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Building on the Legacy of African-American Philanthropy


In honor of Black History Month, GuideStar looks at developments in African-American philanthropy.

Philanthropy has long been an integral part of African-American society. For more than two centuries, Americans of African descent have combined resources to assist community members in need. They have supported these charitable efforts with gifts of money, time, and talent.

Today, African-Americans are building on this legacy. Some 52 percent of blacks surveyed by Independent Sector gave to charity in 1998, and 47 percent volunteered. The organizations that have traditionally played key roles in black philanthropy—churches, mutual aid societies, educational institutions, and fraternal and civil rights groups—continue to be active in African-American communities.

The past decade saw what the Seattle Times has termed "a growing national awareness of black philanthropy." Outgrowths of this increased attention are a new emphasis on donor education, efforts to promote new ways of thinking in African-American organizations, and a new forum to foster communication among individuals involved in black philanthropy.

Donor Education on the National Level

Erica Hunt, executive director of the Twenty First Century Foundation, notes that "the area of developing donors has been relatively weak" for black, Hispanic, and Asian-American charitable organizations. These groups, she explains, have traditionally depended on government and foundations for funding.

Until recently, the Twenty First Century Foundation itself focused primarily on granting money to African-American groups engaged in community revitalization. In 1998, however, the organization expanded its mission to include working with donors. Today, the foundation's Donor Services Program informs contributors about charitable funds and opportunities for program development, grant making, and evaluation.

The National Center for Black Philanthropy is also developing educational programs for African-American donors throughout the country. Rodney Jackson, the organization's president and CEO, states that two of the National Center's main goals are to "promote giving and volunteering among African-Americans" and to "educate African-Americans and others about the importance of philanthropy." As part of this effort, the organization is developing outreach programs to promote philanthropy among African-American business owners and business people.

Donor Education on the Regional and Local Levels

Efforts to educate African-American donors are taking place on the regional and local levels as well. Last year, the Twenty First Century Foundation allied with the Asian American Federation of New York and the Hispanic Federation of New York City to create the New York City Coalition to Promote Philanthropy.

One of the coalition's goals is to develop an educational campaign. Erica Hunt envisions public service announcements and bus advertisements that will "highlight charitable activities by New Yorkers of all colors," "acquaint donors with their options," "highlight grass-roots organizations around New York City," let donors know that there are "organized vehicles to reach" the grass-roots organizations, and "emphasize people of color as donors, not just recipients of, nonprofit services."

Hunt hopes that eventually the coalition will publish such educational materials as a donor workbook, philanthropy curriculum, philanthropy bibliography, and information on developing a giving plan. The coalition's ultimate goal, she believes, is "to cultivate donors," to help them become familiar with charities so that they will "go from [making] occasional donations to [making] ongoing" contributions.

Black philanthropies throughout the country are forming similar partnerships. Associated Black Charities of Maryland has joined with several organizations to form the Baltimore Giving Project. On the West Coast, the Bay Area Black United Fund is participating in the Northern California Coalition to Promote Community Philanthropy. In the Midwest, the Arts League of Michigan, a nonprofit that presents African-American arts to the public, is cosponsoring the African American Legacy Program, an effort to promote black philanthropy in the Detroit area.

Organizations not traditionally associated with black charities are also initiating regional and local programs that aim, at least in part, to encourage African-American philanthropy. Erica Hunt traces the origins of the New York City Coalition to an offer from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to fund a collaborative effort to reach nontraditional audiences in the New York area. The Council of Michigan Foundations is attempting to promote philanthropy among Hispanic and African-American residents of that state.

In New England, the Connecticut Giving Project is working to promote philanthropy among people of color; participating organizations include the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy (formerly the Coordinating Council for Foundations), United Way for Connecticut, and Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce. The Indiana Donors Alliance is trying to reach minority residents of that state. In Miami, African-Americans make up part of the audience for the South Florida Promotion of Philanthropy Initiative. The Donors Forum is the lead organization for that venture.

New Ways of Thinking

Some leaders are encouraging black philanthropies not only to build their donor base but also to do more with a portion of the money they already receive. In January, the Reverend Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and the New York Stock Exchange announced a partnership to teach black ministers how to invest their churches' funds. The Sunday Gazette Mail (Charleston, S.C.) reported that the venture is planning to hold its first seminar for African-American ministers in May. The project also is encouraging black churches to form investment clubs.

"Too many of our churches are too conservative," the Sunday Gazette Mail quotes financial author Jesse Brown as saying. "They take up a collection of money on Sunday, and all they do is put it in a bank and spend it right away. We want them to know they can invest and grow that money."

