President's Take

Scared Money: Philanthropy Must Pushback Against the Use of Fear to Thwart our Progress

Susan Taylor Batten

As we come to the close of the year, I want to write about fear.

Fear is a powerful tool that is used to exercise power and control. We in philanthropy talk about the power of structural racism; how policies in this country have been used to marginalize and control Black people and other people of color. But it is also important to talk about fear as a tactic to exert power; whether we are talking historically in the form of hooded cowards carrying torches in the middle of the night; or today where states have developed new police forces to suppress the Black vote. Fear is also being used in our sector to stall the forward progress of foundations and nonprofit organizations that promote equity for all people. It’s time that we acknowledge it and call it out.

Black nonprofit leaders who are steadfast and intentional about the well-being of Black people routinely undergo threats to their organizations and their personal lives. These threats come in the form of cyber-attacks, frivolous human rights complaints claiming, “reverse discrimination,” and risks of personal injury and harm to nonprofit leaders and their families. It is clear that a highly organized group of people who do not believe in the promise of America are behind these attacks. This movement is well-funded and well organized.

Looking ahead, there is widespread concern that pending Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action in higher education will influence other sectors – we should anticipate that the nonprofit sector will be one of them. If this is the case, what will racial justice philanthropy look like? What might we imagine certain states will do to block investments to fight anti-Black racism? Based on fear, will nonprofits and foundations pull back from this work and/or “tone down” their advocacy? These are all questions we should struggle with now.

The first step in fighting the use of fear and tactical threats to Black communities and others of color is acknowledging it; philanthropy must reckon with where we are in the long journey to racial equity and justice in our sector. We must recognize that the use of fear to disrupt our work is actually due to fear amongst those looking to stop us; clinging to a belief that THEY will lose rather than believing that ALL of us can win.

We have had our share of attacks on ABFE in the past year and it did influence how and when we publicize our work. It literally stopped us from releasing a powerful report on the leadership of Black foundation CEOs since the murder of George Floyd. But today, we are planning for distribution. We cannot back down, and we cannot give in to fear; scare tactics are meant to immobilize us. Now, we must do the work AND continue to address the false narrative that racial equity and justice is a “zero-sum game”. We also must protect Black leaders and the grantmaking institutions who support them.

ABFE stands ready to do this with each and every one of you.