Beyond a black square on social media

How charities and nonprofits can combat anti-Black racism and white supremacy in their organizations 

by Paul Taylor
Originally published in The Globe and Mail April 6, 2021

In theory, charities and nonprofits seek to alleviate the inequities in our society, and they share values of community, justice, solidarity, and partnership. In practice, these organizations have a lot of work to do. 

It’s evident in their predominantly white Boards of Directors and management teams. It’s evident when they paint donors as heroes for collecting cans of food for the “hungry and vulnerable.” And it’s evident in how Black, Indigenous, and racialized employees often leave their jobs disillusioned, or are laid off when the budget gets tight. 

Charities and nonprofits represent over 8 percent of our GDP and employ approximately 2 million Canadians. They also often work closely with communities that have experienced racism and oppression. Therefore, it’s crucial that they take action on anti-Blackness and white supremacy to create supportive environments for both their staff and the people that access their services. Here are some things to consider:

RETIRE THE NOTION OF CHARITY.

Simply put, charity is exclusionary. Charity positions the wealthy as generous changemakers, and the poor as passive recipients. Charity never examines how philanthropists acquired their wealth — or at whose expense —  and it reinforces the harmful divides in our society.

I’m not suggesting leaders close their charitable organizations and flee to the corporate world. Rather, I encourage them to critically examine how their organizations reinforce a culture of white benevolence, and steer towards a culture of solidarity instead. Does your organization boast that it “helps needy people?” and then put only racialized people on its brochures? Does it let wealthy donors tour your sites and treat people like they’re on display? If so, I encourage you to interrogate why you’re doing this — and then, stop it immediately.

RESIST THE SCARCITY MINDSET.

It’s an unfortunate reality that nonprofits are constantly short of resources. There’s never enough money, tools, or time to accomplish our missions. However, when we buy into this frantic feeling, it can lead to compromising our core values. I recall a meeting with a nonprofit leader, where I told them of our desire to embed racial justice into FoodShare’s programs. Their response? “What will the funders think?” There’s no money in that.”

At FoodShare, we’re committed to ongoing critical assessment of our work, and we ask our funders to do the same. So when a donor asks why we’re “focusing so much on race,” we don’t waver. We offer them opportunities to learn about the issues that drive our work. If they don’t take these opportunities, then we focus our energy elsewhere.

This isn’t to deny the very real resource challenges that face smaller organizations. But when faced with scarcity, I encourage charities to step back. Instead of chasing money, can you collaborate with an organization that has the resources you lack? Instead of cutting benefits for (usually racialized) program staff, could you examine your management pay grades? Making these changes will make your organization more sustainable, and less likely to take its desperation out on less-privileged employees.

DRAW FROM YOUR COMMUNITIES.

I find it truly baffling when nonprofit leaders say they struggle to find qualified, diverse candidates for their boards or management teams. This tells me that they’re approaching their mission from a top-down perspective, and that they do minimal collaboration with the communities they claim to serve. Whether you’re a theatre company or a food bank, there are countless diverse leaders who are creating change in their communities. Find them, and collaborate with them throughout the year. Then when it comes time to hiring, you’ll already have a two-page shortlist.

CREATE A CULTURE OF BRAVERY.

A 2021 Stats Canada survey asked nonprofit staff if their organization had a policy on Board diversity. 30% said they did, 47% said they didn’t, and 23% didn’t know. It’s the 23% that irritates me most. We’ve become so comfortable with silence around issues of racism and exclusion that we’re still letting inequity fester unchallenged.

Our fear of doing the wrong thing can make us say nothing at all. Far too often, leaders wait for PR crisises to make public moves on racial justice, then they wait months for external consultants to tell them what to do. However, we will never come to conversations around equity with a roadmap where everything’s figured out. As leaders, it’s imperative that we communicate our intentions, listen to our colleagues and community, and put our commitments into practice. Then, we must constantly repeat this cycle.

If you want to combat anti-Black racism and white supremacy in your non-profit, stop trying to create a safe space for your funders — and start creating a brave one for the communities that you collaborate with.

Paul Taylor is the Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto, and a lifelong anti-poverty activist. Growing up materially poor in Toronto, has inspired Paul to commit his life to doing what he can to dismantle the systems and organizing principles that both cause and uphold poverty, food insecurity and wealth inequality, including racism, white supremacy and neoliberalism. In 2020, Paul was named one of Canada’s Top 40 under 40, one of Toronto Life’s 50 Most Influential Torontonians and voted Best Activist by the readers of NOW Magazine.