Calling Family Foundation Board Members to Join a Journey on Racial Justice

Mary Mountcastle, June Wilson, and Kelly Nowlin speaking at the 2019 National Forum on Family Philanthropy

Learn more about the Racial Justice Learning and Action Network.

In 2018, the National Center for Family Philanthropy (NCFP) announced its second class of fellows, naming Kelly Nowlin, June Wilson, and Mary Mountcastle as distinguished fellows. Each of us independently chose to focus our fellowship work on racial equity. Coming together we worked to support one another, challenge established thinking, and lead racial equity conversations at NCFP’s National Forum on Family Philanthropy and Trustee Education Institute, as well as on panels within the NCFP community. We were excited to continue our learning and think about how better to partner with other family foundation trustees engaging in these conversations. A learning and action network seemed like the perfect way to achieve this.

Little did we know that 2020 would be such an extraordinary year for NCFP and the larger world. That year, as NCFP was in the midst of shepherding a leadership transition, our world, our communities, and our lives experienced unparalleled change. We watched as philanthropy was called to account for the ways its policies and practices drive and determine the flow of resources. Many foundations stepped up in the face of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, increasing their grantmaking budgets, and being more responsive to nonprofits by simplifying requirements and moving resources more quickly. Giving families elevated trust-based philanthropy practices, centering the communities most impacted, trusting that those closest to the issues know best what is needed.

In the fall of 2020, as part of NCFP’s strategic planning process, the organization began explicitly naming racial justice as a crucial lens for philanthropic effectiveness. To that end, NCFP launched a field wide survey and fellows—along with NCFP’s Founding President and Senior Fellow Ginny Esposito—began conducting foundation interviews to better understand the landscape, the interests, and the factors supporting family foundations’ ability and desires to engage in racial equity, racial justice, or anti-racist practices. Fourteen of the eighteen foundations interviewed were committed to racial equity, racial justice, or anti-racists practices, either through their grantmaking practices or through their governance policies. The remaining four were still at the early stage of exploration.

The interviews revealed the following reasons trustees and family principals explored racial equity work:

  • Relational: Family members had a significant relationship with a person of color, either as a personal friend, through a childhood friendship, a co-worker, colleague, or caregiver/domestic worker relationship.
  • Experiential: Family members had exposure to training or participated in a deep-dive conversation of race, and structural and systemic racism through other networks (such as Women Donors Network, Solidaire, Resource Generation, regional or other issue-focused philanthropy serving organization). Some participated in a meaningful trip such as a visit to the US South, an underground railroad tour, a trip to The National Museum of African Amercian History and Culture, National Memorial for Peace and Justice, The Legacy Museum or an organized multi-day experience such as The Impact Experience; to name a few.
  • Leadership: The foundation’s Executive Director/CEO or family trustee influenced the family from a values perspective.
  • Effectiveness: All foundations agreed that greater racial awareness to the impacts of systemic and structural racism contribute to genuine impact on the causes and communities they serve.

The interviews additionally revealed:

  • Family trustees are reluctant to engage directly in racial equity when the activity is seen or experienced as political or divisive.
  • Some family trustees fundamentally believe that racial equity work is the work of staff and enacted solely through grantmaking and doesn’t involve the board. In these cases, the CEO/Executive Director often feels alienated from or in conflict with the board.

These interviews were instrumental in informing the shape and plan of the Racial Justice Learning and Action Network.

Bari Katz and Edgar Villanueva, curriculum developers and cohort facilitators, are currently guiding the shape of the curriculum design with care and purpose for the trustees who will participate. The Learning and Action Network cohort will focus on trustees who are at an early stage of exploring racial equity and justice. Concurrent to the activities of the cohort, salons will be offered to the broader sector further augmenting the reach of the curriculum, as well as activating the shared expertise of the community. The salons will highlight peers who are applying practical tools to effect racial justice. This nine-month learning journey will culminate in a symposium in the fourth quarter of 2021.

“Bari and Edgar have worked with the Andrus family for years as the creator and facilitator of our next gen social justice program and as a community Board member of the Andrus Family Fund respectively. I have experienced first-hand the deep impacts of their contributions and the gifts they have for meeting people where they are, holding and honoring space for challenging conversations and building a collective spirit and commitment for social justice. The Racial Justice Learning and Action Network is more about a powerful journey than simply a training experience.”

— Kelly Nowlin, Trustee and Chair of the Andrus Family Philanthropy Program, Surdna Foundation

As many of us know, building a practice and culture in support of racial justice requires deep personal and collective learning, growth and vulnerability. Yet, the importance of this cannot be overstated if we in philanthropy seek to build and support vibrant and resilient communities. We invite family foundation board members to apply to join us for NCFP’s inaugural Racial Justice Learning and Action Network to deepen engagement with issues of race in philanthropy and emerge more prepared to improve your grantmaking and governance practices.

June Wilson is the executive director emerita of the Quixote Foundation and NCFP Fellow.

Kelly Nowlin is a trustee at the Surdna Foundation and NCFP Fellow.

Mary Mountcastle is a trustee at the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and NCFP Distinguished Fellow.

Ginny Esposito is the founding president and senior fellow at NCFP.