Equitable Philanthropy Case Study: The 1954 Project Approach

Photo courtesy of The 1954 Project

This piece was originally published by The Bridgespan Group and is re-posted with permission.

Founded by philanthropists Liz and Don Thompson of the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education (The Cafe) to upend the chronic underinvestment in Black-led organizations, The 1954 Project seeks to radically redesign how philanthropy connects with Black leaders in education. The Thompsons note, ” The 1954 Project specifically invests in Black leaders because this is the community for which we have lived experience and first-hand expertise.” This overview from The Bridgespan Group introduces readers to The 1954 Project’s work and how it has invested in Black leaders as it explores how philanthropy can evolve to overcome race-based barriers to capital. Download the full case study on The 1954 Project here to learn more.

Overview: The 1954 Project Approach to Equitable Philanthropy

Investing in Black leaders and organizations is a powerful opportunity for impact. Over and over again, such leaders have been able to achieve significant results with a fraction of the resources of their white counterparts. Case in point: The 1954 Project is radically redesigning how philanthropy connects with Black leaders in education, not only by upending chronic underinvestment, but also by reinventing how investments are made.

This case study provides an overview of the ways The 1954 Project has invested in Black leaders as it explores how philanthropy can evolve to overcome race-based barriers to capital. The 1954 Project is early on its path, yet other funders can learn from its work to better understand what the work of equitable philanthropy entails.1

The Urgency to Invest in Black Leadership

Despite their impact, Black-led organizations face significant race-based barriers to funding, whether from philanthropy, federal funding, or corporate fundingResearch conducted by Echoing Green and The Bridgespan Group found that among organizations of a similar stage and caliber, the average revenues of Black-led organizations were 24 percent smaller than their white-led counterparts, and the unrestricted assets of Black-led organizations were 76 percent smaller. Furthermore, organizations led by Black women received less money than those run by white women and Black men—underscoring the intersecting barriers along lines of race and gender.

Among organizations in Echoing Green’s Black Male Achievement Fellowship, which focuses on improving the life outcomes of Black men and boys in the United States, the revenues of the Black-led organizations were 45 percent smaller than those of the white-led organizations, and the unrestricted net assets of the Black-led organizations were a whopping 91 percent smaller than the white-led organizations—despite focusing on the same work. This pattern extends to the largest organizations working on racial equity—more than a third of the top 20 racial equity grant recipients are organizations that were launched and driven by white business leaders.

While some donors stepped up their funding to Black-led organizations in recent years, these “crisis donations” have not been enough to address the compounding disparity of historical underinvestment. Black-led organizations not only are disproportionally underfunded, but the funding they do secure is often shorter-term and less flexible. Endowments and other long-term capital commitments to assets are a common way of making large gifts to institutional nonprofits. As of 2018, endowments to high-profile Black-led social change organizations such as the NAACP, the Equal Justice Initiative, and Community Change amounted to zero.

There are deeply harmful consequences of inadequate funding for Black leaders and organizations. In general, these organizations are forced to dedicate more of their time to fundraising, rather than to directly advancing their strategies. Understaffing can contribute to burnout. Lack of unrestricted funding and lack of sufficient general operating support starve the core infrastructure and functions of an organization (HR, finance, executive leadership, etc.). In addition, inadequate funding makes it much harder for leaders to take risks, “fail” productively, and learn, which can stall innovation.

Lastly, even though The 1954 Project’s experience is specifically with Black-led organizations, make no mistake, there are lessons here for the investment in all leaders of color. Although Black-led organizations continue to succeed despite chronic underfunding, these organizations may never reach their full potential unless they have the support and financial security to dream.

Unfortunately, race-based barriers to funding and chronic underinvestment are widely shared experiences. We point this out because a world where organizations led by people of color cannot afford to dream is a world where equity and justice fail to flourish.

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How the 1954 Project is Investing in Black Leadership

When analyzing The 1954 Project’s work, The Bridgespan Group found four themes that emerged as design principles consistently shaping its approach to supporting Black leaders:

  • Belief in Black excellence. The 1954 Project starts with a fundamental belief in the unique assets of Black leaders, rejecting the deficit-based narrative that many Black leaders encounter. It recognizes the strengths that exist in the Black community and respects lived experience as a valuable source of knowledge.
  • Authentic relationships. The 1954 Project recognizes that when people work collectively and feel fully seen, they do their best work. So the organization builds balanced, reciprocal relationships with the leaders it supports, rather than reinforcing power imbalances between donors and leaders. The 1954 Project also believes that it is critical to build a broader coalition of values-aligned actors grounded in joy and love for the Black community, all of whom have a role to play.
  • Culture of learning and growth. The 1954 Project acknowledges that it will need to learn and adapt along the way. It is committed to responding to feedback and making improvements and adjustments every year.
  • Transparency. In everything The 1954 Project does, it strives to be clear, open, and honest. Transparency is a pillar of anti-racist values and helps to hold The 1954 Project accountable as well as to open avenues for feedback and learning.

Download the full case study to learn more about The 1954 Project’s approach.

Partner Perspectives

1954 Project finalist Verneé Green, CEO of Mikva Challenge, which uses civic engagement programs to develop young people nationwide to be empowered, informed, and active citizens who promote a just and equitable society, talks about the network she built through The 1954 Project.

Finalist David Merritt, founder and president of Give Merit, which works to prevent young people in Detroit from dropping out of high school, shares thoughts on his 1954 Project experience.


1 The Bridgespan Group has provided advisory services to The 1954 Project. However, it has not directly been involved with much of the work described in this case study.

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.