Time to fund the work that will change the system

By Neha Madhok

Co-Director at Democracy in Colour.

This is a part of a series of personal stories from young advocates and their reflections on Philanthropy Australia’s conference theme – Future Needs, Now? The opinion pieces range across issues of diversity, equity, justice and the role of philanthropy in supporting social change.

The first thing to acknowledge is that if the work of racial justice organisations is fully realised, the way that philanthropists have traditionally created wealth, will no longer exist. 

Until we recognise that tension - the reason your eyes might slip over our grant applications, or why you may ask for more accountability from us than from white-led projects, or why you’ll only fund the ‘softer’ side of the work we do - philanthropy will reinforce white supremacy.

And that is our point. Colonialism and capitalism have intentionally set up white supremacy, it’s a thousands of years-old system that has allowed some families to accumulate and inherit mass amounts of wealth - usually, in some form or another, off the backs of First Nations people and people of colour. Maybe your ancestors represented England’s interests in the colonies through arms like the East India Company. Maybe your ancestors had Aboriginal people ‘working’ (read: exploitation) for them in their homes, or maybe your ancestors ostracised Chinese men on the goldfields - stopping Asian gold miners from accessing the same opportunities white men had. 

More recently, maybe the jobs at the family’s company have been sent offshore to centres and factories where working class people labour under horrendous conditions and they do it cheaper. Once again, working people in the Global South are forced to uphold the wealth and comforts of the West. Once again, people of colour are missing out on opportunities for wealth creation. 

And as racial justice campaigners organise for an end to prisons, the defunding of police, an overhaul of the migration system, an end to the fear and division brought about by the normalisation of hate speech in the media, for fairness at work - we challenge the core tenets of white supremacy and wealth. 

But the work racial justice organisations are doing isn’t just about ending this system of exploitation. Our work is about redistributing power and money so that everyone has the sustenance and services they need. And rising tides lift all boats; when we succeed, everyone does.

Nothing will change in philanthropy until donors recognise where their wealth has come from and make it part of their core mission not just to ‘do good’ within the system we have, but to fund the work that will change the system.

When global white supremacy means there are limited mechanisms for wealth redistribution, philanthropists must become the ones who redistribute their wealth. 

What racial justice organisations need is untied, multi-year, core funding. Often, racial justice work is community led, it challenges power and it promotes self-determination. It might not deliver the ‘vanity’ metrics that make everyone feel good, and we might build power in ways that don’t immediately make sense to you. The impact of an organised series of community meetings at suburban temples could have far reaching organising benefits, ones that don’t culturally translate. We may prioritise budgets for food at events or transportation for elderly members. And because historically we haven’t had the resources to build the power we need, when we seek to work as part of our communities, sometimes for the first time, our consultation processes might be slower and ever shifting.

Through my years working in not-for-profits I’ve sat through meetings where we spent hours strategising how to bend objectives for the whims of funders. Like the pressure I felt years ago as an organiser, one of the few organising my working class immigrant community and forced to deliver unrealistic metrics due to funder expectations. It means organisers have to stop the essential work and divert resources to metric heavy tactics which sound nice but distract from impact.

That’s why at Democracy in Colour we value lived experience as the most valuable resource. The people affected are the best placed to find the solutions to the injustices they face, and what they need is the untied, multi-year core funding so that they can get to work. Instead of constant reporting and grant writing cycles, instead of coming up with creative ways to sanitise our work and make it appeal to the white gaze.


What does philanthropic bias look like? 

Asking a racial justice organisation to provide additional layers of reporting that you don’t ask of white-led organisations. Maybe it’s because you have a ‘strong relationship’ with the CEO of a white-led organisation and so there’s a ‘trust’ there that might not yet exist with a racial justice organization. Think about where that relationship and trust have come from. 
Only funding racial justice work that caters to white people e.g: training white people how not to be racist, or leadership development, and never funding community organising and campaigning efforts
When your own board and senior staff only represent the interests of wealthy white people. For the core of your decision-making to have a deep impact for racial justice, your decision-makers need to be from the communities you seek to work with.


What can you do? 

Guarantee a significant portion of your funding goes directly to racial justice organisations. 
Trust that the issues and strategies put forward by racial justice campaigners are going to deliver the impact that’s needed. 
Hire affected community members or, make sure your board represents the communities you want to work with. 
Talk to others in your network, is their giving perpetuating white supremacy? How can you help them change it?


Neha Madhok is Co-Director at Democracy in Colour, a national racial and economic justice organisation.

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