The State of Black Philanthropy
UPTOWN gathers a group of nonproﬁt industry leaders for a special roundtable discussion on the successes and challenges facing our organizations, misconceptions and realities of African-American giving, and what we need to do now to keep our communities aﬂoat
By Keith T. Reed
Photography by Berman Fenelus
Anyone who doubts charity is a trait etched onto the souls of black folk need only show up at Sunday service long enough to see the collection plate passed. Whether we give because our parents passed that white envelope to the end of the pew every week or because as adults, we want that tax deduction (let’s keep it real), we give—at least in church. But what about the community foundations, black colleges, museums, and other organizations chasing the same black dollar? Is tithing at the altar any different than cutting a check to your alma mater? And where’s all that money really going, anyway?
At the dawn of a new year, UPTOWN decided to wrestle with the issue of black giving, bringing in the experts on raising black money for black causes: Erica Hunt, president of the Twenty-First Century Foundation, a New York group that raises and distributes money for black charitable organizations; Diane Bell-McKoy, president and CEO of Associated Black Charities, a Baltimore organization with a similar mission; Eloise Alexis, vice president of institutional advancement at Atlanta’s Spelman College; Donna Williams, chief audience development ofﬁcer at New York’s famed Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Howard Dodson, director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
We convened in the most apropos locale, the Schomburg’s American Negro Theater, a repository of black history in the seat of Harlem, where decades ago Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee played to small audiences before they became international stars.
Our task was simple: have a no-holds-barred conversation about when, why, and how black folks give our money, and why we need to do better. Here’s how it went down.
UPTOWN: We know that the bulk of African-American giving has been through black churches. Does that mean you are in competition with the black church or that you’ve got to be more creative to persuade people to give?
Eloise Alexis: I see it as a partnership. I have found that those who give—those who tithe—will say, “I’m going to commit to my church, but I’m also going to give to my institution of higher learning.” They are our biggest advocates.
Diane Bell-McKoy: Churches were actually our partners in helping develop capacity for a number of faith-based communities in Maryland and helping them get better at providing services.
Howard Dodson: While the church serves one set of needs, frankly, we must educate the African community about supporting things beyond the church. We have other organizational and institutional needs.
UPTOWN: Older African-Americans give in higher percent¬ages to the black church, 55 percent vs. 30 percent among younger African-Americans. But younger African-Americans are giving to organizations that aren’t necessarily race-focused. Is that cause for concern?
Dodson: First of all, the majority of young people with money don’t control their dollars, and they don’t make those decisions.
UPTOWN: What do you mean?
Dodson: Their accountants, their bookkeepers—nine times out of 10, they’re not African-Americans. I’m going to get in trouble on this …. There is the assumption in America that all money ultimately belongs to white people, and so you have gatekeepers who ﬁgure out how to get it.
Erica Hunt: There’s a generational difference. Before 1965, black people experienced segregation … and people’s commitments formed early. After 1965, opportunity structures changed for black people. There may be a glass ceiling, but we have more prominent executives, leaders in the private sector, than ever before, and giving changes.
UPTOWN: A study showed that 1998 was the peak year for black giving, when African-Americans gave $7.1 billion. Why would giving have peaked at that point?
Hunt: Actually the peak was $11.2 billion for 2004, two-thirds of which went to the churches. That was about $7 billion. Charitable bequests are going to be eaten up by the fact that we have family and obligations. We have to catch people while they are in their 20s and 30s and really talk about the importance of giving because that will establish a lifelong pattern.
Alexis: Spelman’s ﬁrst-year students have a campaign. The class of ’11, they give $5.11. We used to hear young alums saying, “I’m not going to give anything until I can give a lot.” The reality is that if they don’t give to Spelman while they have a little, then when they get a lot they’re just going to buy more shoes.
(For more of this story please see the winter 2007 issue of UPTOWN)