In our third post about philanthropy in America and in Myth #4 of Stanford Social Innovation Review’s article “Eight Myths of U.S. Philanthropy,” Dr. Tyrone Freeman, assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, illustrates that African Americans are not new or emerging donors.
Instead, he shows that these donors have given since the first enslaved Africans disembarked in Virginia in 1619.
Four hundred years of formal and informal giving and volunteering woven throughout American history. Dr. Freeman provides multiple examples of generous gifts by African Americans over time. James Forten, an African American philanthropist from colonial times, created wealth from sail-making and became a leader in the movement to end slavery by aiding runaways and financing abolitionist newspapers.
Thomy LaFon was born into a free family in 1810 in New Orleans. He grew up in poverty but became an entrepreneur, and helped finance the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Underground Railroad.
Colonel John McKeee provided housing for black migrants who traveled north after the Civil War, while A.G. Gaston donated time, talent, and treasure to the civil rights movement. The Birmingham, Alabama Boys and Girls Club is named after Gaston.
Traditions of giving and volunteering extend to African American women as well. Annie Malone, Madam C.J. Walker, and Oprah Winfrey also gave and have given generously throughout and during their lifetimes, and Dr. Freeman points out that “countless other black women, from all walks of life, give of their time, talent and money generously through their churches, clubs, sororities, and giving circles.”
Other modern-day black philanthropists such as LeBron James, Kenneth and Kathryn Chenault, Franklin D. Raines and Denise Grant, and Robert F. Smith have given large, noteworthy gifts, but Dr. Freeman notes that these well-known philanthropists only contribute “a small share” of the at least $11 billion African Americans give to charities every year. While the term “philanthropy” does not consistently resonate within the African American community, giving occurs across all socioeconomic levels and is not viewed as only the responsibility of the wealthy elite.
Painting African Americans as “new and emerging” not only ignores hundreds of years of giving, it also distorts nonprofits’ ideas of how and in what ways African Americans can give, and inhibits those nonprofits from properly reaching out and soliciting gifts.
“The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches to fundraising and philanthropy overlooks motivations, interests, and needs of donors of color. The unfortunate result is misalignment in our identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship strategies, which fail to effectively engage this important community,” Dr. Freeman explains.
Instead, nonprofits must dedicate time, resources, and attention to identify, solicit, and steward black donors on their own terms.
“It is essential to relate to these donors as individuals within the broader historical and cultural contexts that have and continue to shape their giving,” he says.
Learn more about Dr. Freeman’s research in this article in the Conversation. He is also co-author of Race, Gender and Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations.
Want to learn more about African American giving and volunteering? Read about high net worth and ultra-high net worth donors of color from George Suttles, M.A. ’13, and the impact of diversity and how nonprofit board diversity affects philanthropy, leadership, and board engagement.