When Liberty Hill Foundation first asked me to conduct a study on philanthropic giving and motivations of African American donors in Los Angeles, I approached the idea with a lot of curiosity. We know that African Americans give in comparable percentages to other groups, but there have been precious few studies that focus on African American giving. I was eager to contribute.
Historically, African Americans have fostered a rich tradition of giving, but they have seen themselves as “givers,” not “philanthropists” (see, for example, Emmett Carson’s, A Hand Up: Black Philanthropy and Self-Help in America and Valaida Fullwood’s Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of Black Philanthropists). Philanthropy is a term that alienates many African Americans who, although financially able and willing to give, consider philanthropy something that only the very wealthy can do. Others have perceived African Americans primarily as recipients of white philanthropic dollars. I knew that perception was terribly outdated, and I suspected that other common perceptions were also inaccurate, but where was the data?
Los Angeles is one of the top five metro areas for black household income in the country. The percentage of blacks who have household incomes of $100,000 or more is almost double the number compared to other counties, so it was an opportune place to do a study of this type. I decided that the best place to start was with the analysis of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eugene Robinson. In his terrific book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, he identifies five distinct population groups in black America: the transcendent (the uberwealthy and ultrafamous), the mainstream (middle- to upper-middle class), the abandoned (working class or unemployed), the multiracial, and the American-born children of recent black immigrants. Robinson’s work is really the place to begin for any contemporary study of African Americans today, because there is tremendous diversity within the community.
And so I dove in. Together with Liberty Hill Foundation, I conducted in-depth interviews with five nationally recognized philanthropy experts, ran two focus groups of black donors, and distributed an online survey to hundreds of African Americans living all over Los Angeles County. The overwhelming majority of our research participants were part of what Robinson calls the “Mainstream African American community” in terms of income and their level of education. Here are some of the most interesting things we discovered:
Who gives? We discovered three donor types:
The Building the Black Community Donor, who wants their donations to go to organizations that target African American recipients.
The Issue Impact Donor, who is more concerned that donations go toward the issues they care about than with the identity of the people affected by the issue.
The Hardwired to Give Donor, who tends to give across the board versus zeroing in on a particular issue or population.
Also interesting is where these donors are directing their gifts. The majority of gifts go to churches, political campaigns, social service agencies, family and friends, and social justice/advocacy organizations.
Based on the data that emerged from this research, we identified several opportunities for increasing the power of African American giving, particularly with respect to its impact on social justice. We looked especially at the potential for growing social justice investment because of Liberty Hill’s historic investment in economic justice and human rights.
First, generational differences matter. Millennials (those born between 1982 and 2000) think differently about their affinity with the black community in relationship to their donor behavior. They are less concerned about helping black communities exclusively. Don’t expect charitable giving among Millennials to look like the giving among Baby Boomers, and don’t expect them to respond to the same approaches and tactics.
Second, we live in an increasingly multiracial society. Some issues have a disparate impact on black communities—here in Los Angeles for instance, we see African American youth suspended out of schools at rates far higher than other young people. But we need to build a case for social justice investment across racial constituencies while making the case for black-specific investments. Philanthropic institutions might take the lead of Liberty Hill in this regard. The foundation has recently made investments specifically targeted at strengthening community organizing within African American communities in Los Angeles, but it has also long invested in economic justice organizing that benefits multiracial coalitions.
Third, while black churches have been at the center of much African American philanthropy, many of these institutions are going through a transition. Historically, churches have been a powerful driver of change. They could continue to be. Open discussion with church leaders about a contemporary social justice agenda could result in fruitful collaborations and partnerships in the future.
Finally, donor education could help black Los Angeles better understand 1) how philanthropy can work a catalyst for change, and 2) the value of strategic investments.
Who knows? As African Americans come to embrace the power of strategic social justice philanthropy, they might also become comfortable looking in the mirror and calling themselves “philanthropists.”