Reimagining the Role of Nonprofits in Communities of Color

Nonprofit roundtable features Black nonprofit leaders from Transformative Culture Project, Urban Farming Institute, and Black Economic Council of Massachusetts
  • By Syed Raza & Kassandra Goncalves
  • Published on September 09, 2020
An Opportunity for Breakthrough Learning

What happens when a group of Black nonprofit executives come together to discuss challenges in the sector? A breakthrough - and precisely - for Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, Executive Director of Transformative Culture Project, it is an opportunity for Black leaders to serve as change agents in the social sector that is predominantly represented and funded by mostly non-black leaders.

In collaboration with the Social Innovation Forum (SIF), Aziza and her colleagues Patricia Spence, President/CEO of Urban Farming Institute (2019 Social Innovator) and Segun Idowu, Executive Director of Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, hosted a Nonprofit Roundtable to discuss the role of nonprofits in communities of color. In such a time where people of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 along with a renewed attention to our country’s systemic violence against communities of color, nonprofit leaders are especially interested in having conversations about changing practices and narratives that may be inhibiting their progress towards sustainable change in their communities.  

There was a good turnout for this session. We had 35 guests attend, including SIF staff and nonprofit alumni of our Social Innovator program and some of their staff. After each speaker presented their opening statements, we moved into breakout rooms, where everyone chose to learn more about one of the three topics: 1) Nonprofit Communities & Leaders 2) Economic Sustainability & Funder partnerships and 3) Racial Equity Targets for Nonprofit Organizations. Below, you will find some key discussion points shared by our speakers and leaders from the event. 

Breakout Room 1: Nonprofit Communities and Leaders 

In Breakout Room 1 with Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, Executive Director of Transformative Culture Project (TCP), the conversation focused primarily on the powerful tool of language and the influential role it has in sustaining relationships with funders. Aziza mentioned that these narratives are “… being told by people that do not look like us, or somehow we are waiting to be saved (adopting a white savior mentality), but we know that these communities are not waiting to be served.” At TCP, Aziza said she recognizes the opportunity to engage in the language conversation with TCP stakeholders and other leaders in the sector. More specifically, how they can use language to build up communities of color. 

People who are not part of these communities are telling narratives that have traces of deficit language, which emphasizes the needs and problems of people and appeals to stereotypes that are perceived as threatening. In grant writing, we see terms such as “underserved,” “foster kids,” “low-income,” among others, which imply that people from communities of color are waiting to be served. This type of language impairs funders’ ability to understand how nonprofits can serve their community and prevents them from establishing long-term relationships with nonprofits. Distinctly, for nonprofits, they are at a disadvantage to gaining funds without having to use deficit language.

Already, there are some groups in the social sector that are advocating to support asset-framing language, which focuses on the strengths and opportunities within a community and what individuals are capable of. 

Another approach to challenging deficit language is to encourage more nonprofits to adopt a community-centric fundraising model, which has become a national movement to change how fundraising is done in the sector by centering their fundraising model on the communities they are aiming to support instead of funders. Nonprofit organizations that are interested in having a positive impact in communities of color should consider such practice. In fact, Vu Le, a nonprofit activist and leader, has been advocating for this change since 2015.

Breakout Room 2: Economic Sustainability and Funder Partnerships 

Creating sustainable economic stability for communities and the nonprofit sector is key for many organizations to continue doing their work, especially due to the current pandemic and economic upheaval. In Breakout Room 2 Patricia Spence, President & CEO of Urban Farming Institute (UFI), along with other nonprofit leaders, discussed how difficult fundraising and development work can be for organizations that work in communities of color and emphasized the importance of building relationships.

Patricia highlighted several ways that nonprofits can build and strengthen these relationships, including starting conversations with local small businesses, keeping funders updated on the financial position of your organization, and networking with other nonprofit leaders. Recently, UFI received an art grant and they are working with the Transformative Culture Project in order to further healing. She also discussed how funders support organizations at this time by offering deep learning opportunities about the communities that organizations are working in as well as checking in on the needs of the organizations that you work with.

Leaders from various organizations also reflected on the unique impact that can come from collaboration among multiple organizations. For example, a newly hired development coordinator working with one of our Social Innovators, shared that they are struggling to network in a virtual setting with other development professionals and creating relationships with their organization’s funders. Other participants gave them concrete suggestions, reflected on their start in development, and they all offered to get on the phone and be a learning resource for them. 

Breakout Room 3: Racial Equity Targets for Nonprofit Organizations 

In Breakout Room 3, Segun Idowu, Executive Director of Black Economic Council of Massachusetts (BECMA) led a discussion around the five targets for nonprofit organizations that were articulated by The Black Mass. Coalition, a group of statewide leaders convened by BECMA in early June in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black Americans as well as the rising popularity of Black Lives Matter movement.

Nonprofit organizations were one of four groups for which BECMA articulated actionable targets to work towards racial equity, with the other three being the private sector, philanthropic organizations, and government. The targets below are intended for larger nonprofit organizations like universities and museums, but participants in this breakout session thought critically about how their organizations could move towards achieving these targets.  Participants in this session focused primarily on targets number 3, 4, and 5. The five targets are:

Target #1: Nonprofit institutions will commit to 100% participation in PILOT programs across the Commonwealth and to award no less than 10% of their yearly and multi-year contract dollars to Black and Indigenous-owned businesses.

Target #2: Nonprofit institutions will commit to divesting from the prison industrial complex, fossil fuels, and other toxic assets, and reapportion those dollars to a fund that will employ a community-led, participatory process to determine the investments that will be made.

Target #3: Nonprofit institutions will commit to expanding workforce development options by aligning with data that shows where the opportunities for higher paying jobs actually are.

Target #4: Nonprofit institutions will commit to ensuring that no less than 40% of their executive leadership, management, and board/trustees are members of the Black and Indigenous community.

Target #5: Nonprofit institutions will commit to adopting an approved racial equity framework for services and investments.

Continuing the Conversation 

As described above, nonprofit leaders shared what they experienced at their organizations and brainstormed ways that they could begin to change narratives, build productive donor and development relationships, and support large initiatives such as building the pipeline of black leaders in the sector. At the close of our session, we welcomed for the first time, Marlene Boyette, a certified/registered Trauma Informed Yoga and Mindfulness Practitioner. She led a powerful meditation focused on self-care, self-compassion, and self-awareness, in an effort to cultivate deeper compassion and care for ourselves and the communities/community members that we serve. This space also invited additional time for informal networking and conversation.

In recognizing the need for more collaborative discussion spaces, SIF developed the Nonprofit Roundtable. This discussion was the first event in a series open to the SIF nonprofit community. In the Nonprofit Roundtable space, leaders are asked to reflect on common challenges, share helpful resources, and find opportunities to collaborate with similar mission-based organizations. As part of our ongoing support for nonprofit leaders of colors and their communities amid this crisis, it is important that what is discussed in these roundtable sessions can be accessible to all individuals in our nonprofit community.

Below is a list of additional resources shared by our speakers and nonprofit leaders during the discussion. 

Resources for further learning: 

Black Mass. Coalition

Community Centric Fundraising

The Boston Foundation’s Directory of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consultants

Winter is coming, and the donor-centric fundraising model must evolve (Nonprofit AF 2015)

How donor-centrism perpetuates inequity, and why we must move toward community-centric fundraising (Nonprofit AF 2017)

‘You Can’t Lift People Up by Putting Them Down’: How to Talk About Tough Issues of Race, Poverty, and More (The Chronicle of Philanthropy 2019) 

Meet The People Trying To Seed A New Generation Of Black Farmers (WGBH 2020)

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