This article originally appeared on InsidePhilanthropy.com When people say that women were called on to hold families and the economy together during the pandemic, I remind myself that women have been assigned those tasks from the beginning of time. And anytime I hear that George Floyd’s murder led to a “racial reckoning,” I think about the untold millions of lives and livelihoods lost long before that haunting video surfaced in 2020. Where was their reckoning? Then there was the #MeToo movement, which most people think of as a product of activism in 2017. But Tarana Burke actually began that work in 2006. And, of course, women and girls have been fighting sexist systems and the roots of sexual violence and discrimination for generations — long before hashtags added viral support.
Even though it feels a little (or a lot) late, this new societal awareness of age-old inequities does represent an important opportunity for the philanthropic sector to get better at what it does. Consider this startling fact: Only 0.5% of philanthropic funding goes specifically to women and girls of color, even though we are 1 in every 5 people in this country. There is some — though not enough — funding available for both racial and gender equality, but the “default” person of color that funders imagine is usually a man, and the “default” woman is usually white. These biases, unconscious or not, leave a huge gap where investments in women and girls of color should be.
Pivotal Ventures exists to advance social progress in the United States, including by expanding women’s power and influence. The question we’re asking is: How do we advance social progress in a country where centuries of systemic discrimination continue to shape people’s lives? One of many responses to this question must be addressing the unique needs of women and girls of color, who face compounding and pernicious systems of both racism and sexism.
Convening the Women of Color Design Council
As part of our work toward centering women and girls of color, we set out to create an investment portfolio that focused specifically on their needs. In building this strategy, we intentionally tested a wholly new approach. Instead of relying on quantitative data we knew was outdated and didn’t capture the complexity of the issues, we convened an external group of 10 women of color from various sectors. The Women and Girls of Color Design Council spent a year grappling with the patterns and practices of philanthropy and imagining a different way.
The Design Council zeroed in on some of the key barriers women and girls of color face: For example, the fact that women of color have $0.01 — that is one penny — for every $1 of wealth held by white women. Or the fact that Black women are almost four times more likely to experience sexual harassment than white women. But the Design Council also underscored the power that women of color already hold: as breadwinners for their families, as the group disproportionately likely to exercise their right to vote (no matter how viciously that right is under attack), as the leaders of community organizations and social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
Focusing on levers for change
Based on these findings, the Design Council identified several areas ripe for investment, including economic opportunity, safety and security, and changing biased narratives. In addition, it emphasized the urgency of investing in organizations working in these areas that are led by women and girls of color, and investing in them in new ways.
“I truly believe that ‘hay otra forma,’ there is another way,” said Design Council member Leticia Peguero, a longtime foundation executive and leadership coach. “But it requires responsible transparency and reflection.” The underlying approach, she insists, needs to change. “This is not a three-year strategy, but a commitment to the transformational power that comes when Black and brown women lead and are given the resources to do so.”
“Women and girls of color know what they need to improve their communities,” said another Design Council member, Jina Krause-Vilmar, president of Upwardly Global. “But we won’t find leaders to invest in if we keep telling them that our ‘outcomes’ matter more — that they need to fit into our boxes.”
Not forcing leaders into philanthropy’s boxes means supporting a wider range of organizations, including those like Grantmakers for Girls of Color, which is building a world in which all girls and gender-expansive youth of color are healthy, safe and fully empowered. It means grasping the work being done by organizations like Upwardly Global as they work to eliminate barriers to employment for immigrant and refugee professionals, and help them grow into careers aligned with their skills. It means learning from Moore Impact, which is focused on funneling investment dollars into Black and Indigenous-led institutions to expand access to wealth-building opportunities.
Pivotal’s Women of Color Design Council is built to leverage the wisdom, experience and collaborative capacity of women and girls of color — not as subjects of philanthropic work or recipients of charitable giving, but as leaders who know how to explore, test and implement much-needed solutions. In philanthropy, we know there is no single approach that is appropriate for every situation. But as a guiding principle, our capacity to realize meaningful change is dependent on our willingness to relax our grip on power and cede visionary leadership to those with lived experience and relevant perspective. With this in mind, Pivotal is currently applying many of the insights from the Design Council process to other parts of our work and portfolio dedicated to advancing social progress in the U.S.
The more relevant conversation about equity and power that is happening in philanthropy is, as I say, an opportunity. It is not yet a success. Our sector must provide more money to organizations led by women and girls and color — and then guarantee that those organizations are free to spend it based on their own experience and judgment. This will help secure the ultimate success: when the inequities that have put limits on so many lives start to dissolve and then, finally, disappear altogether.