Thalia Taylor, a 17-year-old Bronx teen has a lot of opinions, specifically when it comes to problems affecting her peers. After all, young women from the South Bronx, Southeast Queens or East New York areas experience higher rates of HIV infection, are more likely to be victims of violent crime and have less access to reproductive services than white women within the same age.
New York City government has attempted to address these issues by funding nonprofits that work with young women of color in those neighborhoods, but there’s one glaring issue: The organizations often don’t have representation on their staff or boards of the very groups they aim to help. The result? Here’s what Taylor thinks: “By leaving us out of the conversation and not consulting us is really useless, in a sense,” she says.
But now Taylor has become part of a program called Girls IGNITE Grantmaking (GIG). This group of 15 young women from the outer reaches of New York City’s boroughs are deciding how to divvy up $30,000 amongst a handful of nonprofits providing assistance to young women.
“We have a 30 year history of participatory grantmaking and we really think that community members should make decisions on where funding goes,” says Neha Raval, senior program officer at the New York Women’s Foundation (NYWF), who runs GIG in alliance with the YWCA of the City of New York. “But there was a problem. We didn’t see young girls of color at the table helping to make important decisions that would impact them.”
(In exchange for their work, Taylor and the other young women in the program also received a $1,000 stipend, 10 percent of which was earmarked for donation to other philanthropic causes of their choosing.)
In advance of their grantmaking, the girls learned the ins and outs of how nonprofits are funded and participated in lectures about popular social issues. More importantly, they made site visits and listened to pitches from directors of nonprofits about how they’d solve various issues impacting young girls of color.
“We were so pleased to see young people in these leadership roles, and I think this is something companies often strive for,” says Tracy Hobson, executive director of the Center for Anti-Violence, one of GIG’s beneficiaries. “It made us really step back and ask ourselves, ‘How do we speak the language of the people that we work with all the time?’”
Research into the demographics of philanthropy released in 2014 by the diversity coalition D5 showed that boardrooms are overwhelmingly filled with men and close to 90 percent of nonprofit CEOs and presidents are white.
The lack of diversity is problematic for philanthropic organizations hoping to address cultural issues such as socioeconomic status in poor areas or women’s reproductive rights.
“Philanthropy likes to think that it’s the investment capital for social change,” says Stephanie Chrispin, a public policy fellow at Philanthropy New York, a nonprofit organization. “But if its leaders are limited in their vision because they are overwhelmingly straight, white males who live in rarefied bubbles, the sector’s ability to see the possibilities and strengths in marginalized communities will remain obscured.”
Diversity within the nonprofit sector becomes even more problematic when looking at organizations that support youth. Leaders of nonprofits that work to help young women of color say there is a definitive lack of young female voices in deciding where money is needed most.
“If the point of diversifying is to make sure voices are heard for those who we’re helping, then philanthropy groups are failing,” says Jennifer Agmi, director of programs at NYWF. “With [the fellows], what we’re saying is we don’t know, and they know more than we do.”
Other philanthropic groups, including the Disability Rights Fund and The Social Justice Fund Northwest, also use participatory grantmaking. The New York Women’s Foundation plans to offer Girls IGNITE Grantmaking again next year.
By giving community members a seat at the table, more impact is achieved, says Dr. Amir Pasic, dean of philanthropic studies at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
“I think there’s been a realization, globally, that investing in young women helps elevate a community,” says Pasic.
And there’s another benefit for fellows, including Taylor: The empowerment gained by knowing that through voicing their opinions, they’ve had a part in making their community a better place.
Homepage photo courtesy of Vivienne Peng at The New York Women’s Foundation.