Valaida Fullwood on the History of African Americans and Philanthropy

About This Episode

Contrary to popular belief, philanthropy has been a long standing tradition of the African American community. Valiada shares her insights about how African Americans give, why they give and what the future holds. Through interviews completed while researching for her book, Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, she uncovered the spirit of generosity that has strengthened communities for generations.

About

Described an “idea whisperer,” Valaida Fullwood brings unbridled imagination and a gift for harnessing wild ideas to her work as a writer, public speaker and consultant on various projects and events in the philanthropic sector. Her client base ranges widely and her interests center on social innovation in philanthropy, education and the arts. In short, she helps people and organizations drive bold ideas forward by guiding their projects and by writing their stories. Valaida is the award-winning author of Giving Back, a 400-page hardcover book profiling stories of philanthropy among African Americans that was developed with photographer Charles Thomas. Giving Back, her first book, was named one of the 10 Best Black Books of 2011 and received the prestigious 2012 McAdam Book Award, which recognizes “the most inspirational and useful new book for the nonprofit sector.” Since the release of Giving Back, Valaida is recognized a thought leader on African American philanthropy and community-led philanthropy and is frequently invited by a variety of groups to write, talk and consult on the topic. She is featured in a 2013 TEDx Talk on philanthropy and was selected the 2014 Lake Distinguished Visitor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University—the first African American to receive the honor. Valaida was named a 2012 Charlotte Catalyst by Uptown Magazine and the keynote speaker, at the 2013 North Carolina Center for Nonprofits statewide conference, delivering the message: Philanthropy For and By The People. In collaboration with Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU in Charlotte, NC, she attracted grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and others contributors totaling more than $240,000 to reimagine the book Giving Back as a multimedia, touring exhibition. Titled Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited, the exhibit is now traveling to college campuses, public libraries and museums, nationwide. Her primary passion is cross-cultural and international exploration. She is a founding member of New Generation of African American Philanthropists—a giving circle that gives back through grantmaking and civic engagement. Valaida blogs at valaida.com and enjoys social media connections on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter at @ValaidaF and @BlkGivesBackCLT. As a writer and public speaker, she enjoys sharing stories and engaging audiences around Giving Back and looks forward to publishing more books.

Questions Answered on this Episode

  • What prompted you to write your book, Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists?
  • Oftentimes, when we talk about philanthropy, there is the assumption that the donor has to be wealthy, but we know that isn’t the case. What did you find in the stories that you captured in your book?
  • Do you think that your book has impacted readers in terms of how they think about philanthropy?
  • Are there specific approaches to giving that are more common in African American communities than in others?
  • There was a recent report commissioned by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and Heising-Simons Foundation. The report, the Giving Code, talked about the need for new ways for nonprofit organizations to connect with donors. One area of focus was on the millennial donor. Is there a “giving code” that you see, or one that is emerging for African American millennials?
  • I know that you are one of the architects of Black Philanthropy month. What can you tell us about that?
  • What are the issues or challenges that you see in the African American philanthropy space?
  • What shifts do you see being made?
  • If you were looking ahead, five years from now, what changes would you predict in philanthropy as it relates to people of color?
  • Are there more effective ways to harness African American dollars for good than what is currently being done?

Transcript

Vanessa

Welcome to the Social Change Diaries, the show that looks behind the curtain at everything you want to know about the social justice and non-profit landscape.  I’m your host Vanessa Wakeman.  So, today I’m going to be chatting with Valaida Fullwood.  She is the author of Giving Back, a tribute to generations of African-American philanthropists, a book that reframes portraits of philanthropy.  It was named one of the ten best black books of 2011, and winner of the prestigious Terry McAdam Book award as 2012’s most inspirational and useful new book for the non-profit sector.  She is also the Principal Architect of giving Back the Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited, and that’s a touring museum exhibition that opened February 2015.

So, I am speaking with Valaida via phone straight from North Carolina, and I am excited to talk with her today about philanthropy.  Welcome to the show, Valaida.

