Racial equity is an internal engine
Angelique Power was appointed president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation in 2021, the third Black woman to lead the Detroit-based foundation. A Chicago native, Power previously served as president of the Field Foundation of Illinois, as program director at the Joyce Foundation, and as director of community engagement and communications at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Power also is co-founder of Enrich Chicago, which is focused on anti-racism organizing, and Just Action, which helps civic organizations follow through on the racial equity statements they made in 2020.
In 2022, The Skillman Foundation, whose staff is 60 percent BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and whose board members are 67 percent BIPOC, conducted a racial equity audit. The analysis of spending by race—from its grantmaking to operations to endowment practices—found that the data fell short of the organization’s values. The foundation took immediate action, including tracking the racial composition of all organizations proposed for funding and highlighting that data in its internal investment reviews and board approvals, streamlining its application process, and increasing allocation to diverse investment managers.
Philanthropy News Digest asked Power about what the foundation called “[p]roof that values without measured action fall flat,” ongoing efforts to address the gap between vision and data, its new organizational and grantmaking strategy, and her outlook for 2023.
Philanthropy News Digest: The racial equity audit found that, from 2019 to 2021, 59 percent of the foundation’s grants and 61 percent of grant dollars went to organizations with BIPOC leaders, but when the race of grantees’ board members were taken into account, the numbers went down to 29 percent of grants and 25 percent of grant dollars. Why does it seem more difficult to advance racial/ethnic diversity on nonprofit boards than among executives, and what are the implications for advancing racial equity?
Angelique Power: While being BIPOC-led—meaning having a person of color in the leadership seat—is extremely important, at The Skillman Foundation we understand that racial equity work requires doing an analysis of power as well. Who holds power inside of any organization? It’s certainly the senior leadership, but it’s also the board, whose impact reaches so much farther than funding. Board members have oversight of an organization’s mission, programming, governance, staffing, and so on. When the majority of a board is far removed from the community being served—which may have to do with race, geography, experience, and more—blind spots happen in decision making.
The Skillman Foundation is based in the sparkling Black and brown city of Detroit, working with and for its youngest visionaries. We know that identifying organizations that are really rooted in Detroit’s communities means looking beyond staff to discover what a holistic BIPOC organization is and if we are funding those most proximate to the mission.
And—let’s face it—there are many, many nonprofit boards made up of folks of color and staff of color serving communities of color, especially in wonderful cities like Detroit. So, the racial equity audit is really about asking ourselves in philanthropy if we are funding these organizations in good stead. If we are not, we must ask what about our practices and processes is preventing us from achieving this and how we can change it.
PND: As of February 2022, just 2 percent of the foundation’s endowment investments were in BIPOC-owned assets—defined as U.S.-based firms with more than 50 percent ownership held by racially diverse members of the business—while 27 percent of your investment managers were BIPOC. You’ve set a goal to increase allocation to diverse investment managers to at least 10 percent of the portfolio over the next five years—but can you put that 2 percent in context? What are the obstacles to endowments investing more in BIPOC-owned assets? What are the implications for BIPOC businesses and wealth building?
AP: When I introduced the racial equity audit to our board of trustees, the very first thing I shared was this truism: The most unique thing about this is that we did it. It’s not the data that is surprising, but the fact that we did the research. Lift the hood on most foundations’ endowments and you would sadly be lucky to find 2 percent invested in BIPOC-owned assets, or 4 percent, which is where we now are, since conducting the audit.
There are many processes and vetting procedures involved in bringing funds into endowments. Much of this comes down to the investment advisor you have and how they emphasize finding BIPOC funds. In this space, you may run into the oft-trotted-out untrue trope that when you tie your endowment to your mission you sacrifice returns. The research continually proves that BIPOC-owned funds actually outperform benchmarks.
At The Skillman Foundation, we know that economic realities are linked to educational access, health access, and other social determinants of health. We recognize that we need to use all of the tools at our disposal to change the odds for Detroit youth. Leveraging the endowment to ensure we are able to make grants in the short term while changing the economic playing field underpins our work and becomes a multiplier effect. We are proud to work with our investment firm, Investure, on this and an incredible Investment Committee to boot.
PND: As a co-founder of Just Action, you were helping Chicago nonprofits assess their racial equity practices and build new standards by acknowledging history, shifting power, and embracing accountability. How surprised were you that The Skillman Foundation’s data did not match up with its values, specifically: being “equity focused, diversity driven, and inclusion minded”? What are the barriers that grantmakers face, despite their intentions?
AP: Actually, it was because of my experience with Just Action and working inside corporate and philanthropic entities that compelled me to conduct this audit. Much of the time, racial equity is thought of as having a statement. As having our heart in the right place. As small, often tokenistic gestures to show a few people of color have access.
One of the most surprising things for staff to see was that, even in our own BIPOC foundation, even in categories where we were engaging a majority of BIPOC partners or vendors, some of our biggest grants and contracts were landing with white-led organizations. These tend to be organizations who have had healthy investment and have been able to grow in capacity and reputation.
The solution to rightsizing this is to do your research. Ensure you’re considering BIPOC organizations and track these decisions. Because the truth is, BIPOC organizations, nonprofits and for-profits alike, are underinvested in. They tend to have less access to capital and fewer development opportunities. Black nonprofit leaders in Detroit will tell you about the hoops they are asked to jump through for a fraction of the funding that their white counterparts are granted. They end up having to do more for less and are too often punished for it.
Good intentions are great. But if it matters, measure. And if you measure, make it public.
We have a board member, Pastor Solomon Kinloch, who often reminds us that one should never grade their own paper. There is almost no accountability in philanthropy. If we are in service of community, then community members are our bosses. We wanted to give our community data to hold us accountable to do what we say we are doing.
