Poisoned Philanthropy: The dangers of becoming the “white moderate” that MLK warned us about
I have been thinking of George Floyd’s brutal murder by the police and of the protests happening in Minneapolis, nationwide, and globally. I am at a loss on what to do and how to support our Black friends and colleagues, and family members who have constantly suffered under the pervasive violence of white supremacy and racism. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have any encouraging words for you at this moment. I am just angry and sad.
And to be honest, I am also frustrated by the nonprofit sector. I love our field and the people in it. There is so much good that comes from our work. In the most challenging of times, we have often been a beacon of light. There are many amazing organizations and leaders organizing protests, working tirelessly to change unjust laws, lifting up people in need, providing food and shelter and hope. Thank you for all that you do, and for doing it in a time when there is so much community need even as your resources drastically dwindle.
But as I watch the news and hear of police running over protesters, white nationalists creating chaos and confusion so they can blame peaceful demonstrators, and our racist president stoking the fires of hatred and violence again and again—it makes we wonder if our sector is equipped to help bend the arc toward justice, or if we have collectively become the “white moderate” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls the biggest barrier for equity and justice for Black people and thus for us all.
From his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
We have seen this out in the world, in people who call for “civility” during heated dialogues about injustice, who advocate for folks to see “both sides,” who play devil’s advocate in the name of differences in perspectives, while claiming to be aligned with equity and progress. Right now they are the people who are worried about property damage, who insist “not all cops” are bad, who loudly proclaim that rioting is not the answer. Even as the police continue to murder Black people for centuries without any repercussion, these folks continue to prioritize this “negative peace” and lack of tension to actual justice.
In nonprofit and philanthropy, the white moderate thrives. Foundations, it manifests in your white-moderate hoarding of assets, refusing to increase payout beyond the bare minimum even while the fires of injustice rage on. Your white-moderate reluctance to fund Black, Indigenous, and other communities-of-color-led organizations over decades has contributed to all these problems. Your white-moderate disdain of funding advocacy and systems change work has let the fires spread unchecked. Your white-moderate discomfort with saying words like “white supremacy” and “slavery” and “reparation,” insistence on order and bureaucracy through grant applications and budgets and deadlines, dismissal of solutions proposed by marginalized communities in favor of those proposed by educated white elites, gravitation toward long timelines at your convenience—these things make you part of the problem even as we look to you for help to solve problems.
Nonprofits, we are equally guilty of white moderation. Our white-moderate fundraising philosophies and practices are centered entirely on making donors who are mostly white feel good about themselves. This prevents meaningful conversations about how white folks are benefitting from a racist system that has allowed them to build collective wealth through slavery and colonization, and their role in ending it. Without these conversations and the necessary actions that ensue, we nonprofits often become a fig leaf, a hobby for the rich, a self-reinforcing cycle of pity-and-heroism that prevents the actualization of true justice. This white-donor-centered fundraising system, fueled by white moderation, has caused untold damage to our work of building a just world.
The rest of us are not off the hook either. We continue to intellectualize, spending resources and time on research that demonstrate again and again what we already know, which is that all systems are racist. We stop at building logic models and having meetings and summits and believe that we’re making some sort of difference. We treat equity like an afterthought. The people with the most formal power at our organizations are still glaringly white. We shy away from politics.
The white moderate actively avoids anything controversial, anything that could be seen as “political.” Board members and organization leaders, if you cannot publicly call out white supremacy, if you can’t denounce white nationalism, if in this moment when millions are risking their lives in a pandemic to protest against police racism and you think it’s too political or uncomfortable to say that Black lives matter and act/fund accordingly, then you are a white moderate and you are part of the problem.
Moderates though are not just white. The “white moderate” is an archetype of those who defend the status quo, insist on incremental change, and yet claim moral high ground. Plenty of people of color fall into this category. POC moderates, even as they have less relative power, can be even more destructive, as they are often weaponized by white moderates to prevent change. We non-Black people of color must examine and counteract our deeply internalized anti-Blackness and desired proximity to whiteness, or we too are part of the problem.
Our sector, comprising both nonprofit and philanthropy, is at risk of further spiraling into one giant white moderate that’s blocking the path toward a just society. Shielded by our expressed purpose to make the world better and intoxicated by our own savior narrative, we have entrenched some terrible philosophies and practices that perpetuate white supremacy and racism and have contributed to the murders that we are now protesting.
The leaders of color I know, especially Black leaders, are exhausted, driven to burn out and despair, and often it is not because of overt racists and bigots, but because of the moderates within our own sector. Often they are our colleagues, our peers, our supporters: board members and executive directors who are most concerned about offending donors or upsetting sponsors; funders who cling on to archaic practices like restricted one-year grants and refuse to fund systems change work; consultants who throw cold water on bold, ambitious ideas in favor of small less-risky steps toward progress.
So the answer is yes. Yes, we have as a sector become the White Moderate that Dr. King warned us about. But it is not too late. We can stop this spiral. It starts by recognizing that all of us, whether we are white or POC, are capable of engaging in white moderate behaviors, often without even intending to or realizing it—just like white folks can still engage in racist actions even as they consider themselves “not racist,” and I and other non-Black people of color can still take anti-Black actions even when we think of ourselves as pretty pro-Black. Once we have this realization, it is much easier to spot when our words and actions are aligned with white moderation and work to mitigate them.
Foundations, allocate money to organizations led by Black communities and other communities of color. Fund advocacy and systems change work. Remove your white-moderate-based deadlines and burdensome grant processes, because injustice does not work on a schedule based on your mostly white board members’ availability. Increase your payout rate. I can’t think of anything in philanthropy more white-moderate than the insistence on hoarding 95% of your assets for the future when there may not be a future for anyone except wealthy white people at this rate. Sign this petition asking Congress to enact legislation requiring foundations’ minimum payout to be doubled to 10% for the next three years.
Nonprofits, helping people, animals, and the environment is crucial, but it is not enough. Your work must be grounded by racial equity and social justice, no matter what your mission is. We must stop our intellectualizing and equivocating, a hallmark of white moderation, and be louder and take more actions to end systemic injustice, even if they are risky and piss people off. We must engage in politics. We must do some deep soul-searching on many of our practices and how they may be perpetuating inequity and work to fix them, especially fundraising.
For Dr. King, the biggest threat to our Black community members’ safety and freedom, and thus safety and freedom for us all, is not the KKK bearing torches and burning crosses, but the white moderate standing on the side insisting on “civility,” insisting on the oppressed cooperating and working within the system that oppresses them. White supremacy is propped up by white moderation. This is a critical lesson for us in nonprofit and philanthropy. All of us must ask ourselves and our teams what actions have we been taking that are aligned with white moderation, and what actions we must now take to get on the right path.
Getting on the right path, the path heading away from white moderation and toward true equity and justice, will be hard to do. It requires us all to to give up things that we cherish, including our sense of comfort and many of our ideals. Let us take inspiration from Ruhel Islam, the owner of Gandhi Mahal, a beloved restaurant in Minneapolis that burned down during the protests. While white moderates focus on and lecture against violence and property damage as the right response to the murder of George Floyd and countless other Black people, Mr. Islam said: “Let my building burn, Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.“
Library of Congress
Originally published as Have nonprofit and philanthropy become the “white moderate” that Dr. King warned us about?