For people who are worried about whether a new woke ideology has taken over philanthropy, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that it is everywhere. From the biggest foundations to the smallest nonprofits, an agenda of racial equity and identity politics is pervasive. The good news, though, is that this ideology is so divorced from reality that it might spell the end of many of these organizations.
Over the past year, billions of dollars have been pledged to support the cause of racial equity. According to a report from the AP, $12 billion in charitable contributions were “earmarked for racial equity” in the past year. A recent survey from the Center for Effective Philanthropy of 800 foundations found that 75 percent “had initiated efforts to support nonprofits that serve communities of color.” And according to Ellie Buteau, the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s vice president of research, the foundations were “trying to learn more about racism” and “self-reflect” about hiring and grant-making.
Indeed, for many foundations, the new mandate is not simply to give to more woke causes, regardless of their organization’s mission. It is to entirely change the way they do business. A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy advised foundations that “to decolonize philanthropy, we need to create diversity in fundraising.” The author noted that “Right now, raising money is designed to approach and engage old, straight white men—especially in major-gift fundraising. . . . If we are running a children’s health organization in Atlanta, for example, then we should have African American major donors, not just old white people, and the number of women donors should reflect the community.”
Of course, if you think that old straight white men are the ones with a disproportionate share of the money, it would probably make sense for your nonprofit to focus on asking them for some. But now it seems that optics matter more than financial resources for, say, children’s health in Atlanta.
Take the recent news from the Chronicle of Philanthropy that nonprofits are now hiring and promoting development staff without regard to their ability to raise money. As an example, consider C. Nathan Harris, who was recently hired for a fundraising job at the Oregon Food Bank. In an interview, he “was asked if he had ever developed an innovative approach to fundraising work. His answer: “putting less emphasis on financial goals for fundraisers as a measure of success and more on human-focused measures like relationships with supporters.”
Focusing on relationships with supporters is hardly an innovation in the world of fundraising. But Harris apparently described his philosophy using a lyric from the Broadway musical Rent: “How do you measure a year? What about love?” Since he got the job, Harris has set out to make his team of development officers feel better, even if it’s at the expense of actually raising money. Because what’s more important is getting a diverse fundraising staff, he explains. “If we’re managing staff to financial outcomes, that results in a profession that is less diverse, that is hostile to women, and that generates burnout,” Harris says.
Mario Lugay, senior innovation director at Justice Funders, who has helped the food bank with this strategy, told the Chronicle that too much focus on how much donors are going to give means that donors from different racial backgrounds don’t receive as much attention as those who are white.
Perhaps so, but the goal of nonprofits is supposed to be getting support for particular causes, not to make donors feel good. One would think this would be nowhere more obvious than in soliciting funds for a food bank. More donations means more people who are in need can be fed. Whether the funds are sent in by white people or black people should make no difference.
But of course, even the organizations with the clearest goals have been coopted. And the Oregon Food Bank is not just aiming to feed people anymore. It’s also hoping to become a “political home” for donors. This kind of mission-creep will not end well for these organizations. Not only are many donors to food banks not looking for politics with their canned goods, they are also looking for tangible results and news of the successes of the organizations to which they give.
The idea that they would instead be happy to know that maybe the food bank didn’t give out as much food, but they had a more diverse staff of fundraisers would strike many as self-indulgent, not to mention absurd. But this trend is spreading. Sure, most nonprofits are not actually saying that they won’t ask development officers to focus on financial targets. But many are wasting huge amounts of money on recruiting more diverse staffs, engaging in endless sensitivity trainings, and changing all their marketing and promotional materials to reflect their new woke orientation. It’s true that some of this may bring attention to foundations that want to support such nonsense. But many ordinary donors will see this as the kind of overhead that they do not want to support, and it is easy to see why.