In a recent interview with The Network Journal, Susan Taylor Batten, president and CEO of the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE), discussed the importance of philanthropy in strengthening Black communities. Established in 1971 in New York City, ABFE contends that strong Black communities enhance the nation socially, economically and politically. ABFE members are among the nation’s most influential staff, trustees and donors of grantmaking institutions that promote effective and responsive philanthropy in Black communities. Last November, the association launched its campaign, “Leverage the Trust,” to support Black foundation trustees in their work in these communities.
Prior to joining ABFE as president and CEO in 2009, Batten was a senior associate with The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit established in 1948 by UPS co-founder Jim Casey and his siblings to serve disadvantaged children in the United States. Below is Batten’s interview with TNJ.
TNJ: What is the state of philanthropy in the Black community?
Batten: Philanthropy is such an important part of our culture and history. Relying on our strong traditions of giving and self-help is how we’ve made it through trying times. Our giving continues today. A recent report by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors suggests that Black people in the United States give away more of their disposable income than whites, as well as many other racial/ethnic groups. Nearly two-thirds of all Black households make charitable donations, worth about $11 billion a year. This same report tells us that Black charitable funds — at community foundations or other trusts — have grown faster than funds started by other racial groups, from 12 in 1970 to more than six times that number today. Much of our giving goes to the church and/or to religious causes, but we are seeing new models emerge that expand the reach of Black philanthropy. One example is the growth of Black Giving Circles around the country primarily in the South. The Community Investment Network is at the center of this movement that is mobilizing hundreds of African-Americans to engage in their communities through philanthropy. Here at ABFE, we want to facilitate Black giving by sharing what we know works for Black communities to support strategic grantmaking. The work at hand is to coordinate Black philanthropy and to make it more strategic. It is an exciting time in the field.
TNJ: How has the economic downturn affected Black philanthropy?
Batten: I am not sure that we know the direct affect of the economic downturn on our giving; it’s hard to judge at this point in time. We know that Black wealth is very much tied to homeownership and the foreclosure crises have hit us hard and in a disproportionate manner. And the foreclosure crisis is not over; many Black homeowners are still at risk. But throughout our history in this country, our giving has spanned economic classes — Blacks of various income groups donate more of our discretionary income. Think of how we give: we tithe; we donate through professional, civic and fraternal organizations. Many of these groups have been around for 100 years and gain new donor members each year. Blacks give back to their universities as well. And then there is what we do on a routine basis: We just help each other out where we can! I don’t think that is going to go away, bad economy or not. The economy may affect how much we give, but I doubt that we will see a decrease in the numbers of donors. Not with some of the interesting work under way in the field of Black philanthropy.
TNJ: Where is the greatest philanthropic need for Blacks?
Batten: Philanthropy is personal and people tend to give to an issue or interest that aligns with their passion. All giving is good and we want to encourage folks to give in areas that matter to them. But I would love to find ways to debate this question because the debate in and of itself is sorely needed. Rather than suggest that folks should direct their giving to health or education, I think we need more conversations with folks interested in health issues about the drivers of health disparities in Black communities. For those interested in giving to educational issues, we need Black donor forums on the causes of educational disparities in Black communities and what that means for philanthropy. In essence, I think the greatest philanthropic need for Black people in this country is to organize our giving so that it is strategic, coordinated and responsive to our needs regardless of the issue at hand.
TNJ: What progress has ABFE’s Leverage the Trust campaign made to date?
Batten: Leverage the Trust is designed to engage 100 Black foundation trustees in conversations and activities about responsive philanthropy in Black communities. We really are at the beginning of this work; we launched the campaign in November of last year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of ABFE. Trustees are a group of executives in the field of mainstream philanthropy that we had not intentionally reached out to in the past. One marker of success is that we were able to convene 30 Black trustees at our annual conference this past April in Los Angeles. We also have a small group of trustees who have taken leadership in the campaign committee. The campaign has now sparked regional convenings of Black trustees in various cities. One will be held in Chicago in the fall.
TNJ: Why is the campaign necessary?
Batten: At ABFE, we aim to influence the thinking and behavior of grantmaking institutions relative to giving in and for Black communities. The overall direction and vision of foundations in this country are set by trustees in boardrooms. First and foremost, we need to ensure that Black leaders are present
in foundation boardrooms. African-Americans only make up 7 percent of foundation trustees. We need to ensure that Black trustees are supported in their role, so that they can be effective
advocates. This means providing them with a network where they can access
information, research and promising practices relative to Black communities. Leverage the Trust is our way of ensuring that these things happen.
TNJ: What’s the most pressing thing left to be done in the Leverage the Trust campaign?
Batten: We are taking time to meet Black trustees around the country and listen to their ideas about how we might be supportive. What’s pressing at this stage is for them to know that they are appreciated and that there are others out there with whom they can network