Centering Black Leadership in Philanthropy

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In the context of three national crises, including massive racial justice organizing, COVID-19 pandemic, and a financial crisis, early childhood funders recognize the need to focus more intensely on Black leaders, young Black children, their families, and communities.  Funders themselves seek to be inclusive toward marginalized Black communities that have experienced historical oppression and have been systematically disinvested in over many years.   Despite an increasing awareness that racial equity requires equitable funding of Black decision makers and communities, research from Echoing Green and the Bridgespan Group, Schott Foundation for Public Education, and the National Council on Responsive Philanthropy show persistent under-funding of groups led by people of color and a lack of investment in racial justice by education funders.

The Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation, commissioned a report to hear more about how these dynamics affect Black leaders within the early childhood sector.    ECFC commissioned Dr. Sherri Killins Stewart to conduct qualitative interviews with 21 Black not for profits leaders who benefit Black children and their families. These leaders were located in organizations in 10 states and included 15 state and local organizations, and 6 national organizations.

The interviews emphasized the stark reality of philanthropic support of Black leaders and organizations.   Among the findings of the interviews:

Black leaders talked about the lack of understanding of the communities foundations intend to help, and the tension between the ways a Black person sees the needs of their community and how funders see the needs e.g., complexity of the institutional and structural problems vs treating the individual symptom.

“…we saw the things they were funding and we thought this is very much in line, but they basically told us in the debrief that, ‘we just don’t think you’re innovative enough’…

I think sometimes organizations do not do a good job at articulating how their strategy fits with the current strategies of the foundation.  If you are not careful you will say something that will lead to the program officer saying, ‘well we don’t focus on that’. I have had to learn how to craft a strategy and a message that fits within a funder’s strategy.  I have had to make a general operating grant sound like a funding grant, and I have had to explain it to them in that way.”

“Funders want me to drive their agenda and keep it simple. This work is not simple, it is complicated. I can break it into five things, but if you want to fund my work you need to appreciate the complexity.”

They spoke of isolation, limited representation within philanthropy, and lack of access to the power tables where funding decisions occur.  Many shared that they often needed White leaders to vouch for them to receive funding.

“Brilliant Black people can’t fulfill their vision and purpose because they are locked out by funders, banks and others with money. Dreams are dying on a vine.”

“Funders do not realize that funding creates experts and builds trust. The lack of funding can make the work invisible.”

“Say, I’ve got an idea.” “Oh, come tell me about it over a drink.” That’s not the space we are in.  We’re talking about going to the people closest to the problem. We are closest to the problem, many of us have been impacted by the problem.”

These and other experiences with philanthropy complicate capacity issues for Black led organizations – without capacity support, the organizations are often not seen as experts and denied funding opportunities, perpetuating capacity issues.  Limited funding opportunities also create competition among Black Led organizations, as well as competition between Black-led and non-Black led organizations serving Black communities.

“Many organizations have a long history, but often they hear, they don’t have the capacity to manage a large grant. If you do not make the investment, they do not have the opportunity to demonstrate capacity. “

“It is a battle to get to yes and then we get 5k. You can’t produce good quality, but you take the money, then foundations use that to say why they do not want to fund you in the future. “

“I worked for free till July. I had my own company. I had to pay someone to write grants and implement programing. I had to build the organization.”

A key message in the interviews was the lack of intentional focus on Black children and their families.  National research and data may not reflect what’s really happening in a community. The focus on all children, may prevent foundations from investing in efforts which intentionally tailor to Black children and their families, who are at the bottom of measures and outcomes. And community based funding efforts intended to tailor solutions to Black children and are often not inclusive of the whole family, especially Black fathers.

“If we flip and flam so we fit inside their box, we’re not getting what needs done. Their box is shrouded in research created by people that don’t look like us.  In this narrative, Black leaders/orgs have to be doubly better, make no errors or mistakes, perform in a way you want us to perform.”

“Research shows us that there’s a lot of work going on with neural science and early learning. What funders don’t see is the interaction with culture.  So, the research is not beneficial to kids she served because it’s absence of culture.”

“Black men are not seen as a part of the family, so it is hard to raise money. If you take care of men’s health you take care of the family. [We’re] not even asked clarifying questions, [foundations] just say no.”

