Funders Must Contend With Their Own Power and Privilege

We know philanthropy has an important role to play in undoing systems of racial oppression. That’s what engages us every day in our roles at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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In American philanthropy, there is an imbalance in power between national and local/regional philanthropies and between philanthropies of all types and communities. That power imbalance makes it difficult to change systems and lives across generations. But it does not have to be that way. This capstone publication of the We Refuse to Lose series presents five suggestions for what grantmakers can do to share power and adopt collaborative approaches to achieve social change and a more equitable society.

Read the full report to philanthropy.

Listen to the podcast.

Building from the We Refuse to Lose Report to Philanthropy, this single-episode podcast explores how grantmakers can put the report’s recommendations into action.

A Letter to Our Readers

A cross-strategy team of foundation staff (called the Community Investment Team or CIT) designed the P-16 initiative as a short-term learning experience to deepen understanding about the characteristics of strong cradle-to-career, equity-focused, cross-sector, place-based partnerships and to inform the foundation’s distinct grantmaking strategies in early learning, K-12 and postsecondary education. The team also sought to share what it learned working alongside communities over the course of the grants. Underlying both objectives was a hypothesis that local “backbone organizations” that bring community partners together and deliberately address the full experience and needs of students throughout their learning journey could showcase ways of achieving more equitable outcomes, particularly for students of color and those experiencing poverty.


In particular, we are grateful to the nonprofits leading cradle-to career partnerships that the series profiles: the Foundation for Tacoma Students, Say Yes Buffalo, Chattanooga’s Public Education Foundation and Chattanooga 2.0, RGV FOCUS and the Commit Partnership in Dallas. For this final publication of the series, we express our gratitude to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and specifically to members of its Community Investment Team (CIT) and the leadership of the U.S. Programs division for the funding that allowed us to produce the series and for their thought partnership.


The report identifies racial justice as the top priority in a survey of its members, a mix of national and regional/local funders. Now more than ever, grantmakers recognize more clearly the connection between addressing causes of racial disparities and creating more equitable education outcomes, and they are eager to engage.

[Power] hides in foundations’ bank accounts and boardrooms, in every meeting with a grant applicant or grant partner, in every community meeting or city council meeting.
Lisa Ranghelli, Stanford Social Innovation Review
Suggestion 1

Joe Scantlebury, former vice president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and now president and CEO of Living Cities, says that before foundations “start crafting solutions, [they] need to talk to and learn from the people who are going to be affected by them—and who have different experiences from those most foundation officials have had.”

Suggestion 2

While some may be under-resourced or untapped, leaders exist in every community.”10 Perez-Bode Dedecker says that it’s important for foundations to “let go” and trust communities as they work for greater racial equity. “Our efforts shouldn’t be prescriptive because we don’t have the answers. People in our community know better than us. The work should be about philanthropy providing support and getting out of the way.”

Suggestion 3

Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo offers insight into what constitutes a strong national-local relationship. She says that “in any good partnership—whether a marriage or between foundations—you need role clarity and honest dialogue and shared goals grounded in shared values,” something she says she has enjoyed with national partners. National partners have the resources and connections for research and technical assistance in addition to access to large pools of unrestricted funds, she adds. “But we are the experts on our community. We are connected to the nonprofit sector, the private sector and to local and state government.

Suggestion 4

Tommy McClam of CIT grantee Say Yes Buffalo is three generations removed from slavery, two generations from sharecropping, and one generation from a father who lied about his age to join the military so he could escape Klan violence in South Carolina (see Buffalo We Refuse to Lose profile). He understands what communities of color are up against. “You can’t look at an outcome today for kids of color and not tie it to what has occurred in the past. While funders don’t have to be history majors, they have to understand why things are occurring now. If it took hundreds of years to get where we are, a one- or even three-year grant cycle isn’t going to change much.”

Suggestion 5

A major lesson of the We Refuse to Lose series is that America’s history of racism—as evidenced by inequities in housing, health and criminal justice, among other systems—has had a devastating impact on the communities the series profiles.


After George Floyd’s murder, foundations from coast to coast issued powerful statements about racial injustice, historical inequities and the need for change. The jury, for some, is still out on whether foundations will follow through. One of the nonprofit leaders of color interviewed for this publication says she fears that foundations “want the glitz and glamor of this moment but don’t want to do the work” and that “they still want to put us through the exact same processes they would have put us through anyway.”