LINETTA GILBERT serves as a Senior Program Officer at the Ford Foundation, specializing in program-
ming and grantmaking related to community philanthropy and civic culture in the United States and
abroad. In this role, she leads the Community Philanthropy, Race and Equity in the American South
Initiative, and the U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership, as well as Ford’s investments in com-
munity philanthropy globally. She also provides leadership as a key staff for Ford’s investments in
community philanthropy globally. A significant amount of Gilbert’s emerging work focuses on expand-
ing the definition of community philanthropy. Indigenous people, local individuals, and faith-based,
family, and corporate donors represent the various pools of philanthropic capital to be organized for
the betterment of communities.
Through her grantmaking portfolio at the Ford Foundation, she has made a series of strategic invest-
ments to support national and local efforts to invigorate and focus giving by African-American donors
within their communities. One example of this work is Ford’s investment in the creation of pedagogy
for developing African-American giving circles. These groups of donors explore their giving traditions,
evaluate personal commitments to their local communities, and commit their time, talent, and
resources to addressing specific issues that impact local African-American communities.
Before joining the Ford Foundation, Gilbert served as Vice President for Programs at the Greater New
Orleans Foundation. She was also a founder of Louisiana’s state child advocacy organization, Agenda
for Children. She currently serves on numerous boards including Association of Black Foundation
Executives and the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. Gilbert has been honored with two of the
philanthropic sector’s highest awards, the Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking and the
Critical Impact Award.
Linetta, I’d like to begin our conversation by lear ning more about you and
the exper iences that influenced your understanding of philanthropy.
Who I am now and my understanding of the power of philanthropy were largely shaped by my
experiences growing up in Rochester, New York. We had integrated schools but lived under de
My parents had clear goals for their children and their family, but they also had high expecta-
tions of the community. Both my mother and father believed that if their children — and all
children in the community — worked hard and excelled in school, they should be rewarded
with scholarships to college, a good job, and respect. They held the belief that communities
had a moral responsibility — a moral obligation — to the people who lived there.
Early in my childhood, my family lived in public housing for about three years. At that time,
there wasn’t the same stigma attached to public housing as there is today. The public housing
community had significant resources to help the residents living there to move up the eco-
nomic ladder: health care and a nursery school on site, a public school within walking dis-
tance, and a settlement house across the street. During the three years that we lived in that
community, my parents worked extremely hard and saved enough money so that we could buy
a 100-year-old house that had once been used for the Underground Railroad on the west side
of Rochester. Looking back, I realize that the high-quality services provided by the government
certainly supplemented my parents’ earnings and facilitated my family’s ability to build assets
and become a part of the middle class.
It was a neighborhood with a rich heritage. Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Clara
Barton had all lived there at one point in their lives, and when I was growing up, many of the
neighborhood residents were leaders in the National Council of Negro Women, lodges, and
other fraternal organizations. It was almost impossible to live in that neighborhood and not be
infused by the spirit of activism and social justice. It seemed to be in the air.
My father and mother also gave me a broad and rich understanding of community. A commu-
nity wasn’t a geographic space where individuals lived isolated and separate lives. It was a
place where people shared what they had so that everyone would have the resources and
opportunities to pursue happiness and success as they worked hard and persevered. Largely
because of my parents’ words and actions, I began to think of community as a place where
good things could happen for all people with the support and encouragement of other people,
family members, and strangers alike.
My mother also taught me the importance of being clear about who I am and what I stand for
and believe in.
Talk to me about that.
My mother made it clear that a person’s values, the expectations they have for themselves, and
the way they approach situations go a long way in determining their success in life. She liked
to say, “Walk in there like you own the place!” She expected her children to define their lives
and their futures for themselves and not measure our lives by the expectations, especially the
low expectations, of others.
My mother’s expectation that her children be open to and able to understand other people’s
perspectives and plights really stuck with me. My mother was very strong-willed and strict,
but she was compassionate if she thought that people’s circumstances were beyond their con-
trol. Her expectation was that people should try to control their circumstances as much as they
could, but that there were some situations where individuals just couldn’t pull themselves up
by their bootstraps. She expected us to listen to people, really try to understand what’s going
on in their lives, and then think about what might be different and how change could happen.
You can see that she planted the seeds for my activism in subtle ways!
My mother taught me an important lesson about giving that has stayed with me over the years.
I attended Howard University as an undergraduate. At that time, there was a club in Rochester
called the Howard University Mothers’ Club. My mother joined, and then she became a com-
mittee chair. The next thing we knew she was the vice chair and then the chair of the club.
She was a masterful fundraiser, but more than that, she was masterful at asking penetrating
questions and challenging people’s assumptions.
It wasn’t enough for my mother to say that the Mothers’ Club had raised $10,000 and awarded
five scholarships. She wasn’t interested in patting herself or anybody else on the back, feeling
good about writing someone a check, and forgetting about the person. She wanted to know
how long the club was willing to stick with the students they supported. “A one-year scholar-
ship isn’t good enough,” she would say. “We need to see them through college.” She wanted to
know what people were willing to do to increase the likelihood of success for determined,
talented students beyond simply giving money. Listening to my mother and watching her
work, I began to understand how people who are motivated by the philanthropic impulse
think about using their resources to make positive change happen. My mother wanted to make
sure that the Mothers’ Club had a way to measure their investments over a period of years to
make sure they were making the kind of difference they said they wanted to make. If the
results weren’t what people were expecting or hoping for, Mama wasn’t quick to point the
finger at the students. She thought that the way an organization invested its resources went a
long way to determine the success of the people on the receiving end of the investment.
