Biden administration signals hope for philanthropists: How funders and lawmakers can create a more equitable future

A field-building experience where executives deepen their commitments to internal organizational change processes

The 2020 presidential and legislative elections may be over, but the work has only just begun, according to the panelists during the April 30 roundtable discussion held by Keecha Harris and Associates, Inc., and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO).

Panelists Maria S. Pesqueira, president of the Healthy Communities Foundation, Judy Belk, president and CEO of The California Wellness Foundation, and John Palfrey, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, agreed that there is a renewed sense of hope during the first 100 days of the Biden administration but that equity should still be at the forefront.

Pesqueira said that she appreciated the administration vocalizing its intent to focus on dismantling systemic racism – something that the previous administration would not do – but also noted that she would still be watching for follow-through on those promises. However, she felt that Biden’s diverse cabinet picks are a sign of progress and hope for the future. 

The fact that Biden issued an executive order further advancing racial equity provided Belk with a sense of relief. She said that she also had to sit with the trauma inflicted by the Trump administration both on a professional and personal level. “What a leader says and does really impacts an organization and a country,” she said.

Philanthropists have a large part to play in building a more equitable experience for everyone in this country going forward, according to Palfrey. “There’s so much to be undone and to do,” he said. 

Early rollbacks of some of Trump’s policies have helped, but he said that everyone will need to do their part. Palfrey said that funders can support these efforts by giving to those on the ground who can do the work through public-private partnerships and continuing to push Biden to unravel more of the inequitable policies that target Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities.

“Regardless of the size of our foundation, regardless of the type of our foundation, regardless of the issues that we work on, regardless of the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever, there is a role to play here on racial equity. I think there’s just a great big opening here,” he said. 

However, the panelists also noted that the first 100 or so days of Biden’s administration have not been without stumbles on both sides.. 

Pesqueira said she is concerned about the continuing response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has disproportionately impacted communities of color, especially as new strains are emerging. She noted that officials need to focus on how crises such as a pandemic have far-reaching effects on BIPOC communities.  

“For example, long-term unemployment has been at its highest compared to where it was during the Great Recession, and while there is an economic impact, we cannot ignore how it connects to other issues such as health, housing, and food insecurity,” she said. 

She also said there is no clear direction from the administration on immigration while agents are still detaining refugees at the border. “There are lives at stake,” she said. 

Philanthropy did not escape closer examination during the discussion. Pesqueira likened the sector to a big ship that is not used to making big changes. COVID-19 showed that funders could change as needed, she said. Belk said the pandemic demonstrated that it was possible to get money to organizations faster. 

The year 2020 offered an opportunity for deep introspection for the sector, according to Palfrey. He added that funders traditionally invest in white men at a high rate. Palfrey said that now is the time to extend more grace while funding organizations run by people of color. Foundations should also staff themselves with employees from diverse backgrounds, particularly for positions that pay high wages.

Foundations and boards should be proactive when it concerns how much diversity is in their ranks – a long-time issue in the sector, according to Belk. 

“It’s a dismal picture in terms of who’s in the boardroom,” she said. “If it’s not going to change now, when is it going to change?”

The goal of philanthropic organizations post-COVID-19, according to Belk, is to use the opportunity to think about how the sector can work differently while also being intentional about issues involving race. 

All panelists agreed that the beginning of the Biden-Harris administration has instilled hope in the funding sector but that both the government and philanthropists must keep diversity at the forefront as everyone continues to work toward a better, more inclusive future. 

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