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Diversity Essay: Black philanthropy in America

Resource Center - Foundation

The views expressed herein are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, or the organizations with which the authors are affiliated.

By Spencer I. Scott
AFP New Jersey Chapter

The following resource paper attempts to illustrate how philanthropy has emerged over time as a significant and meaningful part of black culture in the United States. A review such as this would not be complete without taking a look at how the seeds of philanthropy were sown during the turbulent slavery days.

As many history books depict, the institution of slavery lasted for approximately two and a half centuries. During this time, black slaves were denied the human rights of their white masters and owners. Their plight and the denial of their basic rights of citizenship caused the slaves and the free blacks to rally together to provide support and develop a series of institutions to meet their needs. The first mutual aid society, called the Free African Society, was formed in 1785 in Philadelphia. Its purpose was to provide support for the sick and assistance to children who were left orphaned and widows.

The enslaved people sought to improve their condition by developing cultures that provided relief from their daily struggle. Thus emerged the concept of "self-help." People helping people out of a sense of justice and duty not because of an intended financial gain. Herein lies the birth of black philanthropy. The desire of people to give of their time, energy and meager resources in service of others constitutes philanthropic acts. Free blacks who organized the Underground Railroad and took part in the abolitionist movement were engaged in acts of philanthropy. The various civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were, in a sense, expressions of black philanthropy.

Seven years after the Free African Society was formed, the first lodge of Free Masons appeared in Boston. More and more fraternal and social welfare organizations began sprouting up in several cities including, the African Benevolent Society of Wilmington, North Carolina, and the Brown Fellowship Society of Charleston, South Carolina. Over time, newly created black religious denominations the African Methodist Episcopal, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church provided numerous services and functions for the emerging black community.

As the number of black churches grew throughout the North and the South, black philanthropy became an ever broadening and significant aspect of the black community. The Civil Rights Movement created an onslaught of organizations, groups and institutions specifically designed to relieve people's burdens and provide basic human needs. With limited resources, black churches became the "shelter in the storm." In black communities, preachers have a high and respected status. Their positions are often used to right wrongs in their communities. The messages from tens of thousands of black pulpits across the land have the power to change social policy, thereby improving the social condition.

A recurring theme throughout definitions of philanthropy is 'unity.' Unity of mind, effort, will, courage and determination to make positive change in the lives of people. One of the most important roles of the black church was, and continues to be, to create a feeling of unity. From black churches spawned educational institutions to teach blacks to read thereby opening up a new world of opportunities and possibilities. Between 1800 and 1900 the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church established 20 colleges and universities and raised more than $1,000,000 to support them. The American Baptist Home Missionary Society established 23 black institutions of higher education, 14 of which were owned by blacks, and blacks contributed 17 percent of the total cost of building 5,000 schools financed by white philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. (1)

A variety of societies were formed within the church to provide assistance to the black population. Burial societies became insurance companies and cemetery associations became mortuaries. These societies and associations were extensions of the church and were intended to manifest the church's benevolent concern for enhancing a person's quality of life.

Philanthropy is still prevalent in the black community. Local inner-city grassroots organizations find most of their supporters are from minority populations. According to Kermit Eady, President of the National Black United Fund of New York, black philanthropy tends to be most active in funding economic development projects or those initiatives that are designed to provide self-help and self-improvement for the less fortunate. Causes such as illiteracy, health issues, housing development and job readiness tend to attract the most financial support from black donors.

The same premise is true in the black constituency as is with fund raising in general that the majority of the donors are blue-collar workers. The professional or upper class tend to support at much higher dollar values but the number of gifts are dramatically less.

The need for black donors to feel that their donations are benefiting the black community in some way is very real. Appeals centered on the church, family, social reform, self-help, economic development, community development, education and similar causes generate the most support from black donors. The desire to "give a hand up, not a hand out" seems to be the cornerstone of black giving.

References

  • (1) At the Crossroads, Chapter 6, Strengthening African American Philanthropy: Fund Raising, Rodney M. Jackson. Page 145.
  • At the Crossroads by Rev. Alicia D. Byrd, Emmett D. Carson, Rodney M. Jackson, C. Eric Lincoln and Angela L. Oliver. Copyright 1998, The Corporation for Philanthropy, Inc.
  • "How to Bridge Cultural Differences" by J. Paul Monk, Jr. A Message Magazine Supplement.

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