Lessons for Philanthropy from Black Women Leaders

I’ve lived and breathed women’s philanthropy for much of my career, from the cubicles of corporate philanthropy, to the living rooms of philanthropists, and the open-office workspaces of nonprofits both large and small. While constantly assured I was in the most “game-changing” and “innovative” conversations on giving, rarely can I recall speaking about the contributions of Black women in philanthropy.    

black women leaders
Chantal Bonitto reminds readers of the lost stories of black women leaders in philanthropy with an essay exploring their contributions.

When you ask most people to name philanthropic leaders, the list is usually populated by their family members plus a few American tycoons. Industrialists of the early 20th century such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller come to mind, as do the technology and finance titans of today. Reflecting the historic racial divisions in financial wealth in America, philanthropic history and communities largely reflect the charitable actions of white ultra- wealth. 

In this historic moment we are in, where conversations on anti-black racism and racial inequity are newly possible, philanthropy must embrace new role models, broadening the range of stories it tells and the faces it highlights. Philanthropy must reflect American diversity, not only as a matter of principle, but because donors of color do exist, they are extraordinarily generous, and more engaged in the human rights and social justice movements of our times.

In fact, donors of color have always existed. Before Carnegie, Ford or Rockefeller were even born, Black women were philanthropic leaders. Today it would be particularly useful to study  those who organized and funded anti-slavery movements in 19th century America, including Julia Williams, Bridget “Biddy” Mason, and Sarah Mapps Douglass. Each of these women’s miraculous lives deserves its own dissertation, showcasing the rich history of African-American philanthropy. 

Julia Williams: Leading Education for Girls in Jamaica

Julia Williams (Image Credit: Facebook article)

Born free in the South, Julia Williams (1811-1878) journeyed to Massachusetts as a child and Connecticut at age 21 for an education, becoming a member of the Boston Female Anti Slavery Society. Williams supported educational institutions for Black children, including leading an industrial school for girls in Jamaica. 

Biddy Mason: African American Nurse Hero

Biddy Mason (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Born enslaved, Biddy Mason (1818-1891) would become a national hero. Mason petitioned for, and won her own freedom, becoming a nurse and a successful California real estate entrepreneur. She was a founder of the First A.M.E Church in Los Angeles and impacted many lives through her generosity. 

Sarah Mapps Douglass: Abolitionist, Writer, Educator

Sarah Mapps Douglass (Image Credit: AAREG)

For an example of a true renaissance woman with a particularly colorful life, Sarah Mapps Douglass is a fount of inspiration. Born in 1806, Mapps Douglass was the freeborn daughter of a distinguished black abolitionist family in Philadelphia and a contemporary and close friend of Lucretia Mott and the abolitionist sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimké. She was a founding member of an integrated statewide women’s anti-slavery organization, and a funder and prodigious fundraiser for the education of Black children before public education existed. 

In addition to being a prominent abolitionist and educator, Mapps Douglass was also a writer and artist, who adorned the corners of her stationary with delicate watercolor flowers. In a portion of her published writings in 1832, she paints a raw picture of her call to activism, “…I started up, and with one mighty effort threw from me the lethargy which had covered me as a mantle for years; and determined, by the help of the Almighty, to use every exertion in my power to elevate the character of my wronged and neglected race.”

Despite being from a prominent free Black family in the North, Sarah was not excluded from the dangers of racism in America. One year after writing about her call to activism, she attended the 1833 Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in Philadelphia. There, an angry mob of white men, offended by the organizers’ refusal to restrict their meetings to white women, burned down the convention meeting hall. Sarah could not be deterred, and would go on to play a significant role in the national anti-enslavement conventions from 1837 to 1839. 

Sarah, Julia, and Biddy fought for the emancipation, education and liberation of Black people during and after American slavery. Remembered as abolitionists, teachers, poets, entrepreneurs, and artists – these revolutionary women were also prominent American philanthropists. While history does not recognize them as such, they gave of their time, talent, and treasure with remarkable generosity, and at enormous personal risk. These are my titans of philanthropy and I hope they will be yours. 

Multiple levels of systemic racism has kept us from recognizing these women as philanthropic leaders. In the antebellum period, affluent Black women and their families were despised specifically out of fear of their potential for intergenerational wealth and activism.  In the thirty-five years after Sarah’s passing, massacres of affluent Black communities were committed in East St. Louis, Ill (1917), Washington D.C. (1919), Elaine, Ark (1919), Tulsa, Okla. (1921) and Rosewood, Fla. (1923).

While these Black women were funding alongside white women feminists and abolitionists, they were still segregated from white women within these spaces. When Julia Williams, a black woman and abolitionist, traveled with white attendees of integrated anti-slavery conventions, she was forced to eat meals separately from her party and was required to stay in a boarding house designated for black people. 

The practice of Black women not being allowed to bring their whole selves into spaces of philanthropy, while funding in the name of emancipation, has had lasting impacts. In many of these cases, Black women were invited to the table, but not welcomed. They were asked to show their faces as beneficiaries of good will, but not allowed to tell their own stories as donors. Therefore, throughout history, Black generosity and philanthropy have created their own tables of progress, especially to support Black futures. 

This is American history. The hidden stories of American philanthropy must be told and learned today. Once we see the origins of philanthropy and recognize philanthropists, not only as white men, but as women – and in the context of the origin of this nations’ ties to slavery, Black women, we can shift how we seek to engage Black, indigenous and people of color philanthropists. 

Through Sarah’s lived experience of feeling excluded and unsafe because of her gender and race, she recognized that the fight for enslaved Black people meant liberation for herself and in turn all intersections of marginalized communities. 

Gender lens and Black philanthropy existed before what we now recognize as traditional American philanthropy. As we understand the movement for Black lives today, recognize that Black women were the captains of the soul of Black folk and I argue that we still are. As historically white institutions seek to have more inclusive fundraising practices they should not invite donors of color to participate in giving as if it is something new to them, they should kindly earn an invitation to the already existing tables of generosity that Black, Indigenous and people of color have created out of necessity. Let names such as Douglass, Williams and Mason lead the way. 

Chantal Bonitto is the Director of Inclusive Philanthropy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, an organizational leader in the space of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a seasoned fund development expert in the nonprofit sector. Her career has been dedicated to identifying and creating resources for institutions that benefit the most marginalized communities in our society. As a fundraiser she has fostered many skills including, Major & Principal Gifts, Direct Response, Community Engagement/Stewardship and Fundraising Events Planning. Currently, Chantal is using her talents and experience to spearhead a new fundraising program at Planned Parenthood Federation of America as the director of Inclusive Philanthropy. She is leading this work with an intentional focus on next-gen philanthropists and donors of color. Learn more at www.developmentchangeagent.com 

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Author: Chantal Bonitto

Chantal Bonitto is the Director of Inclusive Philanthropy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, an organizational leader in the space of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a seasoned fund development expert in the nonprofit sector. Her career has been dedicated to identifying and creating resources for institutions that benefit the most marginalized communities in our society. As a fundraiser she has fostered many skills including, Major & Principal Gifts, Direct Response, Community Engagement/Stewardship and Fundraising Events Planning. Currently, Chantal is using her talents and experience to spearhead a new fundraising program at Planned Parenthood Federation of America as the director of Inclusive Philanthropy. She is leading this work with an intentional focus on next-gen philanthropists and donors of color. Learn more at www.developmentchangeagent.com

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