Philanthropy’s Heavy Hitters Address Racial Justice


“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” No other quote better encapsulates the events of 2020, especially with respect to the racial justice movement. 2020 has shone a spotlight on longstanding racial inequities in America, running the gamut from health and economic disparities to criminal justice issues. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black Americans, who are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases that put them at risk, a phenomenon that many attribute to weathering, or premature health decline due to factors such as stress and social disadvantage. Add to that the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, which unleashed worldwide protests calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality, and the U.S. finds itself at a crossroads concerning whether it will address these longstanding issues. While calls for change have largely fallen on deaf ears at the highest echelons of government, many heavy hitters in the philanthropic world have stepped up to the plate to address racial justice head-on. What approaches are big foundations taking to address this complex issue?

Traditional Racial Equity Funders Increase Their Support

In response to the events of 2020, foundations which have traditionally supported racial justice have increased support in this area.

Open Society Foundations

In July, following the George Floyd protests, the Open Society Foundations announced that they would commit $220 million to support racial justice, $150 million of which was issued in multi-year grants to Black-led organizations considered critical to the movement. Alex Soros, deputy chair of the Foundations, remarked, “These investments will empower proven leaders in the Black community to reimagine policing, end mass incarceration, and eliminate the barriers to opportunity that have been the source of inequity for too long.” The remaining $70 million was directed at promoting racial justice in areas such as investing in cities and local governments, combatting voter suppression, ensuring safe elections, and supporting internships and fellowships for emerging activists. 

W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Another significant financial commitment has come from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which recently launched Racial Equity 2030 with Lever for Change. This global initiative will award $90 million over the next nine years to “organizations that invite, build, and scale ideas for transformative change in the social, economic, and political systems and institutions that uphold inequities.” Racial Equity 2030 builds on the Foundation’s work over the previous decades in the areas of community engagement and leadership as well as racial equity and healing, which are encompassed by the Foundation’s existing Equitable Communities priority area.

On the Racial Equity 2030 website, the Foundation notes, “The pandemic laid bare inequities in health, wealth, and opportunity. The uprising for racial justice produced a global outcry. But the systems that perpetuate inequity and injustice have been generations in the making. Racial Equity 2030 is a chance to reimagine and to build a future where equity is realized.”

How will grants be awarded through Racial Equity 2030? Finalists will be awarded a $1 million planning grant as well as capacity building support to develop their applications over a period of nine months. They will then go on to compete for three $20 million and two $10 million grants to advance their solutions.

Ford Foundation

Yet another heavy hitter to boost racial justice support is the Ford Foundation. Drawing on proceeds from the sale of $1 billion in social bonds, the Foundation will double down on their funding in this area, with the total budget increasing to $330 million until the end of next year. These grants will be directed towards U.S. civil rights and racial justice organizations utilizing grassroots organizing, strategic litigation, and policy advocacy to transform existing structures and systems. The Foundation’s president, Darren Walker, commented, “Our most urgent priority for this infusion of funds is to meet activists and litigators where they are, and ensure groups on the ground at this historic moment of racial reckoning have the resilience and resources they need to help build a truly equitable future for all.”

The Ford Foundation is not a newcomer when it comes to supporting equity issues. Prior to this announcement, the Foundation had already invested a total of $665 million in racial justice initiatives in grants dating back to 2011. Its Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice program area works to promote the rights of immigrants, put a stop to mass incarceration and gender-based violence, and achieve reproductive and gender justice.

The Surdna Foundation

Rounding out the list of racial justice funders who have increased available funds is the Surdna Foundation, which gives across the U.S. and envisions a “just, equitable, and sustainable society in which all individuals can reach their full potential and communities can thrive.” The Foundation recently announced that it will dedicate an additional $36 million in support of racial justice for Black and Indigenous communities as well as people of color. The announcement brings their total grantmaking in this area to $160 million over the next three years. Initial funding will “support existing partners’ efforts to dismantle systemic racism.”