Valaida

Thank you so much, Vanessa.

Vanessa

Thank you.  So, I think the topic of philanthropy is an interesting one, and I feel like when I talk to people about philanthropy, everyone has a different version of what they think is required to sort of move the needle of philanthropy, what the role of a philanthropist is and even what philanthropy is.  So, I guess where I want to start with you is, what is your definition of philanthropy today?

Valaida

Yes, good point, and I’ve experienced the same thing and I know there are a whole host of definitions for philanthropy.  And for me, I choose to go back to the root meaning, the Greek meaning, love of humankind, love of humanity.  And in fact, I generally break it down even further and say love of what it means to be human.  And for me, that definition is as wide open and as inclusive as possible, and has space for all the ways people give and show love to communities.

Vanessa

Thank you.  That’s a great framework.  So, within that, tell me what prompted you to write your book Giving Back, a Tribute to Generations of African-American Philanthropists.  I think for me there has always been this misconception around philanthropy in the black community, so I’d love to sort of get a sense of what was the sort of the trigger for you around approaching the subject.  

Valaida

Yes.  It was a series of things, but mainly I was working as a consultant in a philanthropic realm, and was involved in philanthropy as a volunteer and serving on boards and as a donor, and was always struck by the narrow frame for philanthropy being fixed on people of high net worth, and often times excluding stories of black people and people of color.  And whenever black people were featured, we were featured on the demand side of the equation, not as philanthropists or as benefactors, but as beneficiaries or people in need.  And while that’s a piece of the story, I knew there was a bigger, fuller story around philanthropy with black people and people of color on the donor side and as generous givers.  And I’ve experienced it myself and witnessed it in my family, and about 12 years ago I was starting to form a giving circle, an African-American giving circle, and in conversations with the fellow giving circle members, they shared similar stories and dismay with how philanthropy is framed, and particularly how black people are framed in that story, as if we don’t have any degree of generosity and don’t give ever.  

So that, my personal experienced coupled with hearing others share that point of view, I had the idea to perhaps write a book that could help lift up those sometimes little-known stories about black giving and what philanthropy looks like and what generations of philanthropy and generosity looks like in black communities.  So, that was the genesis of the whole idea of gibing institutions about black philanthropy and chronic links of some of those stories and that history, but nothing that was accessible to everyday people to recognize the connection between the giving that happens in black communities and what people see as philanthropy, which, often times in their minds, excludes black giving.  And so the book, the Giving Back part spoke to just everyday language and colloquial language around what we call our generosity in giving, and connecting it with the word philanthropy, because for me they are one and the same with the title.

Vanessa

Was there anything that you found while you were writing the book that was surprising to you, like maybe traditions that you weren’t aware of or just any general sort of mindset or areas of interest?  Any sort of like, “Hah, I wasn’t expecting this when I started on this project?”

Valaida

There were lots of them.  One, in particular, that I guess that struck me and really moved me is one, often times with philanthropy the presumption is people are giving out of a abundance, and of course in the black community that isn’t always the case, that because of the wealth gap and other structural barriers and limitations in our history and culture and community, people give not necessarily out of abundance, but out of a recognition of mutuality, and, even sometimes out of real deficit in some aspects of people’s lives.  

So, historically some of the stories of people like thinking of some of the examples of people who were denied things like illiterate people providing resources for people to go to school and to become educated.  Just recognizing that they did not have access to certain opportunities or things and thought to make sure that others had access to those very things.  So, that struck me.  And certainly a piece of the black philanthropy story.  I mean from Harriet Tubman being a formerly enslaved woman and struggling to make sure other people and their children lived in freedom.  There’s the story of Catherine Ferguson, who started a school, one of the first – or the first – Sunday School for young children who worked in the factories, and she couldn’t read, but she saw value in it, so she worked and had bake sales and helped raise money to provide a school and open a school for children.  Those are couple of examples that struck me and were representative of the ways black people give often times.

