Showing Our Work: Moving Towards Racial Equity in Grantmaking

The Boston Foundation Arts & Culture team, the Barr Foundation and the Mayor's Office of Arts & Culture center racial equity, transparency and accountability in new approach to grantmaking.

February 26, 2021

By Eva Rosenberg, Interim Director of Arts & Culture

At the start of the year, our partners at the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Culture (MOAC) announced a collaboration with the Barr Foundation and the Boston Foundation to provide $425,000 in unrestricted, one-time $25,000 grants plus convening and capacity-building supports for seventeen Black, Indigenous, and other people of color arts and cultural organizations in Greater Boston. TBF’s contribution to this pooled fund was part of our larger COVID-19 Response Fund initiative, which focuses on supporting a just and equitable recovery.

In our conversations with arts leaders over the past year, my colleague Kara Elliott-Ortega, Chief of Arts & Culture for the City of Boston, and I heard repeatedly that BIPOC and culturally-specific arts organizations working in community have the strong relationships and adaptive capacity to act in times of crisis (such as a pandemic) when the effects of systemic racism are even more keenly felt. However, these same organizations are often critically underfunded both because of historical underinvestment in arts and culture in the Boston area, and due to philanthropic redlining across sectors and communities, including by the Boston Foundation, that keeps them fragile and below scale. With that history and the current reality in mind, MOAC and the Boston Foundation sought to take a different approach and, we hope, to inspire conversation about how we and other funders and donors in the arts and other fields can deepen our support for work towards racial justice.

Animal Heads
First, we sought to be more intentionally aware of the burden different grant-making processes can place on applicants and nonprofit partners from BIPOC communities, especially at this time. While open application processes are considered a best practice in philanthropy, and both TBF and MOAC award significant grant funds through open, participatory processes, we knew that BIPOC leaders were struggling with application fatigue and the burden of applying for funding from many different sources, each with its own set of requirements and application materials. So in this case, we drastically reduced barriers and accelerated the funding process, and made sure not to invite many more applications than limited funds could support. This approach builds on progress the Foundation has already made in recent years to streamline application and reporting requirements, and is in stride with encouraging shifts in philanthropy at large during the pandemic.

Second, we strived to create funding criteria based on the lived experience of leaders and current reality of organizations, while staying ready to iterate those criteria responsively. Across departments, TBF is working to learn from and center the voices of people most affected by the systemic issues we are attempting to address, and this includes valuing the lived experience of these people. Kara and I turned to our shared, running list of BIPOC organizations to identify those that we felt, because of the impact of their work and their authentic connections to BIPOC communities, absolutely needed to be included in this initiative. We then discussed those organizations, observed commonalities among them and challenged each other to articulate why they belonged on the short list. Those common attributes became our criteria – and we then added more organizations that seemed to share these attributes. The process allowed us to make the criteria descriptive, a tool to identify shared characteristics of impactful organizations, such as year-round operations, rather than proscriptive, limiting the pool of potential grantees to organizations of a certain budget size, for example.

Third, we acknowledged and strived to lessen wherever possible the power dynamics between funders and community by communicating directly and soliciting input. When we had assembled an initial list of organizations to support and vetted it by trusted colleagues and collaborators, we reached out to the leaders of the organizations themselves and asked for their feedback and reactions. We were able to start our calls with leaders by sharing that TBF/MOAC intended to support their organizations with a relief grant of $25,000. None of these were completely new relationships, and starting the conversations with an offer of unrestricted funding helped enable a far-ranging set of conversations. Leaders had a range of reactions, providing concrete feedback about what their organizations really needed (more on that shortly), describing holistic approaches to culture that focus on well-being, and much more. We also invited them to weigh in on the cohort, and additional organizations that should be included. In a sense, starting with the “good news” of the relief grants enabled us to move past the “will they fund us” question and cleared the way for more candid, productive, and frankly more interesting discussions.

The process also reinforced for us three takeaways to share with our fellow funders.

First, just give. Now and later. The most common refrain we heard in our conversations was the clear reality that one-time relief funding is appreciated, but BIPOC arts organizations in Greater Boston need and have limited access to the most valuable kind of philanthropic capital, namely multi-year, unrestricted support. Some leaders expressed frustration about the time-intensive, cohort-based programs that can accompany significant grants, which can at times feel like hoops to jump through rather than meaningful supports. Others noted that funders can focus too much on generating new research when there is already a preponderance of evidence, including the personal and professional lived experience of BIPOC leaders in community, to support moving significant dollars now and in the future towards their work. While we should ask how we can create a society in which BIPOC cultural expression is robustly resourced and celebrated, we also heard clearly that we don’t need to wait for those answers to act.

We [...] as an Arts & Culture team will hold ourselves accountable, and invite you to hold us accountable, for who and what we fund, how we select nonprofit partners, and the kind and size of grants they receive.
When using a racial equity lens, be willing to take a long, hard look at your entire portfolio, instead of just focusing on one program or initiative. I’m proud to work with colleagues dedicated to advancing social justice across fields, and have learned from them the importance of examining every dollar spent through a racial equity lens. The conversations Kara and I undertook and the sharp insights of these leaders prompted me to do some research on the Arts & Culture (A&C) portfolio that I currently steward. I analyzed the last four years’ worth of grantmaking in our program and discovered that out of 11 multi-year A&C grants totaling just over $1,000,000, 100% went to white-led organizations. To put it another way: while we as a team have worked to provide funding to BIPOC artists through Live Arts Boston and other programs, we too have failed to allocate the most vital kind of philanthropic capital to organizations led by Black people, Indigenous people, and/or other people of color. That makes TBF complicit in perpetuating the cycles of disinvestment that we attempted to work against in this relief funding initiative.

Make public commitments and be accountable to them. Moving forward, the Arts & Culture team is committed to interrupting this problematic pattern that perpetuates systemic racism. But we need to do this work in the context of encouraging organizational progress on daunting realities. For example, in our 2020 Fiscal Year, the Foundation made a majority of its discretionary grants across portfolios to BIPOC-led organizations, likely for the first time in the organization’s history. That’s great news, and it’s also long overdue.

As the Foundation works to develop a shared definition of using a racial equity lens in grantmaking, we as an Arts & Culture team will hold ourselves accountable, and invite you to hold us accountable, for who and what we fund, how we select nonprofit partners, and the kind and size of grants they receive. We are committed to deploying philanthropic capital to organizations and people most often seen as “risky investments,” namely those from BIPOC communities, particularly when our early investment may help attract other support from the networks of wealth that drive arts philanthropy in Greater Boston. In addition to centrally involving community members as decision-makers and inviting and acting on feedback from our partners, we need to be transparent about our progress towards racial equity in funding and where we are falling short. That involves setting and communicating clear, measurable goals on these issues – work we are doing in 2021 but have not yet done.

I welcome your suggestions, questions, concerns, feedback, critiques, and ideas at any time, and I know my colleagues across the Foundation and our partners at the City do as well. You can reach me at