Were there other early exper iences, beyond your mother’s example,
that have deepened your understanding and love of philanthropy?
The experience of growing up in a black community watching working- and middle-class
people raise money to help students of all ages pursue education has probably had more
impact than any other. For instance, there was never a moment in my life when I thought that
only white people or rich people were called to or capable of giving. I never thought a person
had to be a millionaire to make a difference in someone’s life or to have an impact in the local
community. I hear people say that they’d like to have money like Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey
so they could make a difference. I shake my head whenever I hear this. I’ve seen how $500 has
changed a person’s life — and their family’s life — forever.
When I was growing up in Rochester, for example, the churches, lodges, and fraternal organ-
izations were largely responsible for local giving for black people. My father was a leader
within the Masonic Lodge, and he made sure that our family understood how seriously the
Masons took their obligation to the community. Every year, the lodges sponsored oratorical
contests with themes connected to American civic life for high school students. Through this
philanthropic endeavor, the men in our community were reinforcing both the importance of
being an engaged and confident citizen as well as the value of higher education as a pathway
to upward mobility.
Recently I was speaking to a group of younger African-American philanthropists who are
reclaiming for themselves, their families, and their peers the fruitful tradition of African-
American philanthropy. Some of these young people are quite well-off; others are still in the
process of establishing their careers and building their families. Some of them were fortunate
enough to witness firsthand the generous spirit of African-American philanthropy when they
were growing up, but not all of them benefited from that experience. They’re looking for guid-
ance and counsel about their work and worth in philanthropy. I shared with them some of the
wisdom and reflections of Mary McLeod Bethune so that they would have an appreciation for
the rich tradition that they stand in, as well as the high expectations of their ancestors that can
inform and inspire them. In a portion of her last will and testament, Bethune wrote:
I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another.
As long as Negroes are hemmed into racial blocs by prejudice and pressure, it
will be necessary for them to band together for economic betterment. Negro
banks, insurance companies and other businesses are examples of successful,
racial economic enterprises. These institutions were made possible by vision
and mutual aid. Confidence was vital in getting them started and keeping
them going. Negroes have got to demonstrate still more confidence in each
other in business. This kind of confidence will aid the economic rise of the race
by bringing together the pennies and dollars of our people and ploughing them into 35
useful channels [italics added]. Economic separatism cannot be tolerated in
this enlightened age, and it is not practicable. We must spread out as far and
as fast as we can, but we must also help each other as we go. . . .
I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people. The
world around us really belongs to youth for youth will take over its future
management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better
world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they
are to be the leaders of tomorrow. Nor must they forget that the masses of our
people are still underprivileged, ill-housed, impoverished and victimized by
discrimination. We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the
courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward
good ends [italics added].
She goes on to talk about her legacy that we can all stand to learn from and bring to our lives
and our work: a thirst for education, respect for the uses of power, faith, racial dignity, and a
desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. She speaks about the importance of love
and hope. Our young people need to know that they stand united with African Americans over
the ages who have struggled and who have shared what they have to make life better for their
people, their communities, and the community at large.
When you ar r ived at the Ford Foundation, you made the decision to focus your
grantmaking on the intersection of race, equity, and philanthropy, pr imar ily
in the context of the Amer ican South. As you know, there were folks who ques-
tioned whether the region was willing to move forward on this agenda. What
signs of hope did you see that led you to believe that organized philanthropy in
the region was prepared to work on these potentially divisive issues?
To be honest, my decision was grounded as much in intuition as in deep analysis. The
American South has been challenged by and lambasted for segregation and racist behavior for
more than three hundred years, and we’ve carried the burden of sin for the whole nation upon
our back. Yet in communities throughout the American South, funders can find groups of
people who struggle every day to talk and work through inequity in their communities.
On the data side, I knew that the South was realizing a return migration of African Americans.
These people — and the other populations that were migrating to the region — bring signifi-
cant financial, intellectual, and moral capital that represent much-needed assets for urban and
rural communities as they rebuild and revitalize themselves. I knew that I wouldn’t be work-
ing alone because there were foundations in the region that had been working on issues of race
and poverty for some time and had built up significant knowledge about the resources and
opportunities in the region. I was aware that the number of philanthropic investors in the
region was on the cusp of mushrooming and that the time was right to demonstrate that
investments to address racism and promote equity could work and could make a difference.
I also knew there were people in the region who possessed the imagination, persistence, and
courage to make an even greater dent in addressing injustice but that they needed additional
resources to realize their potential. As important as additional financial resources can be, this
group of people also needed opportunities to connect with and learn from each other and from
people outside of the region who could enhance their sense of possibilities and provide strate-
gic and tactical advice about how to make change happen.
