Dr. Tyrone McKinley Freeman is an award-winning scholar and teacher, who serves as an assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Among other things, his research focuses on the history of African American philanthropy and philanthropy in communities of people of color (POC). In 2020, he published a book, “Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy During Jim Crow,” which examines African American women’s history of charitable giving, activism, education and social service provisions through the life and example of Madam C.J. Walker. We recently spoke with Dr. Freeman about his research and how we can foster equity and inclusion in grantmaking.
In your writing, you note that there are common notions about the role of POC in philanthropy and challenge these. For example, you note that it is common to perceive POC as receivers of philanthropy, not as philanthropists themselves. Talk about this notion and why we might reframe the way we think about it.
Oftentimes, POC are perceived as receivers of philanthropy, rather than philanthropists themselves. This misconception stems from the history of race in the U.S. and the perceptions that have evolved over time, but it does not define reality. The rhetoric around philanthropy often is driven by the elite model of philanthropy – those with significant wealth often establish philanthropic vehicles, such as foundations and donor-advised funds (DAFs). This is a narrow definition of philanthropy.
Consider well-known industrialists who created philanthropic structures to benefit minority neighborhoods, which may have created an image that minority communities need to be fixed. However, that is just one perspective that does not show the dynamics of what’s going on in that community. It is important to honor the history, traditions and ways of being within these communities.
One goal of the book was to demonstrate the richness of the philanthropic tradition within the African American community. This is something that these communities have done from the beginning. Traditions of giving traveled across the Atlantic as a part of the slave trade and ended up on Southern plantations as enslaved people tried to build community. Even after the end of slavery, African American communities were historically underserved and, as a result, created their own social service organizations, which were funded within their own community. It was a way of expressing their own dignity and their own humanity in a world that constantly denied that they had such.
You’ve also challenged the notion that philanthropists of color often are referred to as “new and emerging.” While this label is intended to recognize the generosity and impact of people who are underrecognized, it may not reflect reality. Tell us more about that.
That language simply isn’t correct. The only place where they are new and emerging is to organizations that have been ignoring or not engaging them. They’ve been doing this from the beginning. If you examine the rich landscape of African American philanthropy today, you realize it’s everywhere. In philanthropy, we’re trying to come together to do something positive for the community, and that needs to extend to see communities of color as philanthropic agents who are actively doing things in their communities and who have organizations and initiatives that would benefit from more funding and partnerships. Again, you have to come into that respecting and understanding them on their own terms, rather than through these cloudy lenses that are more about stereotypes or lack of understanding.
You’ve spent a lot of time studying Madam C.J. Walker. Take us through the broad outline of who she was and why her philanthropy story is as important as her entrepreneurial story?
Madam C.J. Walker was born in 1867 on a cotton plantation in Louisiana as a freeborn child to former slaves. Living in the Jim Crow era, she was orphaned by age 7 and began working as a washer woman. She was married, had a child and became a widow all before the age of 20. She moved to St. Louis, where she was welcomed by the local Black community, particularly the church that help meet her needs as a widowed mother. After having what she believed to be a divine dream, she formulated her own beauty care products and started selling them door to door, which was the first step toward her beauty empire. She moved to Indianapolis in 1910, established the headquarters of the company, formerly incorporated it and the legend and history kind of took off from there.
There was a lot of attention on Walker’s entrepreneurship and the fact that she was the first self-made female millionaire in America. But what wasn’t well-known was the fact that she was very generous. I wanted to tell that part of the story. Her philanthropy began when she was a poor, orphaned widow and mother and grew over time, suggesting that philanthropy does not come from wealth, but from generosity and a sense of responsibility to your community. Wealth just becomes an accelerator. In other models of philanthropy, people may accumulate large sums of wealth first and then give back.1
“We often develop a short list of people we are comfortable working with and keep focusing there. This is a moment where we need to question those practices and ask, “How accessible are we?”
You have talked about how Walker’s giving was proximate to the issue, which we hear a lot about today. How did she accomplish that?
It comes from her identity and experience as a Black woman. Every gift that she gave was one that she needed herself. She knew the importance of education because she had been denied one, and she knew the importance of social services because she was that struggling, orphaned, widowed single mother who needed care for her daughter. These are the kinds of organizations that she was invested in.
For those of us looking to get proximate to an issue, how can we engage in these conversations and be effective at involving those with firsthand experience?
