Philanthropy’s Support for Reparations Is Stronger Than You Might Expect

Black lives matter protest in new york, june 2020. tetiana.photographer/shutterstock

Given the current legal and political backlash against work to promote racial equity in the U.S., you might expect limited momentum behind reparations — probably the most ambitious movement to repair the harms of slavery and systemic racism. But the actual ecosystem of support for reparations may surprise you, as I learned while discussing the results of two recent reports on the topic with researchers at the Bridgespan Group and Liberation Ventures.

When I first took a close look at the landscape of funding for reparations in early 2022, the evidence indicated both that a real movement was building, and that very few funders were involved. Today, though, the experts behind the new reports from the Bridgespan Group and Liberation Ventures say that while funding is still lagging overall, far more philanthropies may be on the reparations train than previously believed.

Or, as Liberation Venture’s cofounder and CEO Aria Florant said in a recent interview, “One of the things that kept coming up for me was this feeling that there are a lot of people out there who support reparations, but they think that no one else does.”

That realization came about as Bridgespan and Liberation Ventures were researching their two papers about philanthropic funding that are most easily described as outlining the why and how of supporting racial reparations. The researchers are far from taking a victory lap, however. The reports emphasize the hard road ahead for passing reparations policies, while strongly advocating for more funders to step forward and back the effort. 

Reparations support by the numbers

I did my first research and reporting on this around the time that the MacArthur and William T. Grant foundations had announced grantmaking in this area; other funders, including the Omidyar Network, Kataly Foundation and the Fund for Nonviolence, were also involved. Today, according to Bridgespan’s “Philanthropy’s Role in Reparations and Building a Culture of Racial Repair,” “at least 80 national funders, including the Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Hewlett Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, among others, are supporting multiple actors in the reparations ecosystem.” 

Looking at Liberation Ventures alone, Florant said that her organization’s funding is on the increase and that its base of funders has grown to 40. Another regranting project in the field, Decolonizing Wealth Project’s Liberated Capital, points to 1,500 donors. 

These numbers are encouraging, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about the funders behind them. The researchers didn’t provide a list of those 80 funders or how much they’re giving, so it’s hard to get a read on the amount of money and potential philanthropic power that’s in play. But other signs definitely suggest that reparations’ time in the funding spotlight may be near at hand. Liberation Ventures’ list of funders, for example, includes serious heavy-hitters like Ford, MacArthur and Hewlett, as well as the Omidyar Network. Liberated Capital doesn’t list its donors, but we know that MacKenzie Scott has been among them, and the project has supported efforts in most states in the U.S., with multiple efforts funded in California, Washington state, and across the Southeast.

There’s also the experience that Florant relayed to me. While conducting the research that led to Liberation Ventures’ publication for the project, she said, a “weird thing happened.” In virtually every meeting she attended, someone would tell her, “I support reparations, but I couldn’t take that to my colleagues or get it passed on my board.” Then, Florant said, she would head to a different meeting, sometimes even with a direct colleague of one of those quiet supporters, and hear the exact same thing: “’Well, I support reparations but,’ … and it just kind of kept happening,” Florant said. Granted, anecdotes aren’t evidence. But add Florant’s experiences to the numbers that are available, and there’s reason to come away with the impression that there’s a silent, but sizable, level of support for reparations in the philanthrosphere.

This silence includes shyness around even using the word “reparations.” “One of the things that we found in interviews is that there are funders who are doing racial repair work, even at the CEO level, and aren’t yet comfortable calling the work reparations,” said Bridgespan partner and report co-author Dr. Tonyel Edwards. Edwards said that Bridgespan and Liberation Ventures created the reports in part to help people become more comfortable accurately naming the work that they are, in fact, supporting.

Reparations and the backlash to racial equity work

What does the future look like for funding for racial equity, including reparations, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action in college admissions? Or similar legal action on the horizon in other sectors?

It’s obviously still too early to say, but my conversation with Edwards and Florant offered a few clues. Florant, for one, said that Liberation Ventures’ fundraising is increasing, while at the same time, “there is certainly hesitance, and I hear a lot of conversations about people scenario-planning around how to be creative.” The question, Florant said, seems to be, “How do we make sure we can achieve our goals in ways that don’t put us at more risk than we need?”

For her part, Edwards said that the timing of the Bridgespan/Liberation Ventures research effort allowed them to get a sense of some of the early reactions to the Supreme Court’s anti-affirmative action ruling. The balance of the conversations she was part of focused on philanthropies trying to understand whether the ruling could possibly affect them, and what they may need to do to protect themselves. At the same time, Edwards said, it seemed as though for the most part, funders were feeling encouraged to double down on their efforts, “largely because there was a recognition that there continued to be no constraints on their giving.”

Of course, Florant, Edwards and the paper’s other authors were conducting their research before the 11th Circuit Court’s Fearless Fund decision. Given the philanthrosphere’s frequent aversion to risk, in the long term, it may be too much to hope that even the largest, wealthiest and ostensibly most powerful funders will continue to stand up in the face of extremist attacks against so-called “wokeness.” At the same time, though, funders and wealthy donors are known to fight back hard against any outside effort to regulate how much, and where, they move the wealth they hold. Hard as it is to root for the intransigence of the wealthy, the future of funding to promote true equity, including racial reparations, may at least in part depend on it.

Do you work for a funder that has decided to increase your efforts to support racial and other equity efforts? Is the threat of potential lawsuits impacting your work on racial justice? Are you aware of any efforts to protect grantees from such lawsuits, or to pursue policy remedies? If so, please contact Dawn Wolfe, either on or off the record:

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