Key recommendations for funders emerging from this research included:


  1. Explore intention vs. impact of investments serving Black children and families, such as: Seeking out organizations that are led by people of color (not just include people of color on their staff); and measuring success based on the opportunities and challenges in a given community.
  2. Explore past and current practices or experiences with Black leaders and organizations, such as auditing grant requests from Black led organiztaions serving Black children and communities to determine patterns of denial or awards to remediate reasons for exclusion from funding opportunities.
  3. Expand networks to include more Black Leaders, including: considering ways to leverage foundation connections to help create opportunities for Black leaders and Black-led organizations build relationships with other leaders and organizations that can help build their capacity and access to capital.
  4. Increase funding for general operations and organizational capacity within Black-led organizations (and allow flexible funding) to fulfill core organizational capacity needs characteristic of effective organizations such as: e.g., accounting, research, data management, marketing, grant writing, and other administrative functions. This might also include: multi-year funding, lines of credit and flexible funding to respond to basic and emerging organizational needs.
  5. Seek out authentic voices of lived experience in your funding communities, such as: selecting a specific area of a Black community to deepen your knowledge and understanding of its residents, current and historical institutional and structural environments and the cultural contexts of the children and families in that community; and increasing the diversification of staff who are racially, culturally and ethnically connected to the communities you are funding.

Early childhood is at a particular crossroads right now, the devastation of child care systems due the pandemic, the cascade of intertwined challenges of family economic insecurity, children’s emotional difficulty, and parents’ mental health (known as the Hardship Chain Reaction), and the influx of Federal funds into states that presents substantial opportunity to build back a better early childhood system along with an eye toward long-term equity in the system.  This research was important to elevate the voices of Black leaders about how funders can support communities to achieve long held goals of quality early childhood education, family and economic stability and trauma enhanced by twin pandemics of COVID and racism.

Read the Full Black Leaders Research Findings & Recommendations and watch this Recording of Research Highlights Presentation by Dr. Sherri Killins Stewart for a Promise Venture Studio Funder Briefing on equity and justice in early childhoood education (34 min).


This research was made possible by the Black Leaders serving Black children, their families and communities who agreed to share their experiences and recommendations with us.  We also acknowledge and thank Dr. Sherri Killins Stewart for her thoughtful leadership to implement this research, with contributions from Aisha Ray, Ph.D., and Penny Smith, M.S.; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation for supporting this work.


Learn more about ECFC’s racial equity focus and framework launched in 2019 to to support the individual learning, organizational growth, critical reflection, and collective action of ECFC members and our collaborative.

ECFC members can reflect on our racial equity learning journey by revisiting our 2020 Racial Equity virtual learning series for members, in partnership with School Readiness Consulting (SRC) and Liberated Development, including discussion and reflections on making the case for a racial equity focus in philanthropy at this moment in history, leaning into our power and responsibility to drive a racial equity agenda in the early childhood space, advancing racial equity at the intersection of early childhood and philanthropy. Visit the learning series archives (requires ECFC member login, contact ECFC for login assistance).


Learn more about philanthropic investments and relationships with Black Leaders and Black-led organizations:


Racial Equity and Philanthropy: Disparities in Funding for Leaders of Color Leave Impact on the Table, The Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green, May 2020

#JusticeIsTheFoundation, New Data on Racial Equity and Racial Justice Funding in Education Philanthropy, The Schott Foundation for Public Education

10 Imperatives: “We Must be in It for the Long Haul”, Black Foundation Executives Request Action by Philanthropy on Anti-Black Racism, Association of Black Foundation Executives

Philanthropy’s Racial Funding gap is an urgent Crisis, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, July 2020

Overcoming the Racial Bias in Philanthropic Funding, Stanford Social Innovation Review, May 2020

Black funding denied: Community foundations support for Black Communities,  National Council on Responsive Philanthropy, August 2020

NonProfit Leaders of Color Speak Out About Triumphs and Struggles, Chronicle of Philanthropy, July 2019

Black Parent Voices: Resilience in the Face of Two Pandemics – COVID-19 and Racism, February 2021, Researchers Investigating Sociocultural Equity and Race (RISER) Network (Iruka, I. U., Curenton, S. M., Sims, J., Escayg, K-A., Ibekwe-Okafor, N., & RAPID-EC)


Photo credit: Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

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