them in your prayers.” He would then pass around a bucket asking members to give what they can to help the family. This childhood memory helped shape the realization that philanthropy is colorblind.

As a development professional, I have observed many different trends in giving when it comes to race, specifically between Black and White donors. While a number of studies and surveys exist that document what motivates people to give according to their race, I have yet to see any rationale on why this is. The absence of information prompted me to explore this question: why there is such a disparity in giving between Blacks and Whites?

As any good writer would do, I started with data compiled about African American giving trends:

  • African Americans are more likely to support their place of worship. 
  • African Americans support causes that they directly identify with (identity-based philanthropy). 
  • One out of five African Americans says he or she would support more organizations if asked more often.

In reality, the above statistics hold true regardless of race. 

According to Blackbauds’ Diversity in Giving (2019), religion is a major driving factor of giving across all races and captures a significant portion of all money donated. Additionally, Blackbaud discovered that the amount of wealth an individual has, does not equate to a person’s philanthropic tendencies, but rather, dictates the amount in dollars a person is able to contribute. African Americans are not the only race that support causes they identify with. The Donor Loyalty Study (2018) revealed, that the three main reasons people donate to nonprofit organizations are; they have a deep passion for the cause, they believe the organization depends on their donation, or they know someone affected by the nonprofit’s mission. Lastly, there is evidence showing that when soliciting donors, oftentimes, fundraisers solely make statements and fail to make the ask. Despite the knowledge gained, none of these sources answered why there is such a differentiation in giving between Blacks and Whites.

To get more perspective, I decided to immerse myself in the community by interviewing ten Black individuals who have the capacity to give at a major gift level. Individuals who participated ranged from C-suite leaders, to entrepreneurs, to retirees, all who have chosen to remain anonymous. Each interview started with a simple question: What does philanthropy mean to you?

Responses were a bit different from the Webster Dictionary version: the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes. A much broader definition of the word philanthropy materialized. The welfare of others emerged as a clear theme for giving among this group of Black individuals. Philanthropy was looked at as more than just investing financially in a cause, but as a way to invest in a person. After posing this question, I wanted to get more context on how we arrived at this theme by asking participants to share some of their experiences. Conversations touched on the first encounter with the word philanthropy, if philanthropy was something practiced or encouraged when younger, and how each one felt they could be most impactful.

Six out of ten individuals interviewed, responded that they had not heard the word philanthropy until they entered college. “The first thing that comes to mind is Bill and Camille Cosby. While in college attending an HBCU I would always hear about large contributions made to Spelman College by Bill Cosby and how he was referred to as a Philanthropist. Hearing that made me want to learn more,” recalled one participant. She stated that the word philanthropy was used to describe wealthy individuals who made a contribution to a College/University. The other participants admitted to not hearing the word until their first job during a fundraising campaign. Even then, they did not fully grasp what the term meant, or found it to be intimidating and out of their reach. 

I was also inclined to look at the lack of inheritance that exists in the Black community as another reason the word philanthropy was not largely used. Until now generational wealth for blacks was non-existent. Hand-me-downs and leftovers were all they had to contribute, and they were happy to do so. Blacks were enslaved well into the 1960’s and are still faced with the aftermath of segregation and inequality. A study produced by the American Journal of Economics and Sociology (2018) on racial wealth gaps revealed that among college-educated black families, about 13 percent get an inheritance of more than $10,000, as opposed to about 41 percent of white, college-educated families. And about 16 percent of those white families receive more than one such inheritance, versus two percent of black families.There is an aggregate difference in family wealth between whites and blacks. Intergenerational wealth is not there,” stated by one of the participants.  

While the word philanthropy may have rarely been used in the home or encouraged, the action behind the word was exhibited very often through generations. Whether it was giving away clothes to church members or volunteering at soup kitchens, philanthropy has always been present. As children, you pick up characteristics and habits that were demonstrated. If your parents were the type to give back to the community, you would likely model that behavior. This was the viewpoint of 60 percent of the participants interviewed. According to the 2017 Millennial Impact Report, millennials are more involved in causes than ever, and they exhibit little concern with how society labels or categorizes them. This is largely due to a desire to improve what they see every day and what has been instilled in them through life experiences. 

“As a mother I have a huge opportunity to mold how my children view the world, where they see themselves, and their ability to impact the world. I want to be intentional about what I sew into them.” Even today, a large percentage of African Americans do not have a lot to give financially and are consumed with financial priorities and issues that affect them as a people. Being a recognized Philanthropist in the news, or receiving a tax receipt for a gift is not what drives this group to give. Simply put, they share a desire to give when able. Educating others on ways to contribute to their community and emphasizing the importance of utilizing one’s own talents to build and nurture others is their idea of making an impact.

After speaking with this group of individuals I learned that philanthropy is not defined differently whether someone is Black or White, but by the person and their experiences. If we are truly to believe that philanthropy is colorblind we must look beyond what the data tells us. I encourage you to engage donors through meaningful experiences that connect them to our work. Experiences can trigger childhood memories or even unveil a passion that the donor was not aware they had, but will forever connect them. Earlier I wrote about how one childhood experience helped to shape my opinion on philanthropy. This experience also made me who I am and will forever guide me in my actions.

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  • Richmond Wynn

    Thank you for this thought-provoking piece. I am especially drawn to your highlights of the traditional ways of giving in the black community. I also appreciate you opening the door for exploring what motivates us to give despite race and for us to expand our definition of philanthropy and to give at higher levels. I'm inspired!
  • Angel Mays

    I thought the writer opened a thought-provoking perspective on how a person’s life experiences influence philanthropy; regardless of race.
  • Kerwyn Neal

    This was a very interesting article that caused me to reflect on what was modeled for me by my parents in terms of giving. We were not financially wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, however my parents shared generously where they saw a need without hesitation. As I ponder as to when I first heard the word philanthropy I an unsure. I do know that my heart told me what I needed to know and I too am a product of my parents sharing/giving attitude.
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