Celebrating Black Philanthropy

By Brenda B. Asare, President and CEO, Alford Group


Liz Thompson, President and Office Director, Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education (The CAFE)

Don Thompson, CEO and Founder, Cleveland Avenue, LLC


The world is learning how to overcome the discomfort of talking about race and organizations everywhere are having some real courageous conversations on how we can move forward together to create lasting change for people of color. This change will create a ripple effect where others who have been marginalized will benefit and increase their ability to thrive as well – no one is left behind.

As we celebrate Black Philanthropy Month, we have an opportunity to recognize and elevate African descent giving. Black Philanthropy Month amplifies the soul of philanthropy and the transformative impact of generosity in all forms in and from Black communities and the diaspora.

African Americans have a long heritage of formal and informal caring and giving that extends beyond traditional philanthropy to family members, neighbors and community organizations.

I am proud to highlight two of the country’s foremost black philanthropists, Liz and Don Thompson. Learn firsthand from my interview with Liz on what matters when it comes to her family’s philanthropic endeavors.

Interview with Liz Thompson:

What is unique about Black philanthropy?

Traditional philanthropy doesn’t necessarily represent the history of giving in the Black community. More often than not, we tend to think of “philanthropy” in terms of wealthy donors, large gifts or big institutions and, as African Americans, we can often feel excluded with this limited perspective.

In 1999, Dr. C. Erick Lincoln used the following definition in At the Crossroads…The Proceedings of the First National Conference on Black Philanthropy:

“The voluntary transfer of significant values identified with the self, or an extension of the self to other entities perceived as wanting. These quantum of value may be intangible, as in the case of love, labor, services or support: or they may be concrete and tangible as in the case of money, works of art, clothing, shelter and the like.”

There is a legacy of love that goes along with Black philanthropy and our tradition of giving is deep and vast – once you think of philanthropy in this more expansive way. We have supported causes of great importance for centuries, not just with financial resources, but with our time and our talent. You don’t have to look far to see Black people using whatever gifts we have to improve the world. And we have done just that on many, many occasions throughout history.

How have your views and participation in philanthropy shifted over the years?

In the beginning, I didn’t see myself as a philanthropist because I didn’t have millions to give away or an established name behind me. I didn’t think there was a seat for me at any philanthropic table. Now, I know that we each have a role to play by leveraging our tremendous life experiences, as well as our resources, to advocate for new, more proximate solutions to the challenges our communities have faced for years.

I am now pressing for organizations to think of philanthropy in the expanded way I spoke about earlier – thus valuing gifts of time, labor and the sharing of life experiences. The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education is setting a new table of philanthropy where EVERYONE has a seat and they are valued for what they uniquely bring – not just their net worth.

How have you engaged the next generation in the foundation’s endeavors?  Is philanthropy a “family affair?”

Yes, it is most definitely a family affair. From early in their lives, we wanted to make sure our children understood their blessings and their role in supporting the broader community. It has been gratifying to see them form their identities and pursue their areas of passion. They each have their own unique definitions of giving back and they are similar, yet different from each other and from us. I couldn’t be prouder that they are both members of the board of The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education.

We’re also working to create a new generation of wealth by investing in emerging businesses owned by people of color and women, especially on the South and West side of Chicago. We know that these entrepreneurs are often overlooked in Venture Capital and philanthropy. Despite having thriving businesses, they struggle to access financial and social capital. At Cleveland Avenue, we’re creating a fund to make it easier for Black philanthropists to find the emerging businesses owned by people of color and women and help them create wealth by investing in them and providing them the support they need to be successful.

What advice would you offer to organizations seeking to deepen their engagement of Black philanthropists?

Black philanthropists, as with other donors, need to be able to see how their passion and expertise intersect with the mission of the organization and how they can add value. We all have limited time, talent, and treasure, so demonstrating how you keep community impact front and center, will help attract and engage us in the work.

Another often missed avenue of engagement is seeking advice and guidance OUTSIDE of requests for financial support or a board seat. There are many different types of wealth and our society must begin to recognize that social wealth is also critical in building the necessary strategies to address issues of equity. Very often, the Black philanthropists you are seeking to engage have life experiences similar to the group you are seeking to help, in addition to their strategic thinking and organizational skills. Tapping into that experience can advance the cause of your organization in a tangible way and it is imperative to begin building your organization/board around that proximate expertise.

What are the most critical changes that we must make to face the future effectively in the most equitable way?

I think we are currently living through a major inflection point around racial equity. There should be no question at this point in our history that the legacy of racism has negatively impacted African Americans throughout the last few centuries. One of the most critical changes we must make moving forward is to stop ignoring the implications of race across the philanthropic landscape and start paying more attention to solutions that specifically call it out.

Don and I have spent a lot of time reflecting on our own journeys and we want to use our voices to reimagine how philanthropy can support Black leaders and how we can help connect them with the financial support to drive innovation and create lasting systemic change.

We will create a thriving, intergenerational community of donors that want to redefine what it means to be a Black philanthropist and invest in a portfolio of trailblazers that represent the next generation of community centered leaders. As we prepare to launch the 1954 Fund, named in recognition of the year of Brown v. Board of Education, we are planning to provide funding and capacity building to Black leaders across the non-profit education spectrum. We also plan to convene Black donors, and our allies, and we need your help to change the narrative around what it means to be excellent leaders in education AND philanthropy.

Thank you both, Liz and Don, for your words of wisdom and all you do for the social sector.

Feel free to email me with questions or comments to continue this conversation. I leave you with two great resources, both share valuable insights on engaging Black philanthropists and donors of color:

Women Give: Gender and Giving Across Communities of Color

Diversity in Giving: The Changing Landscape of American Philanthropy