By Shireen Zaman (Program Director) and Sheila Bapat (Program Officer)
Since we drafted this post in early May, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Protests calling for justice — for Mr. Floyd and for countless Black men and women who have been killed at the hands of police — have erupted throughout the country. The RTF team stands with the Movement for Black Lives. We stand with Black and Brown protesters who are fighting to end police violence, and who are fighting for dignity and justice.
These events underscore just how important it is for philanthropy to rise to the occasion to address stark racial disparities in grantmaking. We in philanthropy can be part of the solution to help ensure that all communities of color are empowered to address and ultimately eradicate these persistent injustices — as long as we are willing to change.
This post focuses on what we have learned through funding the diverse MASA sector for 11 years, as well as ways we will work to ensure we center Black communities even more in our grantmaking and programming.
RISE Together Fund took note of this article published May 4th by Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green, highlighting the disparities in funding awarded to organizations led by people of color. Trends in the report are deeply concerning:
While the article does not specifically discuss Muslim, Arab and South Asian (MASA) communities, RISE Together Fund has since our inception in 2009 seen similar underinvestment in the MASA field. The MASA field encompasses a wide range of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. An estimated 20-30% of the Muslim American community are Black, and an estimated 69% of MASA community members are foreign-born. Many of our grantees report significant challenges establishing themselves with foundations, and they are often the first to be cut when foundations change direction. Underinvestment stifles the work of our grantees in pushing back against policy threats, responding to hate crimes, imagining new paths forward for their communities, and ensuring full representation in our democracy.
As a result of what we have seen first hand for 11 years, RTF has sought to proactively implement several of the solutions highlighted in the article; admittedly, some of our strategies are still a work in progress. Indeed, Bridgespan and Echoing Green’s piece affirms the need for philanthropic intermediaries with a strong racial justice lens — in particular, the need for funds whose decision-making is directly informed by the communities they fund.
Strategy One: Center Impacted Communities at All Levels of Our Work
The RTF team is composed of five women — and all of us come from the MASA space. In addition, our grantmaking and programming are directly informed by MASA organizations and individuals. We hold at least one convening per year for our docket of 22 core grantees, creating space for us to learn from them and for our grantees to learn from each other. RTF’s active listserv promotes cross-sector information and policy-advocacy opportunities and urges users to share policy-relevant materials; our listserv includes nearly 200 MASA organizations and more than 500 MASA activists throughout the country who every day are sharing information and calls to action.
One recent example: after the latest expansion of the Muslim ban in early 2020 that targeted Black-majority countries, the MASA listserv facilitated collaboration across Black immigrant organizations and MASA organizations in pushing back against the policy. These built-in touch points, combined with regular survey feedback about gaps and needs the MASA field is experiencing, helps shape our team’s long-term focus as well as ensure we respond quickly when new threats arise.
Strategy Two: Invest Early in MASA Organizations
The Bridgespan-Echoing Green article also notes the challenge leaders of color experience in attracting investment when their reserves are low, or when they haven’t yet attracted foundation dollars. RTF’s grantmaking strategy intentionally seeks to be the “first” investor in small, up and coming organizations where our investment could make an outsized impact. As just one example, RTF was the first foundation to fund South Dakota Voices for Peace (SDVP), an organization that began its work fighting local Islamophobic legislation. SDVP has since evolved to win the competitive J.M. Kaplan Innovation Prize, and is on a path to build a model for supporting MASA, immigrant and refugee communities in rural America.
Strategy Three: Strengthen Investment in MASA Women
Bridgespan-Echoing Green’s articles also points out that women of color-led organizations experience underinvestment even more acutely. RTF has begun to address the underinvestment of women of color in our spaces; we are expanding convening and training opportunities for MASA women leaders to secure a reservoir of resources and build networks of support and solidarity. This is especially important given that approximately 70% of RTF’s grantees are led by women. Since 2017, we have created spaces to bolster leadership capacity of women and non binary leaders in our field. We fund Rockwood leadership training for executive directors, board members and senior leaders who share the challenges of movement building while also navigating patriarchal trends within their communities.
Strategy Four: Invest in Learning About Racial Equity, and Share Our Knowledge with Philanthropy
Perhaps most important, at RTF we prioritize encouraging intersectional advocacy, so that MASA-led organizations are showing up as strong allies to all communities of color. To do this effectively, as noted in the Bridgespan article, funders should “get proximate” to ensure they are learning from impacted communities. This past December we were lucky enough to visit the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) museum and memorial in Montgomery, Alabama for a racial justice learning journey along with many of our grantees — in particular we are proud to have collaborated with Project South, a core RTF grantee whose work is rooted in Black radical traditions. We consistently prioritize sharing what we learn and connecting leaders of color with the philanthropic community through site visits, funder briefings and webinars lifting up MASA and cross-movement issues.
Our Commitment to Learning and Evolving
There are several areas where we still need to grow and improve as a funder. We would like to shift to more general operating grants, to meet the need for unrestricted dollars. We are working to streamline our reporting requirements even further, to ensure they help us learn about the work without being onerous for grantees. Perhaps most important, we are on a continual journey of addressing our own implicit biases, and like many funders, we need to more intentionally break free of our own silos — building in regular experiences like our trip to the EJI museum is a priority for us going forward as well as continuing to expand our funding for Black-led work within the MASA field.
While RTF’s grantmaking is a drop in the bucket compared to many other foundations — we grant approximately $2 million per year across 22 core grantees and 20 rapid response grantees — we are hopeful that our persistence in these strategies can, over the long term, help our fund address the disparities MASA communities are facing. We look forward to partnering with the philanthropic community to ensure that the findings of the Bridgespan-Echoing Green article are being addressed, to strengthen support for all communities of color.