Photo credits: Young Lee

Increasing Investment in Black-led Organizations

Why standing up for racial justice means supporting Black civic leadership and participation.

By Diana Paredes, Senior Learning Manager, and Jonathan Cunningham, Senior Program Officer

It has been a difficult year to say the least. If there’s one positive amid so many 2020 challenges, it’s that many Americans of all races are finally grappling with the impact systemic anti-Black racism has on American democracy.

The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis and Louisville thrust into the spotlight once again the many types of systemic racism African Americans have experienced in this country for centuries. As nationwide protests have grown, so has the attention on policies that prop up that racism. The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired determination among many Americans to make long overdue positive change.

Today, we ask you to advance justice for Black lives by supporting Black civic leadership in our community.

In 2018, African American candidates Andrew Gillum of Florida and Stacey Abrams of Georgia lost their gubernatorial races by razor-thin margins in states where a high percentage of African Americans have lost the right to vote due to past felony convictions. Under their presiding governors, both states chose to quickly reopen businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Black and Latinx residents. When Black people are denied the right to vote, the consequences can be deadly.

Racist mass incarceration policies are not the only way Black Americans and other people of color experience disparate access to voting. Voter suppression happens through many different practices, from disenfranchisement of people with criminal records to limited voting sites in predominantly Black communities. Along with persistent barriers to economic opportunity and education, barriers to voting disproportionately impact communities of color, in particular Black Americans.

Civic engagement organizations led by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) play an instrumental role in helping to reverse the impact of voter suppression laws and preserve our democracy. As trusted messengers in BIPOC communities, these organizations not only work to get out the vote, they also inform disenfranchised people about their voting rights and help them regain voting status according to state law.

Seattle Foundation recognizes the crucial work of these organizations. Through our Voter Education Fund, over the past several years we have funded a number of trusted Black-led organizations (BLOs)— URBVote, Kent Black Action Committee, B.E.S.T., and Byrd Barr Place, among others—to do targeted voter outreach and civic engagement work. The Voter Education Fund—which we’ve led in partnership with King County Elections since 2016—prioritizes moving resources to BIPOC organizations, as do our Vibrant Democracy Initiative and Regional Census Fund, which aim to ensure the most marginalized communities in our region have the resources they need to work with government leaders to create more equitable policies.

In 2019 Seattle Foundation embarked on two projects to cultivate deeper relationships with Black-led organizations and learn more about their work. A pilot project invested in 10 King County BLOs and assembled them for monthly conversations with local Black leaders, giving us the privilege to hear first-hand about their strengths, challenges, and needs. We also collaborated with Byrd Barr Place and Cardea Services on a research project designed to gain insight into the work and experience of BLOs and their leaders, who challenged donors and philanthropic organizations to honor Black experience and humanity by cultivating relationships with and investing in BLOs. A report titled “The Case for Investing in King County’s Black-Led Organizations,” completed in August 2020, is the culmination of this project.

We surveyed 41 King County-based BLOs and interviewed 18 of them about topics such as the communities they serve, strengths of their organizations, challenges they face, and how funders can better support their work. According to survey results, BLOs in King County tackle a diverse array of issues, as shown in the chart below. (Note that percentages in chart do not add to 100 because respondents could select multiple issue areas.) A majority of them focus on serving Seattle residents and about half of them serve residents throughout the county. In line with national trends pointing to underinvestment in BLOs, those who participated in this survey most commonly reported having an operating budget of less than $250,000 a year. Funding sources varied widely among respondents, but foundations, individual donors, and local government are the largest contributors to BLOs in King County.

a diverse array of issues tackled by black-led organizations, as shown in icons & percentagesAccording to a 2020 study by Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green, funding for BLOs nationwide is significantly lower than funding for white-led organizations: Among a group of 164 nationwide nonprofits, the revenue of Black-led organizations was 24% smaller than that of their white counterparts. Even when looking at organizations focused on the same issue and population, such as Black male achievement, the study found that revenues of Black-led organizations were 45% lower than those of white-led organizations. In terms of unrestricted funding—a proxy for trust—that contrast was even starker.

“We are getting more private funding, but the conversation is still around things like, ‘Well, my donor-advised fund says this is the mission of my fund’ vs. ‘What do you need for the well-being of the people you serve?’” says Andrea Caupain, Chief Executive Officer of Byrd Barr Place.

Adequately resourcing full civic participation in the Black community requires funding for specific activities such as voting, but it also requires discretionary funding, which allows organizations to be nimble in the face of emergent threats to civic participation and the health of the communities they serve. Both the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing murders of Black people by police as a result of systemic racism underscore how important it is for Black-led organizations to be equipped with flexible resources that can help communities bounce back from catastrophic events.

“I wish funders would understand that the culturally centered approach is critical,” says Veronica Very, Executive Director of Wonder of Women International. “There is no way around that. I wish they understood the power of that, the ripple effect that it would mean for the community as a whole. I wish they knew the struggle it is to navigate through racism and how that impacts the work actually getting done. I wish they knew that their support could change the world.”

A common belief in the philanthropic sector is that people who experience the brunt of social disparities need saving by social science experts and carefully engineered solutions to social problems. Contrary to this notion, the vast majority of BLO representatives who participated in our survey reported that their leadership team, and their organization’s mission and vision were their strongest assets. The reality is we have plenty of social scientists and policy experts at decision-making tables deliberating about distribution of resources in our region. We don’t have enough representation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who have a first-hand understanding of where our social institutions are failing.

We co-produced this report with Byrd Barr Place not to promote an end-all solution to systemic racism in King County, but to bring funders along with us in our learning and steer resources toward greater representation of Black communities in local decision-making. Now it is up to our foundation and other funders in the region to respond to this call for greater equity in funding for Black-led organizations. We hope institutional funders and individual donors alike will use this report as a compass as they learn more about the indispensable contributions of Black civic leadership in creating shared prosperity throughout our region.