Advancing Racial Equity

Racial Equity Funders Collaborative in Minnesota

The Impetuses to Begin the Racial Equity Funders Collaborative

Glyn Northington, Special Initiatives director, Nonprofits Assistance Fund

While there certainly had been conversations about diversity and inclusion for a number of years in the Twin Cities, and while we knew there was an ever-growing imbalance between arts and culture funding and the changing demographic and ethnic makeup of our country and specifically our state, for me the report by Holly Sidford, Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, was a wake-up call.1 The release of that report in the fall of 2011, the discussion of it at the San Francisco Grantmakers in the Arts conference, an event with Sidford here in the Twin Cities the following spring, and a series of conversations hosted by the Minnesota Council on Foundations galvanized the Twin Cities arts and culture funding community around the topic of equity.

In the fall of 2013, a number of us decided it was time (actually long overdue) to develop the Racial Equity Funders Collaborative (REFC). The collaborative was designed to offer a place for us to learn and share knowledge, to identify racial inequity in arts and culture grantmaking policies and practices, and to look for ways to advance racial equity in arts philanthropy in our community.

There were a number of catalysts that made it imperative in the fall of 2013 to convene this collaborative:

  • GIA was leading conversations about racial inequity in arts philanthropy, and all the funders in the collaborative are GIA members. GIA was facilitating a thought leader forum, and Eleanor Savage (Jerome Foundation) was a member of it. Plus I had recently joined the GIA board, so we were all attuned to the importance of the equity discussions.
  • There were a number of racial equity questions, incidents, and challenges surfacing in the Twin Cities in 2013, so topics of equity and privilege were top of mind for all of us. These included the following:
    • questions about accessibility for communities of color at an event about their history at an art museum
    • objections about the programing choice at a theater; the lack of diversity in directors, actors, and playwrights at other theaters; the depiction of communities of color at another theater
    • concerns voiced by a number of local nonprofits who had attended a national convening where they saw a great lack of inclusion and equity
    • increasing inequities in the Twin Cities in many areas: the achievement gap in education, the high rate of incarceration of people of color, housing discrepancies, and so on.

We as funders discussed the challenges our nonprofit partners were facing, but we knew we also needed to better understand the practices and biases and structural racism within our own philanthropy. So we started REFC: a safe place to talk about personal and professional discovery regarding racial equity. The membership has grown over the years and now includes arts funders from the Bush Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, and The Saint Paul Foundation.

Following are six descriptions by collaborative members of some of the specific activities the collaborative or individual foundations within it have undertaken.

Getting Started: Statement of Purpose

Sarah Lovan, Program Officer, The McKnight Foundation

What started as a dedicated, yet open, forum quickly instilled a hunger to create action items, not to just talk and share learnings. We first shared what we knew was happening in the community and educated ourselves by recommending and discussing current articles, resources like The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Race Matters, and the brilliant book by Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns. So while we started as a community of learning, the creation of a statement of purpose became a way for the group to stay on course and define what we are and what we are not. A draft was developed and collaboratively revised, a process influenced by language and ideas from organizations like D5.

Our statement of purpose will always be a work in progress. We recently reviewed it to see if we wanted to refine or update it, and will continue to do this annually:

The Racial Equity Funders Collaborative works to establish justice within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by philanthropic institutes and systems. We are a philanthropic collaborative working to advance racial equity within the arts and culture sector to honor, celebrate, and support our shared humanity.

The purpose of the Racial Equity Funders Collaborative is to develop synergistic strategies for advancing racial equity in philanthropy as informed by artists and arts and culture organizations in our communities. To advance racial equity, we are committed to:

  • ongoing learning and knowledge sharing (including research, data collection, thought-partner collaboratives, initiatives, and events);
  • identifying and removing barriers to racial equity within our institutions, our grantmaking policies and our practices;
  • leveraging and growing our networks to amplify our influence; and
  • aligning and coordinated funding to support initiatives focused on increasing racial equity.

As things were written down, referenced, and shared, the name (Racial Equity Funders Collaborative) and the document (the Statement of Purpose) catapulted us into being something legitimate and real. Then the real work began.

