Disrupting the status quo – how can we embed race equity in grant making?

Members of the inaugural Impetus Leadership Academy


Impetus was founded on the fundamental belief that all young people should have the same chance to succeed - irrespective of their background.

After the death of George Floyd, we set up a race equity taskforce to look at how we can embed racial diversity into all aspects of our work. We are early in this journey , and have been grateful to the expert voices that have contributed to our work.

The Impetus Leadership Academy is a direct outcome of this work-. It is a programme designed and delivered by people of colour for people of colour and aims to increase diversity in the leadership of the youth sector.

After a year of master classes, peer learning, mentoring and coaching sessions, we wanted to introduce our first cohort to an audience of funders, who might not know them or their organisations. We also wanted to start having a conversation with funders about how to ensure that black and minoritised leaders unlock funding that has historically been difficult for them to access.

Collaboration sits at the heart of our values and way of working and so we convened a panel of funders, trustees, CEOs and academics of colour to discuss the question ‘how to embed race equity in grant making.’

Read more about what our panel and ILA cohort had to say on this powerful issue...

Sasha Gay Smith, Founder and Director of I AM IN ME, and inaugural Impetus Leadership Academy Cohort member, kicked off our event with a powerful reflection on what the Impetus Leadership Academy has meant to her over the last year:

“It has accepted the totality of who I am. It has embraced my past, has embraced what I bring without saying that I should leave out elements of who I am as a leader. My identity underpins my leadership. It has given me the ability to unapologetically be who I am from a place of authenticity, so that I am able to lead in a way that meaningfully impacts the people I serve.”

Our panel on the night talked frankly about why embedding race equity in grant making is important to them…

“I have been a funder for 30 years and I am also a proud member of a minoritsed community. I strive to bring all my experiences into the work I do. Being your whole authentic self is really difficult – I haven’t been able to be this the whole time – but I want to be able to be authentic.” Monica Brown, former Head of Charity Advisory and Programmes, CAF.

“Philanthropy is historically the good cop to capitalism’s bad cop – and capitalism is built on the backs of black and brown people. My question is how can systems start to change? The answer is for race equity to be centralised, rather than minoritised – because this isn’t a minority issue. Fantastic leaders are doing great things, but if they are contained they won’t be able to change the system. Centralising is about redistributing wealth and rebalancing power.” Derek Bardowell, CEO, Ten Years’ Time.

“At the heart of all the issues in funding is the basic issue of inequality. Social mobility is declining. Inequality and poverty is increasing. Funders like to deal with issues and projects, but inequality intersects all these. Inequality didn’t suddenly pop up out of nowhere. Look at the history of this country – the trajectory of British Empire, colonialism and the commonwealth and the subsequent oppression of the people who came to live here, which has led to inequality. This needs to be seen through the lens of justice rather than pity. What has been done systemically to these communities needs to be properly understood.” Fozia Irfan, Director of Children and Young People, BBC Children in Need.

“As leader of the Equality Trust all our work is about inequality. With high levels of inequality to you have high levels of poverty, drug use etc. Grant funders say they would like to tackle these things individually as projects - but they are all centred around inequality. Generations of not being able to have decent housing, jobs and wages. How do you expect people to raise themselves up when there is a system that doesn’t want them to be raised up? The main problem is that the people who have the power don’t want to give it up and this needs to be challenged.” Wanda Wyporska, Trustee at Esmee Fairburn Foundation, former Executive Director of The Equality Trust and current Chief Executive of the Society of Genealogists.

The panel then talked about five key areas of change that they wanted to see:

1. Having the right representation at board and leadership level.

    “This is tough to talk about and tough to do because no one likes to let go of power and privilege. There is a lack of understanding of what needs to happen to change at the Trustee level and no real, deep meaningful accountability in the system and no catalyst for change. Until we get a sea-change in ethnic minority representation at trustee level then nothing is going to change - we have to take back some of the power.”

    2. Increase giving – particularly as many foundations accumulated wealth during the pandemic.

      “My honest reflection is that organisations need to interrogate their wealth in terms of how they accumulate and invest. The top 300 organisations earn around £70bn and only give away £3bn, which is less than 5% of their wealth. Could they give away another 2% of their endowed wealth towards racial justice? This would enable black and brown led organisations to get a fair proportion of the money.

      “Funders also need to look at black and brown led funds and give money to them and let them distribute it.”

      3. Moving towards trust based philanthropy, and removing the barriers to giving.

        “Covid helped to loosen up some of the philanthropy models that had been around for centuries. Grant makers needed to get money out quickly without jumping through hoops and we did it. The same could be applied to race equity. There are lots of funders who are proudly publicising their diversity – but it’s not truly reflected in the hierarchy of their grant making. We need to keep the Covid funding model momentum going.”

        “Trust based philanthropy is talked up, BUT if you have the same people doing the trusting they are just going to trust the people that look like them. So grant design needs to reflect equity. The thing about philanthropy is that it has more freedom than most institutions to make changes. There is not much that sits in the way of this other than people’s personal will and decision making.”

        4. Letting communities decide who gets the money, and organisations decide how they spend it.

          “The reality is that we have pre-set definitions of what expertise, risk and impact are, and we settle on this model.

          “Essentially this is coercing the sector to morph into the system that suits us so we can show our trustees that our money is doing something. Until we get to a place of breaking the link between the value of the fund and what organisations are doing, then things won’t change.”

          5. Social change takes 20 years and is complex – change the funding model to reflect this.

            “By sticking to a rigid funding model, real change and opportunity is lost. It takes a long time for social change to happen, but funding is not designed for social change – it is designed for outcomes. We need to see 20 year relationships, unrestricted funding, letting the organisations work with freedom, achieve mission, do succession planning well.”

            “Good responsive grant makers are going to organisations directly, asking what their needs are and giving them the money - rather than rewarding form filling. Minorities have to be in the room designing the grant making rather than just being the beneficiaries.”

            It was great to hear members of the Impetus Leadership Academy Cohort reflect on the panel’s comments:

            This programme has given us the opportunity to think about our role in the sector. Covid has exacerbated inequality and if our voices aren’t at the table then nothing will change. Grant makers can change this – they don’t have to ask permission from anyone.” Sat Singh, CEO Renaissance Foundation,

            “I’ve become a trustee in my local community charity, I’ve become a school governor in my local community. This programme is working.”

            “It’s often forgotten that racial justice cannot be achieved without economic justice and economic justice cannot be achieved without racial justice.” Troy Norbert, Queens Crescent Community Association.

            We firmly believe that having an open, honest debate like this is important in Impetus’ own journey to race equity, as we learn, test and iterate as a funder ourselves.

            “I learned an awful lot tonight about the importance of unrestricted funding and why we should trust organisations to spend money as they see fit because they know what the need is. Impetus’ work on race equity has developed over the last number of years. Race equity has also become a key requirement and interest for State Street, and an event like this helps us to understand what is needed from funders.” Shane Doyle, State Street

            This event ‘disrupting the status quo: embedding race equity into grant making’ was hosted by Impetus and held at the offices of Kirkland & Ellis International LLP, on Thursday 26 May 2022. For more information and to find out about future events, sign up to our newsletter.

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