I hold the deep conviction that philanthropy has a critical role to play in enriching the imag-
ination of the public about what is possible in the places where they live. I really do believe,
because I’ve seen it happen many times over the past twenty years, that philanthropy can help
people imagine and work toward realizing a new future. What happens too often is that people
become isolated from one another and from new ideas. Part of what I’ve tried to do through
my investments has been to create space and opportunity for people across all spectrums of a
community to engage in thoughtful conversations about how they want their community to
be different and to provide resources for people to dream, experiment, struggle, and discover
for themselves the possibility of working differently and being different in relationships with
One of the earliest investments I made during my tenure at the Ford Foundation that
illustrates this commitment was to the Foundation for the Mid South (FMS) to support
institutional transformation. The leadership of that foundation recognized the need to hear
from diverse voices from across their region and to learn from other communities working to
address the same challenges that face Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The Ford Founda-
tion provided resources to establish the Mid South Commission to Build Philanthropy, as well
as to support the commissioners’ travel to South Africa and Brazil to learn from established
and indigenous leaders committed to building and promoting community philanthropy. The
commission was comprised of thirty-two very diverse leaders, including some who knew noth-
ing about organized philanthropy but knew a great deal about the resources and challenges of
their communities. The commission worked together for over eighteen months to develop
strategies for promoting racial, social, and economic equity that reflected the best thinking of
activists, educators, corporate executives, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, community
development practitioners, and policymakers. It represented a new way of working for the
foundation — one that we hope other foundations might embrace and implement.
As they listened to diverse citizens talk about their visions and aspirations, FMS helped craft
a vision statement for the region that recognized the importance of affirming values and devel-
oping strategies that aligned with and supported the work of leaders across the region who
were working to make positive change. It’s worth noting that FMS went through this process
of learning and deep reflection before hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast
region. The values and strategies that FMS had adopted went a long way to inform the signif-
icant philanthropic investments made in the Gulf Coast region after the hurricanes hit. The
Foundation for the Mid South played a critical role in helping other investors understand what 37
was needed to create equitable and inclusive communities in the region, rather than simply
re-creating the inequalities and disparities that existed before the storms.
As you were developing your investment strategy to address issues of race and
equity, you par ticipated in a European Foundation Centre (EFC) meeting where
you were introduced to the concept of community philanthropy.
Can you talk about how that meeting shaped your thinking about
what might be possible in the context of U.S. philanthropy?
It was an extraordinary moment. I was in the room with a group of young to middle-aged
people from European countries, many of them from Central and Eastern European countries,
who were energized by the fact that they could be part of creating an institution that could
make change happen in their communities. They were talking about citizen participation and
democracy, and brainstorming about how they could raise money from everyone in their com-
munities to support this vision. They were just bubbling with the sense of possibilities.
What struck me most was how different the energy and vocabulary in the room was from what
I had seen at similar meetings in the United States. In the United States — and I realize this is
a generalization — older, more established leaders who have been involved in community
work for a long time tend to talk about endowment size, what programs or organizations they
would want to support, what major donors or corporations would be most inclined to make a
lead gift, and what focus area would get the attention and support of potential donors and
corporations. In the European meeting, initially, they didn’t talk about assets. They talked
about what they hoped to achieve through the money that they raised. They talked about how
the circle could be as wide as possible so that everyone in the community would have the
chance to be a part of the moment.
I have to give credit to the C.S. Mott Foundation that created the EFC Community
Philanthropy Initiative for designing the work in a way that allowed for such creative think-
ing. The initiative put forward a definition of community philanthropy —“the giving of
individuals and organizations for the betterment of their community”— that gave people the
space and freedom to look at the work with new eyes. They were clear from the very
beginning that community philanthropy could evolve in ways that could simultaneously
include and transcend the model of a chartered, endowed foundation. They were careful about
using words — like “betterment”— that could not be easily defined and that left room for
robust discussion about what people wanted for their community.
What is it about the word “better ment” that caught your attention?
What caught my attention about the word was how people in the room talked about better-
ment. They were defining betterment in terms of improving political conditions for people
who had been excluded under previous governments. They were talking explicitly about
improving economic prospects and opportunities for individuals and families who were
marginalized by the current economic structures. They were not talking only about charity
work or supporting social service organizations. They were talking about how their time,
money, and talents could make fundamental changes in communities for people who had
been excluded and disenfranchised. They talked about organizing and advocacy, and
supporting organizations to achieve these goals. They spoke with boldness, compassion, and
That early EFC experience brings to the surface one of the great frustrations of my work. It
has been difficult for me to convey what I’ve seen in places outside the United States to
grantees and colleagues in the United States. Because I’m a funder, people will nod their heads
when I talk about community philanthropy. If they are a part of the foundation field, they’ll
say it’s an idea whose time has come. But, at the same time, many people are still reluctant to
engage in the conversation or to think critically about the implications of community philan-
thropy for how we build and promote strategic giving focused on rebuilding vital and healthy
institutions within American communities.
Do you have any sense about the source of this resistance?
Three reasons come immediately to mind. The first has to do with how I spoke about commu-
nity philanthropy, especially early in my tenure at the Ford Foundation. In most of my con-
versations, I associated community philanthropy almost exclusively with righting the wrongs
of racism and inequity. This perspective is one firmly and appropriately embraced by the Ford
Foundation. And although there is significant research that demonstrates how structural
inequities, racism, sexism, and classism contribute to and hold people in poverty, these
subjects are difficult for most people to discuss. It’s even more difficult for people to imagine
resolving these complex issues during their lifetimes.