Author Mary-Frances Winters agrees with Brown's assessment. "Numerous [African-American] churches raise substantial sums of money but fail to employ sound investment strategies," she writes in a special report on minority philanthropy.

Winters identifies several factors that have prevented black philanthropies—religious and secular—from focusing on endowments. African-American donors traditionally support causes that address current problems. "The norm within the African-American community is to give in response to immediate needs, rather than to build funds for the future."

Many African-American charities also do not have the staff to develop and administer endowments. Hebrew Dixon III of the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha told Winters, "The lack of available resources to spread across the board has to be considered." Norman Hill of the A. Phillip Randolph Education Fund echoed Dixon's sentiments: "Given our limited staff, and our desire to maintain a national organization with national impact, we've focused on operating funds to address immediate, ongoing needs."

Although some black churches and fraternal organizations are overcoming these hurdles, for others, staff inexperience in certain fundraising areas remains a barrier to endowment building. Winters explains, "Internal challenges for fund development specialists in African-American organizations include a lack of experience at raising major gifts, developing sophisticated databases and managing endowments." She recommends donor education and staff training as ways to promote endowments among black charities.

Fostering Communication

Rodney Jackson of the National Center for Black Philanthropy also sees a need "to strengthen fundraising in African-American institutions." Rather than focus on one aspect of fundraising, however, the National Center is developing programs that will address the range of such activities, from grant writing to planned giving.

These efforts advance the National Center's third key goal, to "support organizations and institutions involved in black philanthropy." To that end, the National Center is also sponsoring the National Conference on Black Philanthropy. In fact, the organization is itself an outgrowth of that successful venture.

Jackson's experience in the mid-1990s as publisher of the newsletter Black Philanthropy led him to conclude that "it is important that people in black philanthropy...begin to talk to each other [and] build networks." He established the National Conference on Black Philanthropy "to promote communication among African-Americans involved in various aspects of philanthropy."

Philanthropy News Digest reported that more than 300 people attended the first National Conference, which met in Philadelphia in March 1997. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, that number had increased to 500 when the second conference convened in Oakland in May 1999. A broad range of people connected with African-American philanthropy participated, and sessions addressed topics from endowment building to donor education to promoting charity in Africa.

The National Center is sponsoring two regional conferences this year, one in Greensboro, North Carolina, in April and one in Boston in June. The next National Conference will meet in Detroit in May 2001.

The success of the National Conference on Black Philanthropy, the development of efforts to promote new ways of thinking within African-American charities, and the creation of programs to expand the black donor base all demonstrate that Americans of African descent are continuing to build on the heritage of black philanthropy.

Sources Cited

  • "The Baltimore Giving Project." The Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers.
  • Brown, Amber S. "African-American Churches, Jesse Jackson on a Mission." The Sunday Gazette Mail (Charleston, S.C.), January 23, 2000.
  • Coffman, Suzanne E. Telephone interview with Erica Hunt, executive director, Twenty First Century Foundation. February 11, 2000.
  • Telephone interview with Rodney Jackson, president and CEO, National Council on Black Philanthropy. February 15, 2000.
  • "Connecticut Giving Project." Connecticut Council for Philanthropy.
  • "The Demographics of Household Contributors and Volunteers." Giving and Volunteering in the United States: Findings from a National Survey. Independent Sector, 1999.
  • "First National Conference on Black Philanthropy Strives to Increase African-American Giving."  Philanthropy News Digest,March 19, 1997.
  • Hall, Holly. "Black Philanthropy: A Focus on Careers and Building Endowments." The Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 3, 1999.
  • Large, Jerry. "The Changing Face of Philanthropy—Celebration of African-American Giving Shows How Seattle's Philanthropy Comes in Many Kind Forms." The Seattle Times, May 13, 1999.
  • "New Ventures in Philanthropy: 1998 Grantees and Partner Coalitions." Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.
  • "New Ventures in Philanthropy: 1999 Grantees and Partner Coalitions." Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.
  • Winters, Mary-Frances. "Reflections on Endowment Building in the African-American Community." In  Cultures of Caring: Philanthropy in Diverse American Communities, pp. 107-145. Special report funded by The Ford Foundation, W. K. Kellogg Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and Council on Foundations. Washington, D.C., 1999. Quotations taken from pp. 142, 124, 128, 132, 123-124.


suzanne-coffman-150x150.jpgThe preceding post is by Suzanne Coffman, GuideStar’s editorial director. See more of Suzanne’s sector findings and musings on philanthropy here on our blog. 

Topics: Black History Month Philanthropy