Sharing Discussions with Others

GIA Conference 2014: Advancing Racial Equity in Grantmaking: A Long Table Discussion

Eleanor Savage, Senior Program Officer, Jerome Foundation

REFC organized a session for the 2014 GIA conference in Houston focused on racial equity initiatives, inviting discussion of the barriers to this work and exploring effective actions and strategies by funders and others. The Long Table format, conceived by artist Lois Weaver, is a hybrid of performance installation and round-table discussion with a dinner party structure designed to facilitate public engagement among people with common interests.2 It experiments with participation by using a dinner table atmosphere as public forum and encouraging informal conversations on serious topics. Everyone is welcome to the table — to ask questions, make statements, and leave comments on the paper tablecloth.

Angelique Power (Field Foundation) and I facilitated a full-to-capacity experience hosted at the Holocaust Museum Houston. Throughout the conversation, people joined the table, left the table, wrote on the table, asked questions, responded to queries and ideas, listened quietly, and engaged passionately and sometimes with great emotion.

Conference blogger Latoya Peterson documented the process: “Stories flowed alongside tears and while this may have been intended as an art project the space morphed to accommodate mass catharsis.” While the original intent of the session was to share strategies and tactics for racial equity efforts in philanthropy, the conversation that took place was more of an honest and heartfelt discussion of racism. People shared their challenges, fears, and encounters, both personal and professional, with the uncomfortable realities of racism. The depth and sincerity of this conversation served as a catalyst for many colleagues to further their racial equity work.

The following questions guided the discussion:

  • Where do you see racial equity at work in your organization or community?
  • To achieve racial equity in funding, is there a win/win option, or do some organizations necessarily have to lose?
  • What have you tried that worked? Or failed that you learned from? What barriers caused the failure? Or caused you not to even try some things?

A Long Table Discussion: The Twin Cities Version

Sharon DeMark, Program Officer, The Saint Paul Foundation

Long Table Etiquette

This is a performance of a dinner party conversation

Anyone seated at the table is a guest performer

Anything is on the menu

Talk is the only course

No hostess will assist you

It is a democracy

To participate simply take an impty seat at the table

If the table is full tap someone seated at the table and take their seat

If you leave the table you can come back again and again

Feel free to write your comments on the tablecloth

There can be silence

There might be awkwardness

There could always be laughter

There is an end but no conclusion

After the success of the Long Table at the Houston GIA conference, the RECF and the Arts and Culture Funders Network of the Minnesota Council on Foundations decided to host a local session.

Eleanor Savage (Jerome Foundation) and Arleta Little (McKnight Foundation) acted as table hosts. About forty-five foundation staff and board members attended. People shared their discomfort and fears in doing this work: “I’m afraid of tokenizing grantees or funders of color at the table.” “We can only talk from where we are. We can lean into discomfort.” They talked about power: “The difference between engagement and empowerment is the power.” They talked about the experience of people of color in philanthropy. They asked questions that we can ask ourselves: “How can we incorporate racial equity into everything we do?” “Do we value different perspectives?” and “What am I/is my organization afraid of?”

Finally, participants shared suggestions on what practitioners in the field of philanthropy can do. Some of the ideas were to connect with others who are doing this work, to move from “intention to impact” and from “goals to policy and practice,” and ultimately to “change the heart, not just the face of philanthropy.”

As in Houston, we found that the Long Table provides, even with large groups, a conversation that can be intimate, provocative, and inclusive.

Besides the Twin Cities Long Table, Angelique Power and a number of other organizations and networks around the country have been inspired by the Houston experience to host sessions for different groups. Power remarked in her takeaways (and we completely agree!) that “no one ever wants the Long Table to end.”

Clearly, there is a deep hunger for real honest dialogue about race and equity. Coming together at the table offers a format for nuanced and layered conversation. As the Long Table etiquette states, “There is an end but no conclusion,” and it is critical that these discussions continue.

Digging Deeper within the Funding Community

Innocent Giving: A Workshop with Alexs Pate

Arleta Little, Arts Program Officer, The McKnight Foundation

In early 2016, RECF joined award-winning author and entrepreneur Alexs Pate for Innocent Giving, a pilot workshop series designed to deepen grantmakers’ understandings of the role of racial stereotypes and the barriers that these stereotypes present to building authentic and functional relationships. In the workshop, participating grantmakers explored the complex interplay of stereotypes that exist for historically marginalized groups (and organizations established by these groups) and the internalized racism that can exist and be exhibited by these groups.

