Reciprocity: Reframing the Narrative of Philanthropy

Reciprocity: “The practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, especially privileges granted by one country or organization to another.”

Although the U.S. government projects that by 2050 people of color will comprise nearly half of the U.S. population a disproportionately small percentage of foundation giving supports communities of color. This speaks to the need to strengthen a donor base that can effectively fund within its own communities. Some would refer to this type of giving as philanthropy of community.

Various studies and observations indicate that philanthropy in any culture is seldom practiced for only altruistic reasons and only motivated by generosity.  One should resist the temptation to use any language that implies that institutional philanthropy is either a better or more generous way of giving and caring about community issues. People use multiple philanthropic strategies, choosing these strategies under different life circumstances and within different social contexts.  Equating certain types of gifts with generosity and philanthropy while not honoring other strategies can lead to misunderstandings that offend, exclude, or insult.

So often the conversation around philanthropy focuses on the charity of the elite and the wealthy among the White community. Beginning the conversation with this premise creates a paradigm that does not analyze the impact of race on the accumulation of wealth and assets. This conversation further supports the notion that some communities are producers of philanthropy and some communities are consumers of philanthropy. This notion creates a paradigm and script that needs to be flipped.

In the U.S., people of color tend to focus their philanthropy on deep and historically intractable social problems. People of color seek to work creatively at the community level as well as opening market opportunities for their communities so that educational and social progress will lead to economic progress and stability. While the "new philanthropy" that generates 8-figure donations to colleges and universities may grab the headlines, it is those below the fold or back page philanthropy in communities of color that may be making the most creative investments in community-based grassroots solutions to the nation's enduring social and educational inequities.

Philanthropy among people of color is not new. People of color share a long, rich history of giving that has largely gone unnoticed because it doesn't fit the traditional image of a philanthropist. Even the word "philanthropy" is not commonly used among people of color because it is considered something that wealthy White people do.

There are various examples of philanthropy in communities of color. An African-American mother takes care of the children on her block so that other mothers can work. Native Americans join in a "giveaway" ceremony where they shed material possessions. A Hispanic family shelters relatives from their native country while they get a foothold in America.  Due to many structural and institutional barriers to the tools of institutional philanthropy, African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other groups of color have created their own giving structures and practices.

According to the publication, “Engaging Diverse Communities For and Through Philanthropy,” produced in 2001 by the New Ventures in Philanthropy project, the policies of philanthropic institutions and the behavior of individuals at these institutions support the belief that communities less familiar with organized philanthropy are not givers and do not participate in the voluntary actions that underpin civil society. Many African Americans give through charitable vehicles that do not register in mainstream studies. Because the majority of African American philanthropy is not captured in mainstream studies, African Americans have been viewed as being on the “demand” side of philanthropy rather than on the “supply” side.

In response to the above citation, Ambassador James Joseph, former Chair of the Council of Foundations, former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa, and founder of the Association of Black Foundation Executives posed the following questions at a gathering of philanthropic leaders in North Carolina.  

1. How ready are foundations to forge partnerships with those newcomers to organized philanthropy?

2. How are foundations going to engage with these groups and individuals that have been on the demand side to have dialogue to bring to the supply side?

3. How do we build community by design instead of by crisis or by accident?

4. How can the philanthropic sector develop new leadership?

Reframing the Narrative

How do we begin to reframe the “philanthropic narrative” discussed above?

Step 1: Broaden the definition of philanthropy to be more inclusive of the traditions of giving among people of color.

The institutional or mainstream philanthropic sector must begin to place a higher value on the time, talent and skill, as well as financial resources that people of color invest in their communities to raise the quality of living in communities.

Step 2: Revive the concept of reciprocity, community philanthropy, and the spirit of collective giving which is central to “reframing” the narrative of philanthropy.

As we look at the nature of people’s lives of balancing family and work, there is increasing disconnect of people to one another. In many communities today, unless a crisis occurs, individuals don’t appear to see the value of coming together to discuss how to make the space, communities, neighborhoods, regions, states, and ultimately the world they live in better than when they came into them. Crisis still becomes the one thing that brings individuals and groups together within and outside their communities.

The face and language of community philanthropy is changing and collective giving amongst communities of color is growing.  Communities once considered consumers of philanthropy are becoming producers of philanthropy, flipping the philanthropy script to broaden how philanthropists look, sound, and give.  

And, that is a very good thing for all of us.

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