I also think that when people first heard me talk about community philanthropy, they thought
about the wonderful and significant giving that occurs in the region to support basic charity.
It wasn’t quite clear to them what was different about community philanthropy or how
community philanthropy challenged people to move beyond the charity model and make
investments to support advocacy, public policy, and community development.
It’s difficult for most people in organized philanthropy to envision the forms that community
philanthropy might take without limiting their views to well-branded models like community
foundations or United Ways. What many people don’t fully understand is that most people
give in ways that have nothing to do with organized, institutional philanthropy. I remember 39
Emmett Carson years ago saying that the black church was probably the first community foun-
dation because the members of these institutions pooled their individual resources to promote
education, social welfare, economic development, and decent, affordable housing for poor
people. Community foundations, United Ways, and religious institutions are important forms
of community philanthropy, but so are family and independent foundations, Junior Leagues,
the LINKS, sororities and fraternities, neighborhood associations, and giving circles that are
committed to investing in community betterment.
I’d like to see leaders in organized philanthropy take these forms of giving and these donors
more seriously. We need to ask donors of all types what changes they hope to see in their com-
munities and what they’re learning about how change happens. We could learn more about the
people and organizations that they trust with their limited dollars to make a difference in
people’s lives. We need to hear what questions they have about their communities and to
brainstorm together about how organized philanthropy can better support them in their work.
It’s critical that the thinking go beyond simply suggesting that these people or organizations
establish advised funds at community foundations. There are plenty of folks — of many
ethnicities — who are reluctant to turn their hard-earned money over to a community founda-
tion whose board and staff they hardly know and which is probably composed primarily of
people who don’t look like them or know very little about their circumstances.
Over the past several years, I’ve gotten clearer about the concept of community philanthropy
by talking with people and seeing how people in local places mobilize resources, often in infor-
mal ways. It’s been an evolving process, and I’m continually learning and being challenged to
think more broadly and creatively. I now understand that community philanthropy at its best
is a tool for organizing the significant and diverse assets within communities to develop and
sustain equitable, prosperous, and inclusive places where people live and work. Community
philanthropy becomes an organizing force to foster value-driven, strategic, targeted, and sus-
tained philanthropic investments that improve opportunities and outcomes for marginalized
people, help community members develop a shared vision for their futures, nurture and
support innovative and courageous leaders, and hold government and the private sector
accountable to fulfilling their obligations to the public.
In addition to suppor ting work in the United States, you’ve invested in a
significant research effor t in South Afr ica to enhance understanding of
community philanthropy across the globe. Can you talk about the
study and the key findings?
The study completed by the Building Community Philanthropy project at the University of
Cape Town Graduate School of Business, The Poor Philanthropist: How and Why the Poor Help
Each Other, explores how poor people in Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe
express their philanthropic impulses and care for one another. It both affirms what I believe
to be true about the importance of community philanthropy and provides important data to
support the importance of growing this movement. I’d like to share three findings directly
from the report that leaders in U.S. philanthropy ought to consider.
First, and I quote directly from the report: “This study confirms that people who are poor
mobilize and pool their resources in response to a need or problem. They are both givers and
receivers of help.” I want to stop here and repeat that sentence: “They are both givers and
receivers of help.” We can’t afford to simply see low-wealth people as weak and dependent:
they are capable, understand the importance of taking care of one another, and control
resources that are critical to building stronger communities.
The second finding speaks to this point:
An assumption that philanthropy is a voluntary act informed by altruism and
generosity is incomplete and potentially misleading if applied across the
world. Help is not always, nor necessarily, a ‘free’ choice. Such behavior can be
driven by social duty as well as by a deep moral obligation emanating from a
shared identity premised on common humanity. My humanity is tainted if
your humanity is not recognized and assisted when in need.
Too often, I’m afraid that we in the United States lose sight of this important fact. Giving is not
simply an act of charity or benevolence. Giving provides all of us with an opportunity to grow
into being more full and human persons and to recognize and celebrate our interdependence
with all people, most of whom we will never meet or know by name.
Finally, the study demonstrates that giving can take many forms and doesn’t have to be
restricted to writing a check. The study talks about non-material forms of support such as
knowledge, physical help, and moral and emotional care that can sustain and enrich people,
families, and communities. In the United States, we talk about philanthropy as time, talent,
and treasure. I’m afraid that we focus on treasure without taking time and talent seriously
enough. If philanthropy is seriously committed to addressing issues of racism and persistent
economic and political inequities, we must look deeper into the communities we serve and find
ways that people with knowledge, relationships, and other physical, spiritual, and emotional
assets can be brought to the table and respected as valuable partners in problem solving.
Up to this point, our conversation has focused on your aspirations and vision
of community philanthropy. Can you share some concrete examples of the
investments you’ve made that illustrate how community philanthropy
can work and the impact it can have?
Let me share three examples that illustrate the diversity of community philanthropy.
