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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

The history of Black philanthropy and its culture of giving

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Black Americans as donors and contributors have been pillars in nonprofit and philanthropic efforts toward social change for centuries. They continue to ensure the economical, educational and social advancement of their communities by organizing and collaborating. As part of the celebration for Black History Month, it is important to acknowledge the historical and cultural context of their giving to cultivate diversity and inclusion in the nonprofit sector.

Recognize that the culture of giving is not a new practice for Black people

This culture has been around for centuries.

The “traditions of giving, caring, and sharing” that were central in West African cultures trace back to pre-colonial times, according to Tyrone McKinley Freeman, assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, during an interview for the “Giving With Impact” podcast. Enslaved people who were brought across the Atlantic and survived the Middle Passage continued to practice these values in the Southern plantations as a means of survival.

They spread generosity and grew to look after each other as they were coping with separation from family members and withstanding the brutality of slavery. 

One reason little has been written about black philanthropy is that the word philanthropy evokes images of large foundations and wealthy philanthropists, which are scarce in the black community. When one expands the concept to include giving money, goods, and time, blacks emerge as having a strong, substantial philanthropic tradition.

Dr. Emmett CarsonA leading scholar of Black philanthropy and founding CEO of Silicon Valley Community Foundation

Embrace different ways of giving

Include the centuries-old philanthropic tradition of Black communities that has ensured their progress.

The harmful stereotype that Black people take more aid than what they give diminishes their continuing active giving efforts to reconstruct their communities. They have been at the forefront of addressing the social, educational, economic, and political barriers that impeded the progress of their communities.

During the abolitionist movement, the foundation of the Black church, voluntary organizations, fraternal orders, societies and schools would help secure the freedoms of African Americans. During the time of the Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation by denying Black people the right to vote and equality in wages, jobs and education, these same communities helped in the advocacy of their rights and provision of resources. These ways of giving often consisted of helping with utilities, rent and housing costs.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s became a philanthropic wave of informal giving as people volunteered, boycotted, marched, and provided housing and meals to people doing these activities. These ways of giving are alive today in the form of nonprofit organizations that empower the members of their communities and provide resources to the advancement of their talents.

Acknowledge the contributions of Black people toward social change – even when their resources are limited

Despite a history of structural barriers that have blocked Black people from accumulating wealth, they are the racial group that has contributed most of their profits to charity.

African American households give 25% more of their wages annually than white households, and almost two-thirds of Black households donate each year, collectively giving $11 billion to community organizations and causes, according to a 2012 W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors report.

Yet there is a vast racial wealth gap between white and Black Americans. The median wealth of a white family is $188,200, while median Black family wealth was only $24,100, according to 2019 Federal Reserve research.

If nonprofits are serious about cultivating diverse communities, they must commit across their organizations to diversity and inclusion, as well as dedicate time, resources, and attention to identify, solicit, and steward Black donors on their own terms.

Michael Gordon VossFormer publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review and host of the "Giving with Impact" podcast

Give back to the Black community

Supporting Black-led nonprofit organizations in the way they need is a big step toward equality in the philanthropic sector. Unfortunately, Black-led organizations are often woefully underfunded in the U.S.

According to Echoing Green and Bridgespan analysis, the revenues of Black-led organizations are 24% smaller than the revenues of their white-led counterparts. In the same way, unrestricted net assets of the Black-led organizations are 76% smaller than their white-led counterparts.

There is a $20 million racial funding gap that exists between white-led and Black-led early-stage organizations, according to data from the Echoing Green 2019 applicant pool in which 492 organizations led by Black applicants ($40 million) and 396 organizations led by white applications ($61 million) were interviewed.

Even though Black, Latinx and Indigenous leaders make up 30% of the population, they hold only 10% of the nonprofit leadership roles — and the organizations run by these leaders receive only about 4% of funding in the sector, according to the New Profit.

According to the Bridgespan/Echoing Green Racial Equity and Philanthropy report by Cheryl Dorsey, Jeff Bradach and Peter Kim, some of the barriers for leaders of color in fundraising include:

  • Finding potential funders. They have inequitable access to social networks in the philanthropic sector.
  • Creating bonds with potential funders. Interpersonal bias can be displayed through mistrust and microaggressions that creates relationship-building burdens for leaders of color.
  • Securing support for the organization: There can be an imbalance of power in relationships with funders because they may want to rely on familiar strategies and lack the understanding of culturally relevant approaches.
  • Maintaining relationships with current funders: Grant renewal processes can become tedious if mistrust remains, and if the funder has a white-centric view of strategies, priorities and progress.

Further reading

This post only scratches the surface of a vast subject. To learn more, we encourage you to dive into these additional resources and organizations.

Nicole Macias Garibay


ASU Lodestar Center Blog