Vanessa

Thank you for that.  Are there specific approaches to giving that are more common in African-American communities than in others, or are there specific ways that the giving takes place.  Is it primarily through giving circles or is it through faith-based initiatives or are there particular areas of need that seem to resonate more with African-Americans?

Valaida

Well, of course historically church-based giving is key and central in our communities.  It always has been and still is, but people have interest and give in other informal ways outside of the church that sometimes aren’t captured by standard research in the philanthropic realm.  So, whether it’s kinship giving, is one example of how we support family members and going to school or providing a home or other resources that family members need.  So, a lot of it is informal and not captured on some of the written research that comes out.  But in the course of talking to 200 donors where, it’s how it turned out for my book project and having conversations and hearing their stories was just as if giving was in people’s DNA and what they’d been taught and shown, and even though interest varies from the arts to education to health and social-justice issues, there seems to be limited formal channels that people embraced for their giving.

Vanessa

Do you see any challenges or issues or maybe even opportunity in how we develop the next generations of philanthropists or just you know those who are aware enough and connected enough to communities that they want to give?  So, in Silicon Valley, I believe it was last year, a report was commissioned by two foundations to talk about, it was called The Giving Code, and the focus of the report was to explore the changes in how donors and non-profit organizations connect, like what the language is of the older populations and what the needs are of the newer donors and how there’s often a disconnect.  And so, I wonder if there is a need to sort of have a framework for that giving in African-American communities and how do we make sure that the tradition of philanthropy where people feel empowered to give to their communities that we are sort of keeping that as part of the DNA and the infrastructure of what keeps communities alive.

Valaida

I mean, that’s an interesting [unclear] for sure, and one of my aspirations with the book is that it helps hold on to some of those traditions in the stories that people share and is presented in a way that can be used to engage younger generations and inform and inspire them.  I think it’s important, one, that as current generations of African-Americans recognize our giving as philanthropy, so that’s a starting point, before we can pass on some of that knowledge to others.  So, in recognizing our strength and power with philanthropy, the recognition of traditions that have brought us this far, but then also new tools and strategies and ways to practice philanthropy that we have access to today that perhaps historically we did not.  So, a combination and respect for both kind of strands of philanthropy, more the mainstream but then also African-American traditions of giving, and recognizing that strength and finding ways to engage younger generations in those examples and teaching them.  

So one, I think we need to catch up as adults and older generations and clarify and deepen our understanding of philanthropy as we look to include and pass it on to younger generations.  And, in addition to the book, the book was re-imagined as a museum exhibition – a multi-media museum exhibition – and one of the great things about the exhibit is it does provide a vehicle for having these conversations and passing on these stories visually and with technology and with stories and with gatherings where people can share.  And young people can come together and ask questions and share what they want to know and what they think and what values they hold and what interests them.  So, that’s one small part, but that is my contribution toward some of the work and the conversation is the creating places and tools to help sustain these traditions and raise our game when it comes to philanthropy as everyday givers.

Vanessa

Got it.  So that’s a great segue to my next question.  I heard that you were one of the architects of Black Philanthropy Month.  Can you share a little bit with me about what that is and what happens during that month.  I believe that’s in August.

Valaida

Yes.  So, I’d love to.  Yes.  In fact, one I would narrow it back.  February is Black History Month, and I think of Black History Month as a time to look back and reflect on our struggles and achievements and accomplishments as black people in America, and six months from now is Black Philanthropy Month, which is an opportunity to focus on the future and think about our philanthropy and how we can shape the next 100 years, 200 years, 300 years, two years from now.  So, yes, Black Philanthropy Month occurs in August.  It was founded by Jackie Copeland-Carson, who works in the field of philanthropy.  And it is a multi-media campaign aimed at informing, involving, inspiring and investing in black philanthropic leadership.  And, this year, 2018 will mark the eighth year that we’ve celebrating Black Philanthropy Month and, in fact, it’s a global celebration around African-descent giving.

