There’s an entire economic sector that the typical American doesn’t pay much attention to, but it’s a part of our society that funds much of the activism and community service efforts that we see in America today. It’s called philanthropy.

In 2016, philanthropic donors, known as foundations, contributed more than $59 billion to nonprofits across the nation — organizations working on everything from saving wetlands to supporting the opera. More than 86,000 U.S. foundations control some $715 billion in assets, and a relatively small number devote their resources to support and empower America’s most marginalized communities. This includes communities of color.

U.S. law requires foundations to give away each year five percent of their assets in the form of grants. Those foundations geared to lasting into perpetuity make investments with the remaining 95 percent to replenish the 5 percent donated annually. But what happens when a foundation focused on “reducing poverty and injustice” — part of which is increasing black prosperity — also invests in those known to harm our communities?

I recently discovered that the Ford Foundation participated in multiple rounds of funding for Cadre, a real estate startup co-founded by Jared Kushner and his brother, Joshua. Since 2015, Cadre has attracted more than $130 million in funding. Jared is, of course, part of his father-in-law’s administration, which so far has served as a reminder of how racism mixed with unfair policy can harm people of color. Two quick examples are cuts to the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and the Department of Housing and Urban Development's recent failure to enforce laws that reduce housing discrimination and segregation.

Ironically, the Ford Foundation is one of the nation’s largest funders of social justice causes and underserved communities — second only to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2017, Ford gave $470.5 million to such causes as equitable development; gender, racial, and ethnic justice; and civic engagement and government. Nearly three-quarters of that money — 73 percent — benefitted U.S. concerns.

There’s a profound paradox at work here:

  • A grant goes to a jobs program, but the investment helps perpetuate the wealth gap by keeping money and opportunities outside of black communities.

  • Grants go toward civic engagement, but the investment helps entrench a person in power who supports policies that prevent black voices from being heard

  • Grants made to defeat poverty links to an investment (in the case of Cadre and Kushner) that emboldens and deepens the pockets of a person who runs enterprises known to prey on low-income black renters.

Is this duality what keeps us circling around the same issues year and year and leaves the black community stagnant?  

Numerous reports detail just how economically insecure the black community is. In a report two years ago, The Institute for Policy Studies explained that it would take 228 years for blacks to accrue the wealth currently held by white families. In December, the Boston Globe almost broke Twitter with a tweet summarizing a report that the median net worth of black households in Boston is a mere eight dollars, while their white neighbors have a worth of $247,500. The Washington Post’s “Express” offshoot also left mouths agape back in October with a front-page article about a similar discrepancy in the nation’s capital.

Learning of such a gap may be shocking to non-blacks (The Globe ran a follow-up article headlined “That was no typo.”), but this dramatic disparity is a reality that we in the black community know all too well. Outside of personal achievement by those who have more than likely overcome greater barriers than most, as a community we overwhelmingly are still not afforded the opportunities that other people get.

Moreover, we live in a society that is a democracy in name only. Joint university research by Princeton and Northwestern warned us that the United States operates as more of an oligarchy, with power resting in America’s elites. With investments such as these, can Ford Foundation accomplish its stated mission of promoting social justice and equality?

Something Van Jones mentioned two days after the presidential election of 2016 has stuck with me. I was at a gathering of progressive leaders when he pointed out to our group that the Democratic Party gave a significant amount of money to political consultants when they could have given at least some of that money to community organizations that could have turned out more voters and have enough left over to continue their important work before the next election.  

Another person in the group expressed to me how ridiculous it was that some funders support the same organizations for, say, 20 years without helping the organizations become self-sustaining. Based on the vulnerability I felt immediately after the election, something I know was shared by others, I’ve been thinking constantly about how we can do a better job of building secure black communities.

There are limits to the benefits of philanthropy. What’s most important is effecting a shift in culture. A shift in habits. A shift in thinking. A shift in America’s assets and who holds that financial power. I don’t know how you can truly disseminate power while at the same time giving oligarchs more of it. If my savior is better arming my oppressor, then we have a problem.

There needs to be an investment in black entrepreneurs who are in touch with the struggles and neglect of black communities. Entrepreneurs who’ll remember and revere black people, who’ll build their headquarters on the South Side of Chicago or in Baltimore. Brilliant businesspeople who will hire locals, nurture those who attend community schools and channel resources into those institutions. Effective leaders whose efforts will help communities curb crime and poverty. Visionaries who will cultivate and support other homebred innovators, innovators who will go on to replicate and even surpass these strides over and over again.

What now?

As a people, we have to get very real and very smart about what’s happening in our ecosystem of progress. The world of philanthropy is foreign to most of us, and because of this, the resources that pour into our communities are often canceled out by the way these institutions work without any of us even noticing. Philanthropy is largely aware of the impact of their investments and several foundations, including Ford, have committed to impact investing. Especially in light of Ford’s commitment, it hurts to see an investment of this sort and the foundation’s logo displayed prominently on Cadre’s website.

Philanthropy has to be on our radar and should be added to the list of institutions your activism helps guide.  If we ever want to see more than just incremental change, we have to become familiar with this little-known world. Real change is possible.