Skip to Content

African-American Donors Going Back to Their Political Roots

Financial Times (FT.Com)

By Sarah Murray
9 March 2018

In 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC announced a $2.5m gift from billionaire financier Robert Smith, one of a wave of donations from African-Americans. But while the museum’s gifts made headlines, black philanthropy has deep roots in the US, dating back to the years of slavery and civil rights activism — a tradition that, as the political mood in America shifts, may be heading for a revival.

Racial injustice has long been a powerful driver of black philanthropy. “When you look at the history of African-American giving, it’s been used both for social uplift and social protest,” says Emmett Carson, founding chief executive of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

This is still true today. “If you’ve experienced the pain of social injustice, when you have the resources, you want to pull others up,” says Judy Belk, president and chief executive of the California Wellness Foundation and an advocate for greater diversity in philanthropy.

Carson argues that political rhetoric is prompting a renewed sense of racial injustice, whether in Donald Trump’s reportedly vulgar description of African nations made during immigration talks in January or the remarks of Republican Roy Moore during the December Alabama Senate race. When asked when he thought America was great, Moore said it was “when our families were united — even though we had slavery”.

For Carson, the change in mood from the days of the Obama presidency could spark a change in African-American giving. “When you see some of the challenges facing African-Americans today, you wonder if it will portend more social protest efforts and some African-Americans becoming more politically active with parts of their philanthropy,” he says.

As well a form of social protest, African-American philanthropy also stems from a strong sense of obligation to family, neighbours and strangers in need — something that motivates giving among many African communities across the world.

In fact, African-American donors appear to be more generous than others. In a 2012 study by the WK Kellogg Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, it emerged that African-American donors gave away larger percentages of their incomes than their white counterparts.

In channelling funding from African-American givers, the black church has played a prominent role. During the years of slavery, the church became a focus for community support, providing social welfare, education and other services. “It was one of the primary institutions meeting needs and addressing social issues,” says Tyrone Freeman, an assistant professor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and a specialist in African-American giving.

The tradition continues today. A 2016 survey of high-net-worth givers conducted by US Trust and the Lilly school revealed that African-Americans were significantly more likely to give to religious causes than other groups.

In some ways, however, the history of black philanthropy is one of survival. In the face of lack of access to capital and social services, donors stepped in. “Giving back and taking care of your own was a way of surviving, as there were no other options,” says Belk.

Today, high-net-worth African-American donors often support causes that help the disenfranchised. Last year, for example, former basketball star Michael Jordan made a $7m gift to Novant Health to fund medical clinics in North Carolina for some of the region’s most underserved communities.

“There’s a real interest in seeing advancement and progress based on the history of African-Americans in this country,” says Gasby Brown, chief executive of the Gasby Group, a philanthropy consultancy.

Prominent black philanthropists have emerged from a variety of sectors. They include celebrities such as talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, actor Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Sporting wealth has driven African-American giving, as have the fortunes amassed in the financial sector by individuals such as Eddie C Brown, the renowned stock picker.

Further potential exists for prominent black givers to emerge. “There’s a lot of wealth in the African-American community held by people who are not names you know,” says Carson. “They have the capacity and willingness to make what would be significant gifts over time.”

Yet these givers are often ignored, partly because of a lack of diversity in the wealth management and fundraising sectors. “Resources are not being tapped in the African-American community and they are not getting the support they need to be more strategic in their giving,” says Belk. “Because of that implicit bias, many [non-profit] organisations are leaving dollars on the table.”

If Carson is right, however, the political mood shift could galvanise a new wave of giving from African-Americans and raise their profile, with some becoming more activist in their giving.

“I suspect African-American philanthropy will return to some of its roots of social uplift but also social justice and social protest,” he says. “This is an important turning point.”

Copyright 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

Back to top