And I would add, it’s grown and evolved over years.  Initially, I learned of Jackie when she announced it in 2011, and being an author and my book was just released about that time, and I also had a colleague who’s a fellow architect on the campaign, Tracy Webb.  She had a blog that she founded on black philanthropy, which was the first of its kind at the time.  And so, the three of us knew each other only loosely, but we had a common interest around lifting up and celebrating black giving and black philanthropy, and pushing against, or at least providing a counter narrative, to what philanthropy is and what philanthropy looks like.  And so we came together to become this team of architects and social innovators to help advance and see what could happen with Black Philanthropy Month.

And each year it grows and grows.  And it’s really a largely online campaign where we share stories, where we provide space to amplify a variety of voices and perspectives on giving.  And we encourage communities and institutions and individuals to take it and run, to use it as an opportunity, to celebrate donors, if you’re part of a non-profit or a museum or a foundation, celebrate your donors of color, and post gatherings to exchange ideas and to lift up important stories around giving and important educational opportunities as well.

Vanessa

And, is there a website or any place that people can go to to find out more information or to participate?

Valaida

Yes there is.  It is blackphilanthropymonth.com, and you can go there and learn more about it and start thinking about now what you can take on, what you’d like o see happen in your community wherever you are, in the U.S.  or globally, to celebrate African-descent giving.

Vanessa

As far as the look and the description of donors in the African-American community, did you find any differences related to what men wanted to give to what types of causes or maybe the typical financial impact of their philanthropic efforts as opposed to men?  Was there any sort of differences there or anything interesting or worth noting?

Valaida

Between black men’s giving and women’s giving?

Vanessa

Yes.

Valaida

Yeah.  I didn’t – nothing struck me on that topic specifically.  I didn’t note any distinctions across gender.  I will say one surprising thing though was around age and generation, as we were speaking earlier, around younger generations.  Initially, when I started with the book concept, and this is how I approached it.  So, I went to people and I said, “You’re known as a giver, a philanthropist in your community, what inspired you, who inspired you, to give back?  Who inspired you?”

And that approach helped people, because we’re taught to be humble in terms of our giving, rightfully so.  And a lot of people are uncomfortable with talking about their own philanthropy, and so to get a deeper, richer story, I asked people to shed light on someone else who had influenced their giving.  And, in doing so, you got insight on that individual that they were paying tribute to, but then also some insight on the individual who was sharing their story.

And, I initially thought it would be mainly elders in the community when I would ask, people would speak of family members or a mentor or someone in the community.  And, there was a lot of that, but there were plenty of examples of younger generations where older people found inspiration in how younger adults and even teenagers were giving and engaging in philanthropy.  So, that was a surprise and fortunate to be able to capture stories across – truly across – generations and to see that the traditions and many of the values and beliefs around giving still exist in the black community, that it’s not something that is fading away with older generations.

Vanessa

A lot of what I’ve been sort of hearing in different aspects of our work in social change is this idea of, of course, intersectionality, making sure that everyone is included, and then intergenerationality, making sure that the various generations are connected in conversation and learning from one another.  So, I think that this idea of this intergenerational approaches to philanthropy is very powerful in allowing everyone to express their thinking and their sort of emotional connection to causes and how they can sort of learn from one another.  So, I think that’s fantastic.  

As far as the size of the giving pool, like do we know annually what African-Americans philanthropy, is there like a number or an estimate of how much money African-Americans pour into the giving pool?

Valaida

I haven’t seen any data on that recently, but about five or six years ago, there was data that said it estimate, this is U.S.  on black giving, it was estimated at, I believe it’s $11 billion.  And, again, that only reflects what’s formally captured, generally through tax returns and that information.  So, a large share of our giving isn’t formally captured, because of the ways we give and you know it’s not always only for tax purposes, so it doesn’t show up in that data necessarily.  So, that’s a wonderful number and knowing it’s likely far greater than that.

