Last August was the ninth year running of Black Philanthropy Month, a designated stretch of observance that both amplifies and compresses a lot of history, justice, injustice, and joy. That month’s haul was the largest ever. More than 18 million people from 16 countries participated, and it continues year-round at #BPM365. I spoke with the movement’s founder, Jackie Copeland, by Zoom shortly after Donald Trump’s defeat in the presidential election.
Copeland told me she’d launched the campaign less as a finite financial pitch than as a movement to cultivate acts of giving and reframe philanthropy as a practice instead of a one-off gesture. “The intent of Black Philanthropy Month 2020 was to move from mobilizing and talking to taking action,” she said.
Less than 1.3 percent of global assets are managed by people of color, and “denial of equal access to private capital has been an instrument of economic oppression since the founding of many countries,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we see wealth levels in African American and Black Brazilian communities are so much smaller than in others, because we’ve had histories of laws that prevent us from capital and wealth. In the case of women it wasn’t long ago that you couldn’t get a loan unless your husband signed for you.”
Women are the core driver of another movement she founded, the WISE Fund (Women Invested to Save Earth). Her new WISE You Community is a virtual network to fund Black and Indigenous climate change organizations in partnership with the tech startup Flerish. Her program’s members get live and AI-based coaching, “something sorely needed by donors disrupted by COVID,” she said. “There’s a degree of health and economic carnage because of COVID and it coincides with a range of uprisings around human rights abuses in Brazil and political injustices in Nigeria,” the two most-populous Black countries in the world.
Brazil features heavily in the WISE Fund. It’s a partner of Brazil Foundation, whose president and CEO, Rebecca Tavares, joined us on the call. Tavares told me she’s “gathering solidarity and support for the access of women of African descent to digital technology for addressing climate change.” She wants to “formalize the rights of domestic workers in Brazil because the great majority are Black women whose rights have been violated on every standard, including sexual violence and abuse, labor rights completely ignored, way overtime working. As informal workers they haven’t had recourse.”
Also joining our Zoom were co-architects of Black Philanthropy Month Tracey Webb and Valaida Fullwood, who is the founding member of New Generation of African American Philanthropists. Fullwood said she wants to “engage funders particularly in the South to sign a pledge like Brazil Foundation and WISE Fund. I got into some of this work through Tracey. She’d founded a blog that featured Black philanthropy stories, a first of its kind. Working as a writer for her introduced me to Jackie and gave me a line of sight on all the things happening in the US and globally around Black giving.”
Even the definitions of philanthropy are changing: “The word was hijacked and used in ways that focused solely on money and dollars and not as much on impact and relationships,” Fullwood said. “Part of my work is making it more accessible not just to high-net-worth people but as commitments of time, talent, treasure, truth. Those can be as powerful as any grant. I define and break down philanthropy as love of what it means to be human.”
“‘Philanthropy,’ the actual term, has always been a culturally specific Western way of organizing acts of giving and mutual support,” Copeland told me. “But if we look at the term more broadly, it’s about community impact and helping someone else. That’s an overlay on ancient giving structures, principles, and philosophies. A lot of successful movements across the Black world—abolition, underground railroad, civil rights movement, anti-apartheid movement—were supported first by Black people giving each other what they had.”
I asked Copeland what she makes of certain corporate billionaires who donate as acts of reputational self-laundering, a public-relations stunt to purchase the appearance of caring instead of changing. “It’s a legitimate critique,” she said. “That’s a certain dimension of the formal sector: institutional philanthropy. Philanthropy has been a way to ‘clean’ money and wealth that may have been accumulated through dubious means. That’s an undeniable factual part of the history that continues. Sometimes philanthropy has been overcommercialized and lost that essential human-rights heart of giving—the whole notion of love for humanity. I think there’s a countermovement now.”