First, in the Black Belt region of Alabama, the Ford Foundation made an early investment in
a group of diverse citizens and a state university that came together as the Black Belt Regional
Coordinating Committee to listen to citizens in the 12-county area about what they would
expect from a foundation and to consider how a new philanthropic organization could tap into
the indigenous assets of the region. As part of the planning period, the committee made it clear
to local citizens that any new foundation would not be in the business of solving people’s prob-
lems, but rather about investing in the energy, ideas, and assets that were already in the com-
munities and that could be more strategically directed to strengthen local places and increase
opportunities. As a result of the planning period and with resources from diverse partners
including the Ford Foundation, Alabama Power Foundation, Jessie Ball duPont Fund, and
Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, the local citizens established the Black Belt Community
Foundation. The organization’s mission statement —“taking what we have to make what we
need”— captures the spirit of community philanthropy that the Ford Foundation is trying to
unleash across the globe.
Next, I’d point people interested in learning more about the potential of community founda-
tions to the Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF). For more than five years, NCF has been
working to develop and implement strategies to capture some of the tremendous wealth that
is expected to be transferred from one generation to the next and to use these philanthropic
dollars to stabilize and enhance community-based economic development strategies through-
out Nebraska. NCF began its work by completing an analysis of the anticipated transfer of
wealth for every county in the state in order to educate Nebraskans about the critical need to
build local philanthropy. The foundation has educated and engaged over 1,400 local citizens
as they work to create community-based affiliated funds, and they’ve doubled their endow-
ment since 2002. The leadership of the foundation has also taken a courageous stand on issues
of immigrant and refugee resettlement and has implemented a grantmaking strategy to sup-
port immigrants and refugees from Mexico, Central America, Asia, East Africa, and Central
and Eastern Europe. It’s inspiring to watch this work unfold. I marvel at NCF’s creativity and
persistence as they work to ensure the future vitality of the state.
Finally, I would want people to become familiar with the work of the New Hampshire
Community Loan Fund. With an investment from the Ford Foundation, the Loan Fund
launched a Philanthropy Initiative to develop innovative financial products, educational serv-
ices, and systems to tap into individual giving to develop lending capital in order to leverage
the loan capital of others. Each of these tools enables ordinary residents with a wide range of
wealth and disposable income to invest in programs that help to promote economic success in
their communities. The Loan Fund has developed permanent named funds for lendable
capital as well as a model for receiving and managing charitable gift annuities that can be
replicated by other community development financial institutions (CDFIs). If we hope to
42 build communities that can provide economic opportunity for all people, it’s imperative that
CDFIs are viewed as strong organizations that can assure economic opportunity now and for
future generations. This investment is an investment in innovation to test the viability of
building stronger linkages between these institutions, local philanthropy, and private
Throughout your career, you have demonstrated your commitment to suppor t
and raise up Afr ican-Amer ican donors in the world of organized philanthropy.
Why have you embraced this cause with such passion?
A few years ago, the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College released a ground-
breaking report that reverberated throughout the field of organized philanthropy forecasting a
$41 trillion intergenerational transfer of wealth. It got people in the field talking afresh about
ways to engage the generation of people who will inherit this wealth in discussions about the
impact and value of philanthropy and encourage them to consider how they can give to their
communities. It was a wake-up call to the field that we couldn’t just expect people to become
philanthropists because they inherited money.
Despite all the buzz about the study and the creativity that it has unleashed as people think
about how to reach out to and learn with and from the next generation, I’ve been disappointed,
if not surprised, by the failure of leaders in organized philanthropy to recognize the
importance of engaging African Americans as donors whose ideas, experiences, and wealth can
transform communities. Over the last several years, I’ve been doing all I can to encourage
people to take the resources of African Americans more seriously and try to help them see
what will be lost if the field, in the words of Dr. Johnnetta Cole, continues to leave African-
American money “on the table.”
What arguments do you make when advocating for the engagement of Afr ican
Amer icans in organized philanthropy?
First, I remind people that between 1950 and 2006 many African-American individuals
have amassed more income and wealth than ever before in U.S. history. That means that within
a generation or two, the intellectual and financial capital of African Americans has signifi-
cantly increased. There are African-American individuals and families with the means to make
I also point people to important research and work being conducted by the Twenty-First 43
Century Foundation. Their study, Time, Talent and Treasure: A Study of Black Philanthropy,
assessed the giving patterns of 324 foundations, associations, and individuals. The 230 black
foundations and associations included in the analysis control over $190 million in assets, and
these foundations and associations — along with the individual donors — invested over $48
million in grants and community support during the period of the study.
African Americans have money, and we have a rich history of being philanthropic and caring.
For those of us who have limited means, we often give of whatever we have. But we have to
be asked. We have to be offered opportunities to engage in a meaningful way in identifying
and helping to resolve community problems. Like any donor, we want to be shown respect,
participate in decision-making, have our voices heard, and see results.
The former Ambassador to South Africa and President of the Council on Foundations James
Joseph talks eloquently and passionately about the rich philanthropic legacy of African
Americans. He describes it as a rich tapestry of giving which tends to be holistic and stitched
together with personal spiritual values. As a field, organized philanthropy must do a much
better job of honoring, learning from, and tapping into these extraordinary resources.
What can be done about it?
For starters, we need to find new ways to talk about wealth and philanthropy. My sense is that
most African Americans — and most people in general — still think of philanthropy in terms of
giving large sums of money: something that only the very rich can do. But as Independent
Sector’s groundbreaking research has shown, African Americans make significant contribu-
tions to charitable organizations and volunteer their time to benefit their communities. This
capital and human energy, if pooled and organized, represents an extraordinary resource for
It’s also important for leaders in organized philanthropy to understand that African-American
donors, by and large, are very committed to investing their dollars to effect social change and
social justice. Over the last several years, I’ve been searching for words to describe the type of
transformative giving that captures the hearts, minds, and souls of many African Americans.
