African-Americans Build on Existing Culture of Giving
In the African-American community, the word philanthropy is not likely to be uttered at the dinner table. It's not that African-Americans don't give, says Rodney M. Jackson, president of The National Center for Black Philanthropy. In fact the concept of philanthropy does come up. "Giving has been part of our culture for two hundred years," Jackson explains. But when it comes to black-directed philanthropy, there's been little of it at the corporate or large foundation level.
Jackson is one of several black leaders working to change that, especially now that a growing number of African-Americans are coming into wealth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 percent of African-American families earned $50,000 or more in 1998. Among families headed by a married couple, that number climbs to 48 percent.
Yet African-Americans are not directing that money toward organized philanthropy. It's a matter of degree, according to Jackson. "The average [black] American is more familiar with tithing at church or giving to their alma mater or fraternity than with planned giving," he explains.
Two surveys released in 2000 confirm that African-Americans are regular givers to organizations they have a connection to or that support causes they favor. At the same time, the surveys, which were conducted by The New England Conference on Black Philanthropy, revealed a lack of familiarity about giving vehicles such as trusts, donor-advised funds, or charitable bequests, and their potential to benefit the lives of black Americans.
To Jackson, these findings suggest that once enough African-Americans are aware of how black-directed philanthropy could pump money into their communities, giving to accomplish that goal will soar.
The National Center for Black Philanthropy is leading the educational effort by holding regional and national conferences on the topic, which attract hundreds of business people, fundraisers, representatives of faith-based organizations, and grantmakers from the African-American community.
The conferences open the participants' minds to new ways of giving with workshops on such topics as personal wealth development and giving strategies, such as establishing an African-American community fund at a local community foundation. In short, they encourage African-Americans to support the creation of a philanthropic infrastructure that can be a source of funds to address needs that other more-established givers are overlooking.
One form of philanthropic giving being promoted in black communities is to leave a legacy — an idea that has particular appeal to families who can't afford to give away much now but who would be well-advised to make charitable provisions part of their estate plans. An example is the The African-American Legacy Program, a joint effort of the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan and several other organizations in the Detroit area.
At workshops and other informational meetings, participants learn about topics ranging from estate planning to how to establish endowments. Program leaders also encourage blacks to share their newfound information with other community members, subscribing to the "each one, teach one" method of learning. "We tell people to develop a plan and go over it with their families," says Brenda G. Price, program director. "That way, they're more likely to follow through on their plans for giving."
While the Legacy program is just one example of how blacks are being encouraged to give, many leaders in the black philanthropy movement agree that exposure to different kinds of giving is only part of the battle. They must also consider where their money is best spent, and whether the choices they've made so far are really the best ones. But that's not so easy to do, when the commitment is to something like your church and congregation.
Angela Winston, a 28-year-old schoolteacher in Largo, Maryland, tithes regularly to her church, and has never given to any other kind of charity. While she says she would like to give to a black-directed community fund, she doesn't have any extra money, and she won't decrease her tithing budget to do so for fear it will hamper her spiritual growth.
Another misperception in the black community is that community foundations only receive money from rich people. "A lot of blacks believe the disposable income they might have to give to charity beyond their donations supporting church, home, and family aren't enough for big foundations," says the Legacy program's Price. Philanthropic organizations that want African-Americans to give must make it known that they accept small donations. And they should tailor some of their fundraising programs to black people's values and lifestyles.
That is the idea behind a program that seeks to raise money through black family reunions. Many families traditionally present a donation to a local charity or church as part of reunion festivities. Ione D. Vargus, creator of a black family organization called The Family Reunion Institute, and philanthropist Jean Fairfax are exploring ways to steer some of these funds to foundations.
Despite the lack of experience, and the absence of a tradition of organized giving, "the state of philanthropy in black America is pretty healthy," says Rodney Jackson. The Legacy program's Price says she's been getting calls from people across the country asking how they can help educate blacks about organized giving. And with all the media attention being paid to philanthropy — especially mega-grants from foundations like Bill Gates' — growing numbers in the black community are beginning to take notice of the opportunity that exists for them as well.
Adapted from an article written for Community Foundations of America, Copyright 2002.