Black Women Are Redefining What It Means to Be a Philanthropist

Black Philanthropy Month reminds us there’s more than one way to give back

Photo: Hero Images / Getty Images

AAccording to a recent study conducted by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, Black women are redefining what it means to be philanthropists. “Women Give 2019,” the first study of its kind to explore the intersections of race, gender, and giving, found that women of color are engaging in more informal ways of giving back. Whether through crowdfunding, mobile apps, or creating new initiatives to directly impact their communities, Black women are successfully navigating nontraditional philanthropic efforts to work in their communities and create change.

The study highlighted the work of the South Side Giving Circle, the first initiative led by Black women to mobilize philanthropic resources to equip Black women-led organizations assisting Black girls and women on Chicago’s South Side. In its inaugural year, 34 women from various educational, professional, and socioeconomic experiences awarded $34,000 to five organizations focused on the key issues of health, economic empowerment, and freedom from violence. Now in its second year, the self-proclaimed “queen-makers” have doubled in size to 64 members and are set to invest $60,000 back into their community. “It was intentional,” says Nicole Robinson, Giving Circle founding member and vice president of community impact at the Chicago Food Bank. “They’re not what would be described as the traditional donor in the philanthropic space but they come to this work with the idea they can change the trajectory of women and girls in their community. It’s just a great example of how women are collectively coming together to do this work.”

AsAs Black women join forces, it highlights the apparent disparities present in giving back. While the study found that race was not a determinant factor in current philanthropic trends, traditional understandings of philanthropy still exclude communities of color. “We’re talking about a model of philanthropy that was never built to include us,” says Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. “We’ve been given the model that you create wealth, then you create a tax shelter called a foundation to protect that wealth and, by the way, you can give back in the process. That’s not the reality for many of us. Now you have Black women at the table showing how we give to and support our communities in different ways. It’s not just the models given to us by the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the world.” Yet, even as Black women are engaging in more innovative forms of philanthropy, McWhorter notes that policies and legislation haven’t caught up with the times. “Even the tax laws don’t account for our type of giving or the way we choose to participate in philanthropic efforts. How do we continue to inform the processes to better include us? And then, what policies impact how that looks for us financially?”

“Even the tax laws don’t account for our type of giving or the way we choose to participate in philanthropic efforts. How do we continue to inform the processes to better include us?”

The study also noted that many women reject the label of “philanthropist” and see themselves as simply “giving back.” While disavowing that identity assists in understanding current shifts and trends, Black women have long understood their philanthropy as their reasonable service. “When we use words like philanthropy, we think about specific models that have been created so everything we do ends up sitting outside of those models,” McWhorter notes. “I think it’s important for us to think about the models we are creating and how we name or brand the processes we’ve created so that they feel more in tune with how we want to show up in the world.” Robinson agrees and recalls Oseola McCarty, a washerwoman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who donated $150,000 to Black students at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1995. “They never would have thought that she would have the capability to do that,” Robinson says. “But that was her vision of philanthropy. The average American would not call themselves a philanthropist. If you look through the lens of a young person, they see themselves as a changemaker. If I’m a changemaker, I’m going to try any idea, leverage any tool, dream up whatever system is possible to make the change that I want to see happen. I think that’s where people are today.”

AsAs changemakers, Black women are using every means available to assist their communities. Whether it is through social media sites to assist with crowdfunding efforts to meet an urgent need or through mobile app initiatives, like Cash App Friday, the creativity is pushing the boundaries of philanthropy going forward. McWhorter says that previously, philanthropy not only accounted for how resources were given, it also accounted for who would receive those resources. “Black women are redefining all of that. We’re determining that helping a sister pay her rent is a philanthropic event whereas if you went to a foundation, they’d say you need to be at a certain economic level to receive assistance. For many systematic reasons, that’s not going to be the reality for many people who still need help. Not only can we modernize the ways we do it, we can modernize what it means to actually help people and ensure that they’re still affirmed and feel worthy while they’re being supported.” As Black women continue to engage in these innovative ways of giving back, Robinson believes seeds are being sown. “The tools that we’re seeing today might be laying the foundation for what philanthropy is in the future.”

In a moment where Black women are redefining philanthropic efforts, there remain the tensions of capitalism and the fears of working alongside institutions that have exacerbated economic inequity. Yet The South Side Giving Circle, who partners with the Chicago Foundation for Women, serves as an example of what happens when a group is clear about its mission and enforces that mission through strategic and ethical partnerships. “The fact that we wanted to call ourselves queen-makers, the fact that we wanted to focus on issues facing Black women and girls, the fact that we wanted to fund the small, scrappy Black women leaders who had fresh ideas and were using volunteers on the ground, that was a slightly different philanthropy model,” Robinson says. “What our partner, the Chicago Foundation for Women, did was give us freedom in the framework to envision what we wanted.” For McWhorter, the YWCA’s formula for maximizing social impact (changemakers, innovation, capital, collaboration, solution) reinforces the importance of the financial resources that can be provided through partnerships. “When you think about it, philanthropy ultimately becomes capital for changemaking. It is about changemakers, it is about changing the structures and, for us to do that, we need capital. Philanthropy creates the opportunities to get capital into the hands of those who will use it to change conditions on the ground, impacting life for everyone.”

“The tools that we’re seeing today might be laying the foundation for what philanthropy is in the future.”

At its core, “Women Give 2019” underscores something that Robinson and McWhorter both know all too well: Black girl magic is real and Black women can change the world. It’s for this reason that Robinson stresses the importance of supporting Black women who are doing good work. “If people find a Black woman leader who’s focusing on issues they deem important and is helping giving Black girls and women voice and helping them change the world in some way, be willing to bet on someone else. Part of what’s possible is what we can do together and what we can do in community with each other.”

Candice Marie Benbow is a theologian, essayist and creative who situates her work at the intersections of beauty, faith, feminism and culture.

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