I’ve found the reflections of the African-American scholar Manning Marable on transformation
to be particularly instructive. He describes transformation as “a healing reconciliation, a path
from which we begin to see ourselves and others in a New Way.” He talks about how we must
take a stand in the public arena and affirm the deepest beliefs we hold inside us and strive for
justice as we begin to challenge and transform ourselves. What has become clearer to me is
that when we take a stand in the public arena, we must also be striving to secure economic
and political opportunities for people who have been historically disenfranchised by racist
policies and practices. Transformative action without increased opportunities and access for
all people falls short of realizing the vision of social change and social justice that African-
American donors are seeking to make through their investments.
Many African-American donors want their philanthropic investments to move communities
toward justice. As a result, the fundraising staff that approaches these donors must be able to
demonstrate how their philanthropic efforts connect to social change and how they use their
influence and resources to create a more just and equitable society.
It’s also going to be critical that the face of organized philanthropy change to include African
Americans in decision-making and leadership positions within institutions.
Of course, I’d love to see more African Americans tapped as CEOs and presidents of founda-
tions. But, at the same time, it’s equally important that the field hire more African-American
development professionals and financial advisors who can attract and engage with African
Americans. In addition to providing sound financial advice, these advisors can offer culturally
sensitive and appropriate counsel for the new African-American donors. This is the time to
start reaching out to young adult African Americans who are acquiring wealth and looking for
ways to give back to their communities. I’d hate to see this opportunity fall by the wayside.
I’d like to talk more about community foundations.
What challenges do these organizations face when embracing the spir it
and practices of community philanthropy?
First, let me say that there isn’t a week that goes by when I’m not inspired and encouraged by
work that I see some community foundations tackle. The Denver Foundation, the Minneapolis
Foundation, the New Mexico Community Foundation, and the Community Foundation of
South Wood County in Wisconsin — in addition to the other foundations I’ve already men-
tioned — are just a few of the community foundations in our country who I think are pioneer-
ing new ways of serving their communities and bringing diverse citizens together to
understand and cultivate their transformative power. This said, I do think too many
community foundations remain focused on simply building their endowment and increasing
their assets, instead of asking how they can use all of their resources — money, influence,
knowledge — to improve the lives, livelihoods, and opportunities of the most marginalized.
Years ago, I served as vice president of programs for the Greater New Orleans Foundation. One
of the most satisfying and challenging elements of that job was building bridges between
people who had creative ideas about how to make their neighborhoods and communities
better places to live and people who had the institutional and individual resources that could
help these leaders and their communities turn these ideas into reality. I learned pretty quickly
that if the community foundation was going to work on affordable housing, job creation, or
school reform, then we needed to know leaders of established nonprofit organizations, grass-
roots activists, researchers and administrators at the local colleges and universities, people in
government, and corporate executives. Not only did we at the community foundation need to
know these people and understand their perspective and concerns, but we also had to create
space and time for these disparate groups to get to know and trust one another.
If the boards and staffs of community foundations are going to introduce the principles and
practices of community philanthropy into their organizations, they have to take time to get to
know the grantees and to understand both what they had been able to accomplish and what
they were capable of accomplishing given additional resources. They also need to take time to
get to know the donors and to learn what they care about and hold close to their hearts. I’d
argue that community foundation staff shouldn’t view their work as facilitating short-term
transactions, but as building enduring relationships that will benefit their cities and towns in
ways that can’t be predicted in the short term.
In the essay, “Giving Against the Grain: Community Foundations and Donor-Advised Funds,”
the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy asserts that “serving donors, building
communities, and building assets are not contradictory philanthropic schemes; simply put,
community foundations serve themselves and their donors by serving their communities
first.” While I am encouraged by this claim, I am also aware that if community foundations are
going to respond seriously to the challenge of promoting equity in the places they serve, it’s
imperative that they ask some hard questions about whom they serve, how they work, and
what level of risk they are willing to embrace.
What are some of the hard questions that you’d like to see
leaders of community foundations ask?
For starters, I’d like to see these leaders ask whom they know and don’t know in their com-
munities. My experience has taught me that the staffs and boards of community foundations
have good relationships with the people who lead the major businesses in their cities, as well
as with the heads of the Chamber, the hospitals, the major educational institutions, and the
more traditional nonprofits. But — and I realize that this is another generalization — I’m afraid
this is where their “rolodexes” stop. Do they know the neighborhood residents who are stuck
with entrenched school board leadership that tolerates underperforming schools? Do they
know the working-class families where both the mother and the father hold down two or three
part-time jobs and whose children still don’t have health care? If they don’t know these people,
46 then my question would be how are these leaders going to get to know them and learn from
the people they have been entrusted to serve. I’d want to know what plans these community
foundations have for developing respectful and authentic relationships with nonprofit organ-
izations and individual leaders who know these challenges. Board and staff members can’t
afford to sit in their offices and develop strategies for other people without listening to and
sharing power with the people they claim to want to help.
