Letter to the editor: Atlanta’s philanthropy must dig deeper for systemic change

Three ways nonprofits can truly narrow the racial equity gap


Photograph by Mohamed Shehata/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Atlanta’s reputation for Black sociopolitical progress has attracted people from all over the country who, like me, are well-educated, entrepreneurial, and generally successful. However, the reality is that African-American influence here may be waning—as racial and ethnic diversity gets pushed to the suburbs and upward mobility grows out of reach for many in America’s most inequitable city. This year, I have been disappointed by media coverage that affirms dominant white leadership while superficially espousing racial equity. Atlanta magazine’s 2020 list of the city’s 500 most powerful people, published in January, is a great example: a cover depicting mild racial diversity and gender equity, only to reveal a list of power players overwhelmingly dominated by older white males. I was also disappointed that, in a recent profile (“Narrowing the Gap,” July 2020), Alicia Philipp—the outgoing president of the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta (CFGA) who recently retired after 43 years—admitted that, despite the organization’s stated commitment to anti-racism, CFGA has not adequately addressed racial inequity in the metro region.

Atlanta cannot afford to continue producing the same colorful maps on racial wealth gaps while also boasting of its philanthropic generosity. Especially in the South, philanthropy has sometimes provided superficial atonement for anti-Black racism. Atlanta must do so much better. With leadership transitions at CFGA and other major nonprofit institutions upon us, I offer three goals as a call to action for addressing the mismatch between nonprofit institutional talk and walk.

Broaden your base. Invest time getting to know new potential beneficiaries, a more diverse pool of possible donors and supporters, and a wider array of advisors and planners.
Deliberately reach out to and engage more people of color, especially Black people, younger people, and other people and places that are historically underserved and excluded. Nonprofits sometimes give and lend only to people whom they encounter. Spend time in new places. Encounter new people. Support those new people.

The people best-positioned to transform underserved Black communities are Black people who live in or come from those places. Sometimes nonprofits don’t “get” their community visions—they want to help in ways that are familiar to donors instead of listening to what recipients say they need. Figure out ways to get comfortable outside of the box more often. Or just broaden your box.

Atlanta’s nonprofits must also do more to engage younger people as donors, leaders, and volunteers. Millennials like myself have a great desire to give, but we are skeptical of institutional giving. Guide us on how to pitch in even if we have limited financial resources.

Educate donors to help them become more empathetic and give more intelligently. And educate the citizens of metro Atlanta about how to apply for and take advantage of available resources.
Responsible philanthropic stewardship should include meaningful education on the real challenges and opportunities of our region. Consider the positive impact of having local donors learn about the long-term challenges for people who grew up in the East Lake Meadows housing projects. Or when CFGA staff hear firsthand from aspiring business owners and small-scale developers about the overwhelming prospect of walking into a bank (or a foundation) to apply for an investment to support their life’s work. These meaningful insights help bring donors and beneficiaries closer together. If leadership isn’t well-attuned to these issues or communities, hire staff or pay advisors to guide this education.

Shift your business model to prioritize systemic change in addition to organizational sustainability.
Don’t be afraid to channel significantly more funds to supporting the big thinkers, movers and shakers, and visionary leaders that help Atlanta “Influence Everything.” Sometimes community foundations (and all the mystique around donor-advised funds) are viewed as tax loopholes for the rich, rather than high-impact resources for systemic transformation. This is, in part, because the business model is susceptible to lots of bureaucracy that stifles their incentives to take risk. This reflex goes against the spirit of effective philanthropy. More institutions should focus on making an impact through giving and less on institutional growth. At times, this might require dipping into an endowment or even taking out a loan to increase grantmaking in times of great need or great purpose. The Ford Foundation recently announced plans to do just that.

My Hope
CFGA’s most recent annual plan features photos of Black people and a racial equity statement. I hope its next president can help lead Atlanta into a new era of transformative growth that helps realize that statement. Nonprofits must show up in the places on the map that they’ve identified as “struggling.” Spend time there. Ask questions. I am writing as a subscriber to Atlanta magazine, a community development practitioner, and a resident of the Atlanta region—excited about the possibilities of new leadership but concerned about the persistence of systemic inequality stifling our growth potential. Atlanta’s mission-driven organizations must be held to a higher standard, especially in this moment. I hope that we don’t grant the next generation of leaders four decades to experiment with inequitable practices. We must urge nonprofits to optimize the impacts of their treasure chests to drive systemic change. We can’t afford not to.

Yonina M. Gray is a community development professional who works for Reinvestment Fund in Atlanta.