Over the last year, headlines have surged about the divorces of Seattle tech billionaires, whose families fund some of the world’s largest philanthropic organizations.

These high-profile separations translated into wins for some nonprofits, who received large donations, while others worried whether their funding would continue. These highs and lows brought attention to the fragility of the family-driven philanthropy model and that Seattle organizations need to shift to a sustainable, mission-driven approach.

With so much power within the 40,000 family foundations across the U.S., a meager portion of philanthropic dollars goes to organizations that are led by and serve communities of color. Only about 10% of overall giving reaches them.

Money tells a story of our priorities, and clearly philanthropy is not doing enough to listen to the missions of communities and support people who are the target of so many unjust systems. Those who have the financial means to create change need to be as bold, audacious and imaginative as our community’s leaders in social justice.

At Seattle-based Marguerite Casey Foundation, we are reflecting on these issues every day. How can philanthropies do a better job of listening to those making change, and supporting grassroots social movements?

Take last summer, when more than 20 million people protested in the streets, calling for an end to police violence and mass incarceration. A year later, their demands for Black lives simply were not supported by the full force of philanthropy.


This summer, my team launched an initiative, Answering the Uprising: Closing the Say/Do Gap in Philanthropy. We asked philanthropies to be accountable for the commitments and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) statements made last year. Our organization increased giving by 5% ($1.6 million) to fund programs that directly address racial injustice in policing and the criminal punishment system. We have recruited a growing list of 10 foundations that signed on to a powerful commitment aimed at correcting the lack of adequate response to the uprisings.

Another way philanthropy can change is to closely examine who is receiving funds, and how they are using the money. Is the money in the hands of leaders who are actively working toward real change?

Philanthropy needs to use its economic resources to change the economic rules. One way to do this is to provide unrestricted, concrete financial support to people whose research, life experiences and leadership can provide critical insight to radically improve our democracy, economy and society.

It’s the leadership of people of color that can help society navigate out of its hardest challenges, especially because communities of color are often closest to those problems — due to a long history of institutional racism — and they are best suited to understand the best solutions to them. Rather than setting the agenda in terms of what certain elite families want, we have an opportunity to support community leaders in setting the agenda themselves.

That is one of the reasons we teamed up with Seattle’s Group Health Foundation to create the Freedom Scholars program, which gives unrestricted $250,000 grants to emerging leaders in academia whose research provides critical insight to social justice leaders. Their ideas and leadership will help lead to effective programs, services and solutions that address the needs of those who have been historically excluded from sharing in the resources and benefits of society.

The question I’m constantly asking myself is this: Will our funding system make transformative change that will happen in our lifetime? I am challenging other philanthropic organizations and donors to join me in this reflection.

Our philanthropic model needs to move beyond generous donations to commitments rooted in justice if we are to make bold changes that shift the balance of power in our society.