It’s important that whenever we are engaging in issues that we’re not as close to or that we’ve not had experience with, that we consider hearing from all stakeholders and amplifying the voices of those with firsthand experience. That’s a vital source of information. Speak with community leaders, other donors and nonprofits addressing the issue, and move out of your comfort zone to build community and open conversations with different people. It’s also important to acknowledge your blind spots when engaging with community members affected by the issue and maintain an open mind. Demonstrate care and curiosity when joining conversations with people whose identities differ from yours.
Let’s shift gears and talk about the funding side. A recent study by Bridgespan found that nonprofits led by POC receive less grant funding than their white-led counterparts, and when they do receive funding, there may be more strings attached. How can we address this funding discrepancy among organizations?
To address this differential, funders should consider expanding their network to make new connections and inviting others into their circles. It’s about engaging in larger conversations. Philanthropy has developed a reputation that it’s about who you know. We need to consider how this practice may have excluded others and ask, “How do we invite more people to the table?” Then, take a step beyond that and ask, “What are the dynamics of our table?” You may need to rethink the way that you operate or communicate on issues.
We often develop a short list of people we are comfortable working with and keep focusing there. This is a moment where we need to question those practices and ask, “How accessible are we? What should the beginning of a relationship look like for the organizations we’re interested in funding, and how do we make it more equitable?” It’s about rethinking how we have historically done business.
Many of our clients have family foundations or donor-advised funds. How might they think about being more inclusive?
It goes back to opening up and being part of different networks than we’re used to. We tend to move in the same circles with similar people. We need to get out of that cycle. It starts with moving into other organizations where you can interact with different people and gain insights on issues you’ve made commitments to in order to ensure you are having the right impact. You may also consider developing a diverse advisory board that includes individuals in the communities you seek to serve. We can get a long way just by pausing at those moments that may typically cause us to go back into our comfort zone and instead moving forward by asking a different question or looking at the situation with a different angle.
In philanthropy, because the grantmaker provides funding that charities need, there may be a power differential between the grantmaker and the grant recipient. Talk about this power differential – how does it affect diversity and inclusion, and how might we think about rebalancing that power differential?
This environment has been created where there is almost a sense of desperation in some cases of having to jump through hoops to prove yourself worthy enough to be given to. We need to recognize that. We also need to think about our processes and the strings that come with a grant. We touched on this earlier, but once a grant is given, there can be certain expectations that are more demanding and don’t have anything to do with the mission. It comes back to questioning how we’ve done business to this point.
To turn this dynamic on its head, consider a partnership mentality between the grantmaker and the organization, which suggests a better appreciation for the local community and recognition that the nonprofit brings a different perspective. There’s a philosopher, Martin Marty, who has said that we shouldn’t think about people as recipients, but as receivers, because the idea is that they have an important role to play in this process. I tell this to my students who might be on scholarship all the time. At the end of the day, the scholarship has provided access. The real magic comes with what you do with that access. You have make something of it. This is where the donor and the receiver come together. It’s those who take the gift and do the transformative work of change that need more recognition.
Site visits can serve as an equalizer – for example, something as simple as going to the nonprofit’s location for meetings. This helps with due diligence, but also signals to the organization’s leadership that you value their time. With site visits, there’s still a lot of nervousness and anxiety about making sure everything is organized and prepared. Funders can put people at ease by how they relate to and communicate with their partners. Think about the tone in which you ask questions and be intentional about letting them know you don’t need the red carpet laid out.
To what extent is the current national environment and the conversation around race driving the conversation on diversity and inclusion in grantmaking?
The increased media coverage relating to racial injustice has illuminated the need for continued improvement. It is important for grantmakers and nonprofits who are interested in lasting change to maintain their focus on diversity and inclusion. People have been talking about this for decades, but we are at a point where more people are open to listening and to change. The question is what we do over the long term. Statements are a starting point, but what’s next? We’ve been here before. We see what happens when it’s out of the media, and other things become top of mind, so the question is how we sustain this. This time, we don’t want it to be the trend. We want it to be real and lasting. This is why these conversations about rethinking our board structures and about how we do grants are so important because that’s how the change can happen. We need to ask ourselves, “How do I make sure this new awakening doesn’t go away, even if the news cycle changes?”
Dr. Freeman, thank you so much for this engaging conversation.