There are, of course, reasons for the lack of funding going to BIPOC organizations. Much of it is chalked up as “good philanthropic practice.” For instance, when we ask, “But can it scale?” what we are asking is if the organization has the capacity to multiply its efforts. This means it has to already have garnered a significant amount of capital. When we set false criteria like a budget threshold to receive our grant funding, or only allow ourselves to give a certain percentage of the total budget size, we ensure that we keep some organizations in and others out.
At The Skillman Foundation, we sought to understand where we were working against ourselves. We questioned notions of “capacity,” of “expertise,” of “scale.” If we are going to ensure young Detroiters are able to design their own destiny and ours, solutions must be informed by those most proximate and capital and power must be built among Black and brown Detroiters, who make up the vast majority (85 percent) of the city’s population. This is about ensuring people of color have access to capital and support, too.
Racial equity is an internal engine that helps every organization go further, faster.
PND: Among the commitments the foundation has made in response to the audit were to simplify and streamline the application process and to change the grantmaking model “to focus on people and systems change, supporting the power of Detroiters to design bold destinies.” Can you elaborate a little on how the grantmaking model is evolving to center local residents—both generally and specifically in advancing racial equity?
AP: Detroit’s future has long been determined by Lansing’s favor. This is a moment for the city of Detroit—a landmark of Black and brown genius—to work with a broad coalition of people across the state to design an equitable education system that serves all our children well.
At times, The Skillman Foundation has been deeply community embedded in our education work, and at times it has done impactful policy work. What’s become clear is that the foundation is at its best when we do both—and even better when those most impacted by education policy are the designers of education policy change. That’s the shorthand: We are investing in people and in policy—and in people most proximate and impacted to change policy.
This is done with a keen racial equity and racial justice lens. Our work is rooted in young people, educators, and community members who care for our kids, leading us to equitable education systems. Our internal work will be guided by our racial equity practices and our external funding will be rooted in racial justice tenants.
PND: I understand that the shift in the grantmaking model is part of a new organizational strategy informed by Detroit youth and local residents in support of youth-centered and community-led systems change in education policy. Given that the foundation has long been focused on children and youth, what will be the most salient differences between the new strategy and the previous one?
AP: The thoughtful ways The Skillman Foundation has approached investments in kids and education have varied over the decades. I caught up on a lot of it through a year-long listening tour with Detroiters and a 40-year history walk of our education initiatives that we conducted internally.
What we heard and learned was that the “secret sauce” for Skillman is that we are based in Detroit and surrounded by the grit and grace of Detroiters. Especially young Detroiters, who told us that they have been grappling with an education system that was never designed to serve them well. This generation of young people are ready to take it on. Today’s youth understand systems and aren’t held back by memories of the past. They are powerful, insightful, and ready.
We’re supporting their ability to redesign an education system that helps them build skills to be independent, creative thinkers that solve old problems and forge new worlds. An education system that is accessible and engaging to all. We’re also supporting Detroit educators and community members to stand alongside the city’s youth in pursuit of education policy and systems change opportunities.
Young people are also changing the way we operate inside of The Skillman Foundation. We now have a Youth Council consisting of 14 paid consultants who inform our strategies and direct their own grantmaking. We have a young person (21 years old) on our board of trustees for the first time in our 62-year history. We’re using our influence to ensure young people are part of policy conversations and decision making.
PND: Last year, The Skillman Foundation created a fund for youth-led wellness grants, which funded 40 projects. With the well-being of young people becoming an even greater concern in the last few years, can you speak to the importance of letting youth take the lead?
AP: This generation of young people is different. Their lives have been marked by a pandemic and heightened political and social unrest, and yet, they are hopeful and activated. Research on Generation Z shows they’re highly socially astute, politically engaged, and motivated to make the world a better place for all. They are also 48 percent BIPOC, one in five identify as LGBTQIA+, and one in three knows someone who is gender nonbinary.
Their thinking is different, too. They are intersectional in their identities and in their identifying of overlapping systemic issues and potential solutions. Youth organizers often call for education justice and climate justice, reforms to criminal justice and to health systems. They link arms with folks of all backgrounds and geographies. They speak their minds, are comfortable centering their own mental health and wellness, and think about the world symbiotically, rather than what’s best for them as individuals in this moment.
We know Gen Z are the perfect designers of many solutions needed today. Certainly, at The Skillman Foundation, we need them to reinvent philanthropy.
Watching young people thoughtfully discuss projects, funding, rubrics, and all the ways needed to support one’s wellness in this moment in history was a true education for us.
This hasn’t happened through the youth-led wellness grants alone, but through the leadership of our powerful Youth Council.
PND: This year Candid is launching Demographics via Candid to provide a sector-wide standardized benchmark measurement for reporting the demographic composition of nonprofits, enable them to upload their data where it can be easily accessed by grantmakers, reduce duplicate requests, and allow them to focus on their missions. Are you aware of the project, and do you think such efforts will help spur more funders to conduct racial equity audits—and, in turn, advance racial equity practices across the sector?
AP: Yes! This is a great development for the field and a timesaver for nonprofits. We plan to replace our internal collection with use of this tool as uptake grows. Currently, our grants management platform provider, FLUXX, is working with Candid to integrate this data.
I hope it encourages other funders, and our sector on the whole, to track and report racial equity data more frequently and freely going forward. If we don’t ask, we cannot track. If we don’t all ask the same questions, we create more work for the nonprofit and we cannot report out in a cohesive way.
We are cheering on Candid and others as we all move to put teeth in our racial equity work to try to make lasting change. Our missions are depending on it.