TD Bank: The Importance of Black Voices in Corporate Philanthropy

If you walk away with only one message today, I hope it’s this:  Successful giving requires listening to the receiver. 

Corporate philanthropy plays a central role in helping to tackle the unique, often systemic challenges faced by Black communities in America. By backing brand new initiatives while simultaneously stepping in to mend the holes in existing safety nets, corporate philanthropy brings the concept of community support full circle.

But for years, many in the space have operated in a vacuum-particularly when it comes to including Black voices in the process to develop solutions and deliver services. Not undeservingly, philanthropy got a bad rep for being a “knight in shining armor” industry: rich, well-meaning do-gooders who would ride in to save communities, attempting to fix problems they didn’t fully understand in the first place.

The need for “multi-faceted diversity” in philanthropic decision-making

I can recall many instances of walking into a meeting with other philanthropic organizations only to discover I was the only Black person in the room. And aside from lacking racial diversity, these rooms often lacked diversity in virtually every other area–like gender, age, economics, and perhaps most importantly, life experience. It became clear to me that in order to shake the negative rep, we needed to fill these rooms with people committed to authentic outreach – people who understand the true stakes of inaction and the long-term consequences of getting it wrong.

When decision-makers set the admirable goals of solving for issues in the Black community and promoting Black empowerment, it’s also important to note that “the Black community” is not a monolith. Experiences vary widely; for example, the urban Black experience looks very different from the rural Black experience. The challenges faced by our immigrant populations are often a completely different set from those born here in America. There is a stark contrast between the type of support needed by our elderly, and by our young – yet support for both is equally critical.

Which is why it’s especially important to recognize that “multifaceted diversity” – particularly when it comes to personal and professional experience – is critical to success. We need to hear from those who are close enough to the issues at hand to provide a thoughtful, useful perspective.

African Americans have historical expertise in philanthropy

In convincing the powers-that-be to push our chairs up to the table, it must be noted that, culturally, African Americans are experts in philanthropic giving. The grounding principles of philanthropy are not new to us; Black churches have provided a form of giving for the betterment of the community for centuries. In fact, despite the vast wealth gap in comparison to White peers, Black households donate an average of 25% more of their income each year providing financial assistance to those in need. Historically, we are philanthropists – investing our money, time, and talent to drive impact, every day.

Which brings us to a salient point: Just because a group needs philanthropy doesn’t automatically mean they don’t know philanthropy.

Embracing the up-close approach
Working in the public sector for the fourth largest housing authority in the United States helped me get different perspectives on many of the issues we are still trying to solve for today. I’ve noticed that philanthropists often approach things from an academic lens; it’s one thing to read about the problems of society, and another to have first-hand experience confronting them.

As the assistant executive director for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, I saw things through the kaleidoscope of local governments, real estate developers, the unions, and most importantly, the families and children who were directly impacted by the decisions we made. As a leader, I oversaw a wait list that exceeded 100,000 – filled with hopeful people who called every month for years to learn where they were on the list.

I saw firsthand how bureaucracy and rigid systems, and the cycle of poverty affected lives. Being up close and in the center of social issues gave me invaluable experience leading different groups with varying interests from a place of real empathy; far deeper than if my experience had been only in the corporate space. And true empathy is an important skill – one that can make or break relationships.

Allowing room for learning and innovation
For many in corporate philanthropy, the end game is answering this question: In what measurable way can others see that our money was successful in accomplishing X goal? But my experience taught me that it’s a big mistake to look at issues through a purely market-driven lens where outcomes rule the day.

For example, when we made the decision at TD to support the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, we didn’t have a lot to go on. The pandemic was new, and the data we would typically have reviewed simply didn’t exist. Here, we had to rely on trust: we had a group of experts in the field who who knew the community well. They brought testing and vaccinations to pop-up clinics in predominantly underserved Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia – neighborhoods that had both the highest positivity rates and the lowest vaccination rates.

By shifting our focus to listening – particularly to those with ties to a community, we can remain open to taking a chance on programs like this that innovate and actually help society. We were forced into this learning during the pandemic: the error in “trial and error” breeds forward progress.

An idea that corporate philanthropists need to get comfortable with is that it’s OK if some initiatives don’t have a paper trail. Often, stringent reporting requirements get in the way of real work; we need to look at the wider picture and be willing to push the envelope. In our work, there are no simple answers when it comes to grappling with the effects of systemic racism and poverty. It’s never about checking a box.

As a Black leader, I’ve used my seat at the table “in the room where it happens” to help my teams move away from a one-size-fits-all approach, challenging preconceived notions of “what the Black community needs.” I remain authentic about my own lived experiences – as woman, a mother, and a professional – and encourage the same authenticity from stakeholders around the table.

Making the shift from spreadsheets to diverse collaboration and active listening drives impactful change. Embracing diverse voices in philanthropy takes time, energy, and empathy – and these are perhaps the most important investments of all.

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