Vanessa

Wow.

Valaida

Yeah, and in recognizing that and knowing the generosity that exists and the fact that overall, we’re the most generous racial ethnic group in American in terms of the percentage of our disposable income that we give toward charitable causes, that is also an opportunity for black Americans to be more focused in our giving.  So, that’s one of our aspirations, and in fact, part of some of the tagline with the exhibit that I spoke of earlier, is that we want to see more conscious giving for social change.  So, we’re known to be generous people.  There are as tremendous as well reported and recorded gaps and disparities in the black community, and so perhaps recognizing that we do engage in philanthropy, because I think that’s still a question among people outside the black community as well as black Americans, that we could sharpen our focus and how we give for greater impact in our own communities.

Vanessa

I think that’s an awesome call to action that feels to me personally very doable and very necessarily.  So, thanks for pointing that out.  I want to take a peek into the future.  If you were looking ahead five years from now, what changes would you predict in philanthropy as it relates to African-Americans?

Valaida

Well, in general when I think about philanthropy, there are kind of two big realms.  One, there’s institutional philanthropy and the foundations that make grants and help lead change often times.  And then there’s the everyday giving and the practice of philanthropy by individual people.  And as far as institutional philanthropy, I guess it’s the predictor of the future is performance and behavior, past performance and behavior.  I’m not all that encouraged, because the changes in institutional philanthropy have been really, really stunningly slow.

Vanessa

You’re being very kind.

Valaida

Yes.  I’m trying to be.  And in fact, just as a reminder, as if I could ever forget that, I saw a report that I think the council and foundations just released this week about racial minorities being under-represented at all levels in American foundations, which is no surprise if you ever go to the conferences or gatherings of foundations professionals of philanthropy professionals, it’s stunning how not diverse those gatherings are often times.  And so, for me, the real opportunity exists in engaging people outside of institutions, including people who work in philanthropy, but engaging them outside of that realm.  

And that’s where I come from and many of the people who I’ve seen leading change in their communities are not professionals in philanthropy.  And so, I guess I hope I have for the future is that growing numbers of us represented through giving circles and other collective giving groups and other legacy black institutions and black-led foundations can be more well connected in influencing change in community members and help court community-led philanthropy in the black community.  

And so, for me, that’s where the opportunity exists and increasingly I’m encouraged by the increasing number of giving circles that I see and people practicing philanthropy and using the term and recognizing what role they can play in changing their community with their small gifts or their big gifts and just their philanthropic thinking.  And so I’m optimistic about that and I think that’s really where the change can come with new expectations for diversity and foundation, articulated by community people, and more public pressure and accountability to help foundations make change and sustain that change in terms of being more reflective of the communities they serve.

Vanessa

If someone is listening to this interview and they’re inspired to start giving or to increase their giving but they don’t know what to do or where to go, are there any particular resources you would lead them to or any questions that you would tell them to ponder to sort of help guide their giving?

Valaida

Well, for me that is an area of opportunity, because I can’t speak to a go-to resource in that way, particular for perspective black donors or black donors who want to know more and connect more.  That is one of the opportunities that exist in this work and in this movement around black philanthropy, is that I‘ve found at least not, I’d love to hear if something exists that I’m unaware of, but that there are some barriers to connecting across communities and sharing ideas and supporting thought leadership and exchanging information on what’s working and what’s not working.

So, while in distinct communities I see great things happening and conversations and focus work that often times people are coming together because they want to create community change at a local level.  But, in terms of looking more broadly across communities and  connecting, I don’t know of a single resource that can provide the data and research that often times people are seeking, and sustainable connections around individual donors and collecting giving groups and foundations.

So, that is one area, I guess I lament, that I don’t – as often as I would like – I don’t see a strong organization that can provide that and link from institutional philanthropy while – I mean some of these plenty groups exist for institutional philanthropy, and black professionals in philanthropy.  I don’t see a comparable national resource for everyday givers that may have the questions that you just raised.

