No quick fixes in addressing racial equity with philanthropy

2018 Giving Guide


Milwaukee’s infant mortality rate reveals a stark racial disparity. As recently as 2013, black babies died at nearly three times the rate of white babies. That year, the rate of infant mortality among white babies was 5.3 deaths per 1,000 births. For African-American babies, it was 15.6.

Particularly striking about the statistic is that the gap exists even when factors like education and socioeconomic status are accounted for.


“We live in a community where white high school dropouts have better birth outcomes than African-American women with college degrees,” said Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact for United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County. “So this idea that it has to do with education or poverty – yes, those are factors that contribute, but the reality is even when you have those things in place, our African-American families are seeing losses at unacceptable degrees. There has to be something else at play there.”

It’s one issue that’s become a targeted effort for United Way, as the organization directs funding and collaborates with other agencies to improve outcomes where racial disparities exist, including in education, homeownership, employment and incarceration.

But just as those often persistent and systemic issues present significant challenges, the role of philanthropy in addressing them isn’t simple.

“Sometimes we get overwhelmed by what we’re being charged to do,” Angresano said. “And it’s important that we don’t because we have to figure out a way to tackle even these really, really big, hard issues if we’re really going to have change. We can’t just do low-hanging fruit.”

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation has likewise brought the conversation around racial equity and philanthropy to the forefront in recent years, after formally adopting a statement in 2015 indicating its commitment to racial equity and inclusion.


As the region’s community foundation, GMF has a role in advancing the conversation around inequity, said Darlene Russell, senior program officer for the foundation.

“Being here at the foundation, with our reputation and the influence that we have and being seen as a thought leader and an investor in the greater Milwaukee community, it’s important for us to state our commitment to racial equity and inclusion for folks to know that the foundation is committed,” Russell said.

While that commitment has involved investing funds in community groups that advance racial equity and inclusion, Russell said that work began with the foundation first looking internally to facilitate open and honest conversations among the foundation’s staff and board members.

“We recognize that our staff, our board of directors, we all come from different backgrounds and experiences,” she said. “So we’ve worked internally to drill down on this topic and really learn about the historical structural and systemic policies and practices that have contributed to many of the disparities that we see in our black and brown communities. It’s really prepared us to do some external work.”

Rather than assuming what a community’s problems are and imposing solutions, Russell and Angresano said it’s important for philanthropic organizations to be intentional about seeking input from community members.

“That’s an important piece of equity work,” Angresano said. “Who’s making the decisions? Who has influence? Who’s deciding what somebody needs? And, in far too many cases, those decisions get made top-down.”

To that end, GMF issues grants to small groups that are looking to make direct changes in their neighborhoods and recently created a fund aimed at supporting grassroots efforts in the community, a response to the unrest in Sherman Park last year.

“We are open and more intentional about reaching out to groups that are on the ground,” Russell said. “We recognize there are groups on the ground doing work that don’t always come up through our traditional grant-making process.”

Despite a growing recognition of the need to fund grassroots efforts, barriers remain. Fledgling organizations may not be 501(c)(3) certified, lack sophisticated backroom operations or they may be just too small for a funder to feel good about the investment. And with a limited number of dollars to give away, established agencies tend to be seen as a safe bet.

With the proliferation of nonprofits, Angresano said, smaller organizations partnering together to seek funding will be key.

Philanthropic organizations have also taken on the role of raising awareness of racial inequity and fostering dialogue about those issues.

United Way recently announced its new Partnership MKE initiative, a program that builds on the model of the former Mosaic Project to pair community and business executives across social divides in the community and guide them through a one-year process of learning and relationship building.

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation recently hosted its first-ever regionwide forum, called “On the Table,” which engaged more than 5,000 people from the four-county region in a discussion about improving the community.

But even as awareness grows, philanthropic and community fatigue presents challenges when the dial doesn’t move as quickly as the groups would hope. While natural disasters prompt swift efforts to help those in need via large donation infusions, persistent community issues like a lack of housing or educational achievement gaps don’t necessarily trigger the same response.

“It may not be a dramatic event or as obvious, but we have to be careful not to forget about this,” Angresano said.

“The low-hanging fruit may show a faster return,” she added. “But some of the projects we’re working on, particularly around infant mortality reduction – these are going to take years to bear fruit. And while we’re all anxious, there has to be a patience that coexists with our urgency.”

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