I’d also like to see board members and staff make a genuine commitment to focus their time,
energy, and resources for the long haul once they’ve worked with the community to identify
the challenges that need to be addressed. It’s not enough for a community foundation to say
that it intends to focus on workforce development issues for two years. A foundation can only
scratch the surface of an issue that complex in two years. Community foundations, and
private foundations for that matter, have to recognize the limitations of one- and two-year
grant strategies. We’re talking about work that takes decades and that needs to draw on all of
a community’s resources.
Over the past several years at the Ford Foundation, you’ve been explicit in
asser ting that the gover ning boards of foundations need to more actively
recr uit and retain people of color with financial resources and power who can
shape the direction, focus, and strategy of these organizations. Can you talk
more about this conviction?
Far too many people across the country have no idea about the impact that race plays in every
aspect of our daily lives. Race plays into almost every major decision that shapes our lives: the
schools that our children attend, the interest rates we’re quoted on loans, the neighborhoods
where we can afford to live, and the quality of health care that we receive. I recognize the role
that class plays in these outcomes, but I’m not willing to say that race doesn’t matter or that
class is more important than race.
In the American South, there’s never been any real coming to terms with racism. As a region,
we’ve never gone through a process like the South African Truth and Reconciliation
Commission. We’ve refused to give serious consideration to the long-term consequences of
slavery, lynching, and systematic public disinvestments in black people. American blacks and
whites have never reconciled with each other about how we can live in this country together.
I argue for bringing more African Americans on the boards of foundations because I believe
that authentic reconciliation will never occur in this country until people sit and work
together on difficult public issues in powerful organizations.
As foundations begin to work more deliberately on addressing issues like race and poverty,
they need to ask questions of all potential new board members — regardless of skin color and
ethnicity — to assess their capacity and commitment to be advocates for change: How can this
person increase the foundation’s understanding of the issues and communities supported by
its grantmaking investments? In what ways do the skills and knowledge of the potential board
members align with the challenges and opportunities facing the foundation? What is the long-
term leadership capacity of the candidate both within the foundation and the broader
What common str uggles have you seen foundation leaders
encounter as they work to diversify their boards?
What immediately comes to mind should surprise no one. One common concern articulated
by leaders of foundations is that diversifying the board might “send the wrong signal” to
people outside the foundation. If several African Americans are added to a board, it’s assumed
that black issues will dominate the conversation and that board meetings might become tense
and distrustful. Anyone who believes this to be an inevitable result of diversifying boards
should learn about Emmett Carson’s leadership of the Minneapolis Foundation and the work
that Gayle Williams and Sherry Magill have led at the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and
the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, respectively.
I’ve also seen boards make the mistake of assuming that adding people of different races to a
board means that it has been diversified. Just because a person is black, Hispanic, or Asian
doesn’t mean that the conversation at the board table will change or that new perspectives will
be represented and heard. If all of these “new” members bring the same background or expe-
riences as the majority of members on the boards, very little might change for disenfranchised
The third struggle, and the one that people are most reluctant to talk about, has to do with
CEOs who seem reluctant to take on the responsibility to make their institutions diverse.
There are more than a handful of CEOs in the philanthropic world who aren’t thinking about
promoting race, class, and gender diversity at the board level. They’re comfortable with the
status quo, and they’re not particularly interested in rocking the boat. My sense is that more
boards than not are open to considering the question of diversifying leadership, but that too
many directors are afraid or unsure how to begin the process.
48 What counsel would you offer young people who want to prepare themselves to
be leaders on issues of race and equity within philanthropic organizations?
First, I’d say “know yourself!” Be very clear about who you are, what you believe in, and what
you and your work represent to the community. Be in touch with your own values because
they will be tested in everything you do and say.
I would also tell them to develop relationships with as many different kinds of people as
possible. Develop real relationships and friendships across all kinds of divides so that you can
understand and respect the many different ways that people see, experience, and make sense
of the world. I’d tell them to enlarge their contact lists. I’d tell them to travel both inside and
outside the United States. I’d also tell aspiring leaders to listen to people very carefully as they
talk about the state of the world and their ambitions for themselves and their children. And
when they are having conversations with people, I’d encourage them to listen very carefully to
the strategies and ideas that local people have for promoting community building and asset
Finally, I’d argue that the next generation of philanthropic leaders must have a deep under-
standing and grasp of public policy. Over the last decade we’ve heard more and more people
talk about the need for philanthropy to assume the responsibility of government. This isn’t the
G I V I N G P R OV I D ES A L L O F U S W I T H A N
OPPORTUNITY TO GROW INTO BEING
MORE FULL AND HUMAN PERSONS AND
T O R E C O G N I Z E A N D C E L E B R AT E O U R
INTERDEPENDENCE WITH ALL PEOPLE,
MOST OF WHOM WE WILL NEVER MEET
OR KNOW BY NAME.
work of philanthropy; our role is to support civil society organizations that can animate the
work of government and hold government accountable for doing its own work.
As a longtime citizen of New Orleans, I know that you’ve watched the response
to hur r icanes Katr ina and Rita with great scr utiny and care. What lessons
have you lear ned from observing the rebuilding of the region that you hope your
colleagues in philanthropy might take to hear t?
At the most basic level, I hope that all of us in U.S. philanthropy will no longer tolerate com-
munities where people live without decent housing, work at jobs that do not pay livable
wages, are denied access to high-quality health care, or are forced to tolerate minimal engage-
ment in decision-making processes that determine the quality of life. Poverty is morally
unconscionable, and philanthropy must better organize its resources to help address the dete-
riorating conditions of the lower and middle classes that American families face.
