As 2020 comes to an end, we remain deeply grateful for our partners and even more committed to a relational, trust-based approach at Imago Dei Fund. Over the past few months, we recognized a pervasive tension among our US-based, internationally facing partner organizations: confronting the legacy of colonialism and white supremacy in international development as US 501c3s. In response to our partners’ shared experiences, we convened a group to create a peer-to-peer space to engage in critical dialogue and break down silos. We hope that our partners’ reflections and recommendations below will inspire further discussion, and ways to work toward a shared vision of collaboration and equity across sectors. – Leah Hong, Program Partner

For many of us, the end of the year is a time to turn inward and synthesize the past twelve months’ lessons and experiences. With all of the changes and challenges 2020 has brought, reflection is even more necessary. As nonprofit