The workshop engaged grantmakers in a practice of deliberately deepening their understandings of the driving purposes of individuals and organizations in their portfolios and communities, pushing beyond the comfort of familiarity (that can feed privilege) and the rush to judgment (that can inhibit the ability to identify and to empathize). As a tool for advancing racial equity, Innocent Giving focused on increasing the capacities of participating grantmakers to approach relationships with equal opportunity and to recognize, value, and more effectively engage with the people we seek to support. For more information, see Innocent Technologies’ website.3

Collecting Artists’ Reflections

Yes and No Report: Conversations about Thriving with Artists of Color in the Twin Cities

Arleta Little, Arts Program Officer, The McKnight Foundation

Last year, the McKnight Arts Program commissioned the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to conduct a series of two-hour conversations with twenty-five artists of color in the Twin Cities. We asked participating artists five questions:

  1. What does it mean for you to thrive as a working artist of color?
  2. Are you thriving now?
  3. What do you need to thrive (more)?
  4. What challenges and barriers limit your ability to thrive as an artist?
  5. What have been supportive resources for you thus far in your life/work as an artist?

The report, “Yes and No: Conversations about Thriving with Artists of Color in the Twin Cities,” documents the learnings and recommendations from these talks and includes the rich text and details of the artists’ frank reflections and feedback. Participating artists articulated clear values for community, for space they own and control, for deconstructing structural racism, and for asserting complex identities. They made the following recommendations:

  • Create a program that explicitly targets more financial resources to artists of color to use in flexible ways they define as being supportive of them thriving.
  • Develop a cohort program that supports the ability of artists of color to be with each other in meaningful ways, defined by them.
  • Invest in the community-based work of artists of color and work they describe as intending to have a community impact or benefit.
  • Show leadership on issues of race and equality in the Twin Cities by talking about race more explicitly and investing in strategies that challenge institutional and structural racism.
  • Bring artists of color together, and let them shape whatever program or investment strategy the foundation decides to move forward with in support of artists of color in our region.

Along with articulating a powerful push for agency and a desire for self-determination, these conversations made clear that the work of many of artists of color flows from their lived experiences and that their artistic practices are often pursued as acts of agency and praxes of liberation intended to catalyze an elevation in social consciousness and the regeneration of community. We invite you to read the full report.4

Moving to Action: Working Together by Developing Partnerships

Erik Takeshita, Community Creativity, Portfolio Director, Bush Foundation
Maya Beecham, Strategy and Learning Coordinator, Bush Foundation

REFC has provided an invaluable safe space to share challenges and success, form and deepen partnerships, and explore and develop action steps we can take individually and collectively.

For program officers working to embed a racial equity lens into philanthropic institutions, the “safe space” nature of REFC cannot be understated. Organizational and systemic change is hard work, and it can be exhausting. Having space and time to come together and commiserate with colleagues has been critical to sustaining and emboldening program officers to continue to push for racial equity.

Importantly, REFC is focused on much more than just “admiring the problem.” It has helped foundation partners make real changes to their programs and guidelines. For example, a recent Bush Foundation review process has included as a key selection criterion the extent to which applicants have the skills and orientation to address racial and economic disparities.

REFC has also enabled partnerships to be created and strengthened, leading to collective action steps where members are working together to advance racial equity. For example, Nonprofits Assistance Fund and the Bush Foundation are building a partnership to help improve the long-term financial health of nonprofit arts and culture organizations led by and predominately serving people of color and other historically marginalized communities. This innovative work will include working capital loans, intensive coaching and technical assistance on financial management and planning, and incentives to improve financial management including partial loan forgiveness and access to infrastructure grants to improve long-term financial well-being. Other opportunities REFC members are exploring are how we can work together to advance and accelerate cultural productions by artists of color, and supporting intercultural leadership development.

Although these individual and collective actions might have happened without REFC, it seems unlikely they would be occurring on the same scale or timeline. The opportunity REFC creates to be in relationship regularly with other foundation colleagues to commiserate, share ideas, build relationships, and identify and work toward implementing solutions has been critical — and will continue to be as we keep looking for ways to address racial inequity in arts philanthropy.


  1. Holly Sidford, “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy” (National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2011);
  2. The Long Table,
  3. For more information about Innocent Technologies, see
  4. Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, University of Minnesota, “Yes and No: Conversations about Thriving with Artists of Color in the Twin Cities,” report for The McKnight Foundation, 2015,