I also hope that we can learn from the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast about what
is required to rediscover democracy in America. As I see it, the “real” story of the ongoing
work in the region is one of change, discovery, and transformation. The good news is that the
people of the region have been inspired to act when faced with the prospect of private inter- 49
ests and the federal government defining their lives. I see citizens owning the responsibility to
learn about current public and private policies and find the voice to advocate for policies and
practices that will allow them to reclaim their assets and restore their communities. Formerly
“silent” people are demanding changes in decision-making bodies whose actions will go a long
way to determine outcomes for working-class and poor people.
The rebuilding of the region will take time and require the practice of democratic action. It
will require that citizens from all walks of life are engaged in the discourse about the future of
the economy. Policymakers and business leaders will have to sit with local citizens over time
to shape a collective future that works for everyone. It will be messy. It will be slow. But it is
the work that needs to happen. My hope is that philanthropy will find a way to invest
resources in the process of democratic action so that the structured inequities that defined the
pre-Katrina and -Rita years will no longer trap so many people in a state of hopelessness and
despair. The Ford Foundation has made significant investments to support the work of the
Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation (LDRF), and I’m pleased to see that the foundation
has both the courage and tenacity to work aggressively on issues of equity and inclusion.
LDRF represents another form of community philanthropy — a non-endowed foundation —
working deliberately to promote equity and rebuild healthier communities.
Earlier in our conversation, you spoke about the legacy of
Mary McLeod Bethune. When you leave the Ford Foundation,
what legacy do you hope that you will have left behind?
The question of legacy is one that I take seriously because I realize just what an extraordinary
experience it has been to sit in this seat and have resources to support some of the most
creative, courageous, and committed people working for justice across the globe. This fact is not
lost on me.
When I pack up my office and leave the foundation, I hope first that there is a broad-based
cadre of diverse leaders who understand philanthropy as an inclusive — not an exclusive — act
and who can sustain the community philanthropy movement. I hope these leaders are always
looking for ways to bring the time, talent, treasure, and perspective of all members of a com-
munity to bear as they work to make the places where they live, work, and play more vibrant,
equitable, and healthy. To accomplish this goal, I have regularly convened grantees so that they
can begin to know each other, learn from each other, and build enduring networks and
It is my hope that investments the foundation has made to cultivate and strengthen the poten-
tial of Giving Circles to tap into the wealth and commitment of African-American donors,
50 young and mature, as well as our efforts to develop black church leaders who understand the
importance of strategic philanthropic will not only grow the pool of African-American donors
and the resources controlled by the African-American community, but will also position these
gifted and committed people for leadership roles on boards and staffs of foundations.
Certainly, I hope that my grantmaking has facilitated the transformation of key philanthropic
organizations, enabling these institutions to be more agile, creative, and courageous in their
work with communities. Over the next decade, I have high hopes for many of the organiza-
tions mentioned during this conversation. I also hope that some of the investments the Ford
Foundation has made — particularly to the Council on Foundations and the National
Coalition of Community Foundations for Youth/CF LEADS — will help equip the community
foundation field, not just isolated community foundations, to work more strategically on issues
of equity and diversity. These two important organizations are working together to strengthen
community foundations and institutional leaders within their own communities. Guided by a
national advisory panel of community foundation CEOs, the two organizations are developing
a new learning institute for community foundation leaders that will explore the links between
race, poverty, and public policy, as well as create national and regional networks of community
foundation leaders committed to promoting diversity and inclusion within the field.
While I recognize that it is a tall order, I also hope the grantmaking the foundation has
supported will help other leaders in organized philanthropy recognize, celebrate, and not be
afraid of the natural inquisitiveness, resiliency, and creativity of all people living in communi-
ties. I hold firm to the belief that the strongest, healthiest communities create safe places and
possibilities for all people to share ideas, learn from each other, and work together to increase
hope, opportunities, and resources for everyone. I am leery of grantmaking that confers too
much power and authority on any one organization to tackle the challenges of poverty and the
social inequities associated with it that persist in the American South, throughout the nation,
and across the globe.
Finally, I hope that through these investments I have — in some small way — enriched the
philanthropic imagination about the change that can be realized from investing in creative and
Years ago, a social entrepreneur in New Orleans approached the community foundation about
making an investment to support the establishment of a farmers’ market in the city with pro-
duce being supplied by farmers in the outlying rural areas. The board declined the proposal
because our imagination was not large enough to envision the possibilities that such an effort
could create. We were so caught up in our own life experiences — what we had seen work
and not work — that we failed to appreciate the wisdom and ingenuity that was right before
our eyes. Leaders of community foundations — and all community philanthropists for that
matter — have to ask themselves if they have the willingness, openness, and capacity to help
animate and activate different ideas and different thinkers in their own communities to develop
innovative solutions to longstanding problems.
The way I see it, community philanthropy challenges all of us to do at least two things. First,
we are challenged to imagine and dream with local organizational and individual leaders about
what we together can become. The next challenge — and perhaps the more difficult one —
involves organizing and employing these resources to ensure that our democracy can realize
the promise of equity and justice for all people.