Vanessa

One of the things that just came into my mind, and I’m not sure if this is a question you can answer, but I wanted to ask anyway.  As far as celebrities and athletes, entertainers, have you seen any research or work that documents their contributions?  Like, we are seeing more and more of these celebrities being involved in social movements and sort of speaking up about causes.  But I don’t know, I don’t have data that sort of can say either way.  Do we know if they are putting their dollars behind these causes and if it’s making an impact for African-American causes?

Valaida

I do not know.  I do not know about that, but I am encouraged.  I mean, part of the work I get to do is lifting up some of those stories from athletes as well as the whole range of donors through Black Philanthropy Month.  And lifting up these stories, but I don’t have any concrete data on impact or numbers, regrettably.  And this is what I spoke to earlier about the dearth of resources or organizations who can advance or collect that information and advance it, which again goes back to the council and foundations report about foundation and the philanthropic realm.  As far as it being more reflective of community would lift up stories or have interest and areas of focus that align to interest in black communities.  So that disconnect exists.  I’m clear on that, I guess.

Vanessa

Got it.  And my last question, clearly, this is a topic that we’re both passionate about, so we could talk for a long time, but I want to keep my promise with the time.  Is there anything else that you would like to share that would help someone to just think more deeply, to be more mindful about what philanthropy is?  I know often times when I’m speaking with people, there’s a lot of hesitation and doubt around their modest contributions, making any impact, and I always encourage people to give what they can, and every dollar helps to move the needle.  So, is there anything that you would like to share with any listeners who are either trying to think about how to give or any institutions, any non-profit organizations, that are trying to figure out how they can connect with African-American philanthropists.

Valaida

Yeah, certainly.  One big reminder is that philanthropy is deeper than your pockets.  So, when people get hung up on how many zeros are behind the dollar sign on the check, I like to remind them that that’s only a piece of philanthropy and one of the things that we’ve worked to lift up in the exhibit, The Soul of Philanthropy, as well as in the book, is that, for me, this is a personal belief, but also shared by my giving circle and something that my giving circle members embrace, is that the most potent philanthropy is a combination of your mind, so yes, you need to be analytical and thoughtful and do your research on what issue you want to address and the non-profit and charitable organizations who are doing effective work in that realm.  

You’ve got to bring your mind to the mix.  Also, your heart.  You can’t deny what you’re just drawn to and what you feel.  And we all have our own things that move us.  And so tapping into your heart and what you’re drawn to and care about is also your hand and it’s all the ways you can give.  So, it’s the time-telling treasure, it’s writing a check, it’s patting somebody on the back, it’s lifting somebody up, all the ways you can affect change through action.  And then, the fourth one is your soul.  And for us, that is your core identity, who you are.  If you need to bring yourself to your giving.  And whether that’s your identity as an African-American or as a mother or as a southerner or as a Christian, tap into those facts and bring that into your giving.  And so the most potent philanthropy is a thoughtful balance of your mind, your heart, your hands and your soul.  

And the book and the exhibit lift that up through imagery, but many of the stories people have shared show that that has been powerful for them and in their engagement in communities as well.  So, it doesn’t have to be complicated, but you do have to have some awareness and give in a conscious way and a thoughtful way.

Vanessa

Valaida, thank you so much.  I’ve enjoyed our conversation and I look forward to us chatting again.

Valaida

Thank you! 

Vanessa

Valaida’s book and her comments today really highlight the history of giving in African-American communities.  As we witness the grass-roots movements that are being birthed today, I think there is an opportunity to return to our roots and how we give.  There are many, many examples as she talked about of people giving, of generosity, and maybe there is power in us reframing the donor experience around how we connect to individuals, and seeing if that’s a way to move the needle on some of the issues that we’re trying to address in the world.

So, if you enjoyed this episode of the Social Change Diaries, please leave a review or share it with a friend.  Thank you.