August 13, 2020

Good intentions aren’t enough to dismantle racism in philanthropy

Camelback Ventures' Capital Collaborative program empowers funders to take the necessary steps to right centuries of wrong.

Ashley Beckner (center, red shirt) with her fellow 2019 Camelback Ventures Capital Collaborative cohort and coaches in New Orleans. Photo courtesy of Camelback Ventures.

Only 4 percent of philanthropic capital gets invested in organizations led by Black and Latino/a/x leaders, while 76 percent of foundation staff identify as white. I am one of those well-intentioned foundation staff who identify as white and have not done nearly enough to ensure that more of our capital supports organizations led by BIPOC leaders.

I have spent over half of my career working for what I have perceived as education justice. As a first-generation college student, I thought that I had a sense of some of the injustices that exist within education in the United States, a system that currently prevents social and economic mobility rather than promotes it. I’ve read a wealth of resources about the history of education. I mentored other first-generation college students. I worked on the founding team of a new school. And I’ve spent the past four years investing in and supporting the work of others seeking to shift that system.

In all of those cases, my good intentions very likely did not translate into the highest impact, because I didn’t know how much racism I had internalized as a person born and raised in a country where systemic racism is so entrenched in our society. Thanks to the Camelback Ventures’ Capital Collaborative, and the centuries of organization, activism, and scholarship upon which this program is built, I have had the opportunity to continue to educate myself and other funders about racial equity and the steps we can all take to right centuries of wrong.

[Read more: Craft breweries are selling Black Is Beautiful beer to raise money for racial justice]

In the first Capital Collaborative cohort, I shared space with nine other white collaborators from education philanthropy. Through 1:1 coaching and group learning sessions, we worked together to understand foundational concepts, such as white identity and the culture of white supremacy, ideas that I had not previously explored in such depth. We started by exploring our own lives to better understand how a world we had unknowingly internalized was affecting how we show up in relationships and in our general beliefs and mindsets.

What if much of what I believed and how I operated (often unconsciously) only reinforced white supremacy and privilege and was not actually serving any of my stated goals and intentions?

I thought for the first time about the ways I had been trained working at a prominent investment firm—my first indoctrination into the professional world—and started to critically question how that training and those behaviors were impacting my colleagues and the partners that we work with every day. From striving for perfection to placing a high degree of value on speed, I was trained that excellence showed up in a very specific package. What if much of what I believed and how I operated (often unconsciously) only reinforced white supremacy and privilege and was not actually serving any of my stated goals and intentions?

The nine-month Capital Collaborative program culminated right as COVID-19 began to ravage the United States. Leveraging my learning and experiences from the Capital Collaborative, I saw clearly the disparate impacts the pandemic had on people and communities, especially the racial inequities. I supported solutions to get money directly in the hands of those impacted, specifically emergency response funds for home-based child care providers. I aimed to hold in tension the simultaneous truths that COVID-19 both required an urgent response while recognizing that operating with a sense of urgency can crowd out the most important voices that need to be heard.

Just months into COVID-19 as we started to feel like we were gaining some footing around the context of the pandemic, the country witnessed the public murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, which is by no means a new occurrence. This level of inhumanity captured on video, coupled with a focused public forced to stay at home by the pandemic, awakened a new level of outrage. Philanthropy, including my own organization, reacted quickly to denounce racism and to commit to a new way of operating.

While I still have a lifetime of learning ahead, I am grateful that through my work with Camelback Ventures I have some clarity of direction. Guided by this experience, I am committed to working alongside our entire team, and specifically my Black colleagues who have always been vocal advocates for children, families, and leaders of color, to infuse racial equity into every aspect of our work. I am working harder to center the voices of children, families, our close partners, and my colleagues who bring their lived experience to this work. I am looking at our strategies and funding decisions through the lens of power and asking if we are using our capital to hoard power or to redistribute it. I am helping to examine and change our systems, processes, and mindsets that create barriers for people of color to receive funding. I am actively diversifying my networks to bring a diverse set of leaders into our pipeline.

Perhaps most importantly, I am committed to doing my part to ensure that our organization builds a culture where people from all types of backgrounds can succeed. If I really want to see our philanthropic capital achieve the most impact, we both need to increase the 4 percent of capital going to people of color led organizations and decrease the 76 percent of foundation staff who are white. As a member of the 76 percent, I am asking myself what I’m personally willing to sacrifice in order to change that number.

The Collaborative programming has formally ended, but the work and the relationships continue. I’m now a part of a cohort that can continue to hold me accountable to these commitments, and together we will work for a more just future in philanthropy.

If you are a mid- to senior-level white leader from a grantmaking foundation or corporation who is ready to critically examine and deepen your and your organization’s commitment to racial and gender equity, Camelback Ventures’ Capital Collaborative program offers an incredible entry point for what will surely become a lifelong journey.

This essay was originally published in Camelback Ventures’ Racial Equity and Philanthropy Magazine Collection in partnership with Giving Compass.

Ashley Beckner

Imaginable Futures

Ashley Beckner is a Venture Partner at Imaginable Futures, where she's driving progress toward the vital importance of early experiences and brain development as the foundation for lifelong success. The former school operator and recovering finance professional was a participant in Camelback Ventures Capital Collaborative program, a racial equity accelerator for funders and investors.