Major Foundations Modify Their Missions

At least a few major funders working in unrelated fields have changed their mission statements in order to integrate racial justice into the fabric of their work.

The California Endowment

The California Endowment, which works to address health-related challenges in California, recently revamped their ten year strategic plan to focus on promoting racial justice and putting an end to anti-Black racism. Drawing on the knowledge that racism contributes to health inequities, the Endowment’s new vision statement reads, “We envision a California where we have a robust, intergenerational ecosystem of organizations building power to advance health, justice, and racial equity.” The Foundation has also committed to invest $225 million over the next decade in support of organizing, activism, and advocacy led by the Black community.

Speaking in a video about the Endowment’s new strategic direction, President and CEO Robert K. Ross, M.D., said, “This combination moment of racial justice and structural inequality is now framing all the work that we do going forward at The California Endowment.” He went on to state, “Racial injustice [and] structural inequality are made by the human hand, which means they can be dismantled by the human hand.”

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, traditionally an arts and humanities funder, also recently announced that they are shifting their mission to focus on social justice. In a press release announcing the Foundation’s new direction, the Foundation’s president, Elizabeth Alexander, states, “At Mellon, we believe in the power of the humanities and the arts to facilitate a deeper understanding of the richness of human experience. Now, we urgently ask the question, ‘What does it mean to pursue social justice through the humanities and the arts?’”

In light of this new focus, the Foundation recently unveiled the Monuments Project, a $250 million grant initiative that seeks to “reimagine and rebuild commemorative spaces and transform the way history is told in the United States.” Funding supports the creation of new memorials, monuments, and museums as well as the contextualization and relocation of existing monuments and memorials, with an emphasis on recognizing the history of a diverse America.

Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Another major funder that has incorporated a racial justice focus into its mission is the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is “to champion efforts that prioritize community goals that challenge racial inequities and advance excellent, student-centered public education for all New England youth. ”Through its new grantmaking strategy, the Foundation is working to achieve that goal through grant programs targeting the following themes: 1) supporting organizations led by people of color; 2) community-school partnerships; 3) amplifying youth voice; 4) building movements and networks; 5) strengthening state and national coalitions; and 6) championing student-centered learning.

Special Funding Opportunities Tackle Roots of Inequity

Instead of a incorporating racial justice into their overall focus, some major grantmakers have opted to address the issue through special funding opportunities.

Bloomberg Philanthropies

In an effort to address health-related inequities, Bloomberg Philanthropies has allocated $100 million to historically Black medical schools to fund scholarships, with the aim of boosting the number of Black physicians. In the U.S., only five percent of doctors are Black, as opposed to 13 percent of the population. Citing higher COVID-19 mortality rates among the Black population and better overall outcomes for Black Americans with doctors of the same race, Bloomberg Philanthropies stated, “With this strategic investment, Bloomberg Philanthropies strives to reduce health and wealth disparities in Black communities by improving health outcomes for Black Americans and accelerating the Black community’s ability to create generational wealth.”

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose U.S. grantmaking is focused on education, recently incorporated the issue of racial equity into one of its Global Grand Challenges. Balance the Equation—A Grand Challenge for Algebra 1 seeks “to disrupt the deeply imbalanced system against this generation—and previous generations—of Black, Latino, English Learners (ELs), and students experiencing poverty in the United States” related to their Algebra 1 experience. This Challenge, for which the deadline has recently passed, will provide ten to 15 planning and prototyping grants of $100,000 and eight to ten grants of up to $1 million to prototype and implement the projects. The call for proposals cited pandemic-related challenges as the impetus for this initiative, noting that COVID-19 has made these learners “even more vulnerable to an imbalanced classroom experience.”

Moving Forward

As we exit 2020, the question is whether the momentum to promote racial justice and equality can be sustained. According to a study released by the Pew Research Center back in June, two out of three Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement, with widespread support across various ethnic groups. In addition, most Americans are engaging in conversations relating to race and racial equality. Will these large-scale funding commitments be enough to keep the conversation going?