Equity-Centered Philanthropy: Honoring the Past While Celebrating the Future

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

On the heels of Black History Month and at the beginning of Women’s History Month, it is not lost on me that we need to celebrate diversity now more than ever. And it is important that we do not relegate our recognition of the contribution of Blacks and women to just one month.

Sankofa is an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana. The symbol, based on the mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward with its head turned backwards, serves as a reminder that the past serves as a guide for planning the future. It is the wisdom of looking back to look forward.

Diversity has been a core value of Alford Group for our 41-year history and we recently renewed our commitment to fostering and creating adaptive cultures that are more inclusive and equitable in our work as a firm, with our clients and in the entire social sector. We are elevating equity-centered philanthropy as intentional action toward changing the structures, roles, processes, representation and practices that perpetuate inequities in how organizations communicate, engage and build relationships to support philanthropic endeavors.

On this International Women’s Day, I have asked my colleague and friend Dr. Una Osili to speak with me about her experience as a philanthropist, a woman of color pioneer in this field, and as an internationally-recognized expert on economic development and philanthropy. I know you will appreciate and benefit from her perspective as well.

image of Una Osili


Una, Osili, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Research and International Programs; Professor of Economics and Philanthropic Studies; Dean’s Fellow, Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy; Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Interview with Dr. Una Osili

Who inspired you to take on this work as a prominent researcher to better understand the important role that Blacks play in giving, sharing and caring?

My father was the first in his family to receive a formal education –and he went to graduate school and earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology at Cornell University Medical School.  He was a student in the 1960s at a time of social upheaval and when there were very few Black students at Ivy League institutions. My father benefitted from a strong network of family and friends who championed his goals.

Through his example and testimony, my father showed us how to invest in others and causes. He provided funding, mentoring and support to his siblings and extended family to achieve their educational goals. He also taught us the importance of generosity and sharing of one’s resources. My parents also taught all their children to stand up for justice –and use our platforms to improve our communities.

My father’s story shows the power and expansive reach of Black philanthropy –and it includes giving to charitable organizations and sharing resources with your community.

How would you describe the approach that Blacks take in expressing their philanthropy as being different from other groups?

During the national reckoning on race following the tragic killing of George Floyd, we witnessed the power of Black donors in supporting grassroots movements and community organizations.

For Black populations here in the United States and the African diaspora, philanthropy is embedded in family, religious congregations and educational groups; it includes gifts of time, talent and treasure—and increasingly testimony, which refers to sharing one’s “gift” of voice and advocacy.

The data from the Philanthropy Panel Study conducted by the Lilly Family School over the past two decades remind us that Black Americans and other communities of color understand philanthropy broadly. This means that, in addition to giving to formal institutions, it is equally important to Black Americans to share resources within informal networks, often with people the givers know well.

What is the difference between philanthropy and generosity?  Is it time for a word that is more inclusive? A word that embodies philanthropic justice? Any word(s) come to mind?

At the Lilly Family School, we define philanthropy as private action for public good.  We also use the word generosity to refer to the virtue of giving to others.

I would encourage a shift in how we think about philanthropy and make it part of everyday life. Everyone has resources to contribute –and we need to shift the narrative to ensure that Black communities are recognized and valued for their contributions. It’s about expanding the meaning of generosity that brings change to our communities when people give their voice, their time, their skills or their monetary resources.

What kind of change is needed in order to grow giving from Blacks?

We need a more inclusive approach to philanthropy that recognizes Black donors and communities’ motivations and needs. Fundraisers need to diversify strategies to meet Black donors’ unique interests and priorities. Embracing diversity extends beyond fundraising among ethnically diverse constituents and embracing differences. We need to make sure diverse voices are at the core of organizations and leaders are committed to programs and policies that foster diversity, equity and inclusion.

To reach current and future donors from a broad array of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the sector needs to go beyond acknowledging and accepting differences and bring diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront.

What wisdom would you share with the next generation of Black philanthropists?

The events of 2020 show how important it is to engage Black philanthropists. Through acts of generosity, we have seen how one person can influence and impact others. From Mellody Hobson, CEO of Ariel Capital and Project Black; to Alycia Kamil of GoodKids MadCity; Tina and Calvin E. Tyler Jr; and Black giving circles have all inspired us through bold action to address needs.

As a nation, we face daunting challenges, and our society will benefit from an infusion of new ideas, energy and vision from the next generation of Black philanthropists.

Thank you, Una for your inspiring insights. As we all look forward to tomorrow and the days to come, each one of us can do at least one thing to take action toward system-level change which will build bridges to a much more dynamic and fair future for Blacks in this country. It will be through the quest for knowledge, based on critical examination, conversation, sustainable action and trust that we will see change.

Someday is NOW.