When will philanthropists and foundations invest in Black and Latino org leaders on par with their investments in White org leaders?

Ever hear the saying “there’s nothing new under the sun”? I just returned from the New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF) Summit (#NSVFSummit) where over 1,000 education reform leaders gather to celebrate, learn, strategize and collaborate. I had a great time, caught up with old friends and made lots of new ones, and got a lot done. Historically the highest percent of Black and Latino (B&L) attendees was 12%.  Nevermind 90% of the students the ed reform community serves are B&L. Anyway, the news does get better. Over the last two years the percentages of B&L attendees has jumped — 24% in 2015 and 30% this year! That is due to the efforts of the NSVF staff and their new CEO Stacey Childress.  Full discloser, Stacey is a personal friend of mine who I met during my Pahara Fellowship.  It felt so good to be surrounded by that many (over 300) B&L folks because there was this notion of safety and comfort in sharing our common challenges.

What hasn’t changed however is the imbalance of who gets funded and at what level.  It’s not a big secret, but is a conversation worth having over and over until things are right.

NSVF has a new fund called “Diverse Leaders” where they are trying to increase the number of B&L education reform leaders to 30% by 2020 so the representation among the leader gets a little closer to the representation of the constituents (students and families) being served in the education reform space. My Pahara Fellowship cohort-mate Kim and I are grant recipients for a project we’re doing to support single-site charter schools led by B&L educators. Kim and I are in our 50’s, but most of the recipients are in their late 20’s, 30’s and early 40’s. It’s not a significant fund yet, but it will grow if and only if the pioneering efforts are successful and that is where a fascinating paradox emerges: the expectation that B&L leaders, with a little seed money, can garner the necessary support to actually advance their missions when philanthropists and foundations (funders) have a long and documented history of not adequately funding B&L leaders or not funding them at all.

Our cohorFundingsmallert of “Diverse Leaders” fund participants spent four hours learning about each other, sharing success and challenges, and strategizing how we’ll work together over the coming months. The most consistent thread that ran through nearly every conversation was the lack of access to capital and the inequitable distribution of money. During one segment we had the NSVF Director of Development presented on how fundraising works and one of the first issues to emerge was the notion that we as B&L leaders not only don’t have access to the network of large donors but for the most part, we cannot walk in the room showing the kind of strength and confidence we would if we were a White leader. I also spent the next day meeting other young B&L leaders and the conversations were the same. Houston, we have a problem!

Just for a little grounding, I talk about investing in leaders because decades of research shows that funders invest in leaders, not in organizations. I have seen a lot in my 20 years of running a nonprofit, and the education reform sector is one of the worst offenders when it comes to inequitable funding.  For all the talk about creating options and opportunity for students of color and low-income students, you’d think funders would invest heavily in leaders who look like the populations being served. That is not the case and it’s detrimental to the success of students.  Evidence suggests funders would rather invest in the middle to upper-class White leader armed with an Ivy League degree and/or connected parents, and an idea (not an actual working model, just an idea) for improving education.  When it comes to B&L leaders, we need to come armed with a business plan that shows how we’re going to be self-sustaining, evidence that a problem even exists, lots of program data if we’re trying to expand, and a whole host of other things before we even get a fraction of what the White leader receives–if we get anything at all.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that every White leader gets an investment and every B&L leader doesn’t, but the inequity is staggering. There are all kinds of theories about why this is the case, but regardless of which ones are true, things need to change if this emerging group of B&L leaders and education reform are to be successful. This new group of B&L leaders are very smart, totally in sync with the needs of the constituents (mostly because they came from those communities) and are passionate about what they’re doing. They are not all that hopeful when it comes to being able to get the capital needed realize their visions.

Many common stories and themes about the funding inequity emerged during my conversations, but I believe these two do the most damage to B&L leaders:

  • Guilt vs Impact money. The notion that funders will give a smaller investment to not feel guilty or to give the illusion of investment in B&L leaders instead of giving them what they really need to make the kind of impact they are capable of.  Even when the White leader’s program don’t meet projections or totally fails, investments continue to pour in.
  • If you fail, others won’t get investments. There is a high burden of success put on B&L leaders when they do get an investment of any size.  They know from other experiences that if you’re for instance a Black leader and you somehow fail to measure up to your goals, then the likelihood that other Black leaders behind you won’t get investments from the same funders is pretty high, but that funder will always continue to invest in White leaders.

And to be perfectly frank, as a well-known, well-connected and relatively privileged Black woman, I am NOT immune whatsoever to this paradox. It took me 2 years of meeting with the same set of people to get the seed capital necessary to start TAF Academy.  When it came time to build capacity to replicate it, all the big money and attention went to the prospect of charter schools in Washington State.  Now that TAF Academy is super successful, winning awards, and we’ve figured out a way to scale the model at a fraction of the cost ($400/student per year)…crickets. We’re doing something that has never been done before–being a partner with school districts to create schools with academic environments that eliminate race-based disparity in academic achievement, and promote the highest level of student learning and teacher development–and we have a great start.  The potential to really change the game is mindblowing, but without a significant growth capital investment for the next five years, we’ll never scale.  And that’s too bad because we are wanted, what we’re doing is needed and it works.

So education reform funders, if you really truly want to see lasting change that impacts whole generations and is scalable in the right way, break the mold and make some high impact bets on a few more Black and Latino leaders.

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