How to Confront Racism in Philanthropy

Why you should care

Because equity takes investment.

  • Philanthropies, with a mostly white power structure, channel disproportionate money to white-led organizations, even with their stated missions to advance social justice.
  • Aaron T. Walker’s Camelback Ventures is trying to close the funding gap, in part by staging racial justice trainings for white executives at philanthropies and corporations.

Aaron T. Walker decided to draft an email. The New Orleans resident, founder and CEO of the accelerator Camelback Ventures, had been trying to carry out his vision of developing early-stage underrepresented entrepreneurs, but on this particular day in 2018 he found himself fed up with racism in philanthropy. “I want founders of color to know they are not crazy,” he wrote. But the email just sat there, unsent. 

Camelback acts as an incubator that helps support innovative and diverse leaders, so Walker and his team go out and recruit investors and philanthropies to fund their startups. Only, for people who look like him, there is a blatant disparity. He ended up holding on to the email, never expecting to come back to it. 

Two years later, it’s time. “We have to begin telling our story,” Walker, 39, tells me. “There are so many other ways in which systems have their knee on our neck, and we also have to start talking about those systems as well.” 

The proverbial knee, of course, is the one that remained on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. But it’s also the one that has been crushing the hopes and dreams of Black leaders and entrepreneurs throughout America. Their lack of access to venture capital is well documented, but it turns out the charitable organizations and foundations that are supposed to lift up those who need it most are also operating with blinders on. Philanthropic research film D5 Coalition reported that 92 percent of foundation presidents and 83 percent of full-time staff members are white. 

We have a genius in our communities of color and we’re not necessarily leveraging those for social change.

Aaron T. Walker

Research by Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green, an early-stage funder in social innovation that has been collecting racial and ethnic statistics on applicants to its fellowship program for decades, found significant disparities in its Black Male Achievement fellowship. These organizations were all trying to achieve the same goal to lift up the Black community. Yet the Black-led groups had 91 percent less net unrestricted assets than white-led groups.

“There may be people in the philanthropic sector, just as in other sectors, that feel like they’re not racist or not trying to be racist,” says Lyell Sakaue, co-author of the research by Bridgespan Group. “But I think, and Ibram Kendi’s book [How to be an Antiracist] is very clear about, it’s not enough just to not be racist. It’s really important to be antiracist if you’re going to work against the 400 years of institutional history that has produced our current reality.”

Walker started his career as a high school English teacher in Philadelphia before receiving his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008. He then moved to New York and worked at a law firm for two years before returning to school policy and working for the New York City Department of Education. “Along that journey what I was really searching for was what was the best way I can make a contribution to educational equity in the U.S.,” Walker says. He learned that it had to do with a whole bunch of other issues that came into play with education, like housing and health, which circled back to poverty.

That’s when he decided to get into entrepreneurship, starting two ventures: Teacher Capital Management, a teachers talent agency, and Expertly, an expert network group for the social sector. “They’re who have the genius to create the next-level leadership, and oftentimes they look like me,” he says. “A large part of the impetus to start Camelback was just this feeling that we have a genius in our communities of color and we’re not necessarily leveraging those for social change.”

Change looks a lot of different ways. The Echoing Green and Bridgespan study also reported, after polling leaders and funders, that the biggest factors holding back philanthropy’s efforts are a lack of understanding the role of race in the problems they’re trying to solve and the significance of race when it comes to identifying leaders to solve those problems.

This is why Camelback launched a project last year called the Capital Collaborative, in which they bring together white philanthropic and corporate executives from across the country to teach them about racial equity. “So there’s an individual identity journey where they can understand and explore whiteness and the history of oppression in our country and how it got to this point,” Walker says. Another cohort of executives is scheduled to begin the program in January 2021. The racial justice protests have already brought new interest in Camelback’s work, including an investment from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.


Aaron T. Walker (left) with Myron Long and Janine Gomez, 2018 Camelback Ventures fellows, at a training session in New Orleans.

Camelback aims to help deserving founders who just need someone to believe in them, who haven’t caught the gaze of the right investors. Among its 84 clients over the past six years is LiftEd, a tech company that helps special education teachers track their student progress. “CBV provided a community of other like-minded founders and entrepreneurs who intimately shared the same truths — being Black or brown, first-time founders, trying to attain entrepreneurial success with limited resources, network, mentorship and capital,” says Andrew Hill, LiftEd co-founder and CEO.

In his letter, Walker reflects on his motivations. “Am I leading Camelback Ventures because like my baseball hero, Jackie Robinson, I may not be the best, but I am good enough, and able to endure the pain of turning the other cheek? If the answer is yes, then I need to take my seat at the table on different terms.” As America moves toward hard discussions around race, the terms are changing by the day. Walker never did end up sending the email, but perhaps he’ll never have to.

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