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Ferguson and Foundations: Are We Doing Enough?

November 25, 2014

Blackmalestudent_301X400Like many Americans, I was glued to my television set last night as I watched the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, erupt in violence. This is not a post about the merits of a grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Rather, it is my attempt to make sense of a very complicated situation and to ask whether philanthropy is doing enough to address the fact that there are too many Michael Browns in America, too many angry and frustrated communities like Ferguson, too much real and perceived injustice in our society, and too much polarization in the way these difficult issues are covered and discussed.

You don't need me to tell you that nearly every major indicator of social and physical well-being underscores the fact that black men and boys in the United States do not have access to the structural supports and educational and economic opportunities they need to thrive. More than a quarter of black men and boys live in poverty. Black fathers are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to live apart from their children. Young black males have the highest teen death rate, at 94 deaths per 100,000, and 40 percent of those deaths are homicides. Black males between the ages of 25 and 39 are more likely to be incarcerated than any other demographic group, leading author and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander to note that "More African American adults are under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began."

Is philanthropy doing enough to address this appalling state of affairs? In a word, "no" — though in some ways that should not be surprising. Foundations are endowed, private institutions required to serve the public good in a way approved as "charitable" by the Internal Revenue Service and in accordance with their donors' intent. They are fiercely independent, idiosyncratic, and, at times, risk averse and short-sighted. A foundation executive once told me he and his colleagues had given up on access to safe water as a program area because "it was too complicated and we couldn't have any impact." Yet foundations have the choice to be different, not least because they represent one of the few remaining sources of un-earmarked capital in the economy. It is precisely this independence and autonomy that gives them the freedom to take risks and work on long-term solutions.

That fact has not been lost on many foundations, and a number of them — including big foundations like Open Society, Ford, Kellogg, and the California Endowment, and smaller ones like the Charles Hayden Foundation in New York — have rolled up their sleeves to tackle the persistent challenges facing black men and boys in our society. Between 2008 and 2011, for example, 191 foundations made nearly 900 grants totaling $116 million to more than 400 organizations focused on black men and boys, with nearly 10 percent of the total coming from the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, a hard-working and innovative foundation more people should know about.

The data cited above comes from www.bmafunders.org, a knowledge hub produced by Foundation Center (with support from the Open Society Foundations) that is dedicated to the work of America's foundations and their partners on black male achievement. Foundation Center is not an advocacy organization, and we do not try to tell foundations what to do. It is our hope, however, that by making information about what foundations are doing — especially with respect to tough, urgent issues like this one — more donors with an interest in such issues will realize they are not alone.

To devote one's foundation to ameliorating the challenges faced by black men and boys — challenges at the intersection of race, poverty, and justice in America — requires leadership. Indeed, I can think of no better expression of the kind of leadership required than this:

"I think [foundations] are entering into the most difficult of all fields....They are going right straight ahead, knowing that their fingers will be burned again, because in these fields you cannot be sure of your results, and you cannot be sure that you will avoid risk. If the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back and back and back so that our ignorance of ourselves and our fellow man and of other nations is steadily reduced, there is hope for mankind, and unless those boundaries are pushed back there is no hope."

No, that wasn't said by someone last night as portions of Ferguson again were choked by tear gas. Those are the words of Russell Leffingwell, a stalwart Republican banker and chair of the Carnegie Corporation, giving testimony in a McCarthy-era hearing on philanthropy. They were courageous words spoken under duress back then, and they haven't lost any of their relevance in the ensuing half-century.

Does philanthropy have the courage to tackle the persistent, troubling problems that Ferguson represents, to enter, in Leffingwell's words, the "most difficult of all fields?" A number of foundations are leading the way, but we can do more.

Bradford K. Smith is president of Foundation Center.

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Posted by Akwasi Aidoo  |   December 02, 2014 at 03:24 PM

Thanks very much for this, Brad.

Foundations can certainly do much more to secure our social fabrics, and while there is never a silver lining in a tragedy like this, it's a reminder of the need for more public discussion about the disturbing increase in inequality and extremism that is engulfing our times.

Also makes me think of the oft-quoted statement of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of injustice which make philanthropy necessary."

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