SFF partners pose for a selfie in Oxford

A Skoll Conversation Meets Black Philanthropy Month

Segal Family Foundation

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by Sylvia K. Ilahuka, Writer & Editor

August is Black Philanthropy Month! This article is us sliding in under the wire to address an issue that isn’t confined to just one month, but is an ongoing reality for many members of our community. Fundraising is the bane of many an organization: networking, pitching, grantwriting, rinse and repeat. While this process is challenging for any organization, it is more so for those based in non-Western countries because the bulk of major funding (and the norms by which it is accessed) originates, historically and currently, in the Global North. This puts smaller organizations elsewhere in the world at a disadvantage — partly because of lesser proximity and partly because of that pesky little thing called implicit bias. Implicit bias is not blatant discrimination of the traits that make us who we are, rather it is the subtle assumptions and stereotypes that color our view of one another. In spaces where finances and power dynamics operate on a gradient, this tinted lens can mean differences in opportunities and resources available to organizations fronted by or dedicated to women, non-white individuals or communities, people with disabilities, and queer persons. Implicit bias as a tendency is itself without bias; we as human beings all experience on some level and so, for as long as funding relationships continue to be mediated by people, organizations will continue to be vulnerable to its effects.

Members of the Segal Family Foundation universe facilitated conversations about this issue at the 2023 Skoll World Forum back in April. Brian Walusimbi, founder of Bless a Child Foundation (BCF), hosted a session to discuss the racial funding gap based on his own experiences struggling to fundraise as a black African leader of an African grassroots organization. The reality of non-white organization leaders securing fewer grant dollars and being subject to excessive scrutiny is not a new phenomenon. Walusimbi described an African counterpart in the space who, after struggling to be taken seriously, resorted to recruiting a white board member for the sake of optics — a measure also resorted to by some South Asian and Latin American grassroots leaders to ease meetings with Western funders. Long-held stereotypes come to the forefront at decision-making time and create obstacles for founders of certain backgrounds; some of the deepest discrimination in philanthropy, Walusimbi contends, is born of gatekeeping by those trying to do good. In a bid to de-risk grantmaking, funders can easily succumb to implicit bias regarding local leaders of certain backgrounds — and the traditional dynamic of implementing organizations soliciting funding does not help. The Skoll discussion called for the decentering of funders by encouraging donor organizations, particularly Western ones, to see themselves as catalysts in a space without themselves being the space. In the audience were a number of grantmakers who engaged in the conversation with a willingness to listen and learn. One funder invited peers to delve deep into how they define risk and challenge themselves, arguing that if a locally-led organization is doing its work well yet is still considered “risky” then perhaps that was in fact a funder perspective issue rather than the organization’s reality. Walusimbi also urged funders to make a concerted effort to eliminate grantmaking bureaucracies, so that all parties in the philanthropy space can come together for maximum positive impact with minimal barriers.

Funders have an idea of what impact looks like, neatly packaged, yet this is not usually the case for organizations working deeply in communities. So, how is Segal Family Foundation acknowledging this as a grantmaking organization ourselves? A survey we conducted revealed that expatriate organizations in the foundation’s portfolio were growing two times faster than African-led ones, with parallels seen elsewhere. SFF decided to actively address this trend by instituting the African Visionary Fellowship, and the practice of intentionally (and generously) funding local organizations led by African leaders has since become our praxis. Even as the bulk of global finances continues to be housed in Western institutions, bringing the grant and investment decision-making locally give a measure of equity to the process. Having a team in the countries of operation can help philanthropic organizations feel more proximate to the implementation work — which in turn alleviates the aforementioned risk perception and trust issues. Better yet, not just any team but specifically a team comprising individuals from the countries of operation who are not only attuned to local needs but also have more holistic context for risks both imagined and real. In this way too, SFF has sought to create a new framework for approaching philanthropy and impact investing in Africa: our programs team is entirely African, all based in the places where we work. Our grantmaking process is also as minimally burdensome as possible, to eliminate some of the obstacles that local organizations face when seeking funding from typical Western systems. We are keen to drive more financial support to African-led organizations on the continent by sharing our knowledge with peer funders; our lines of communication are open via equitablegiving@segalfamilyfoundation.org!

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Segal Family Foundation

Social impact funder and advisor building a network of visionary local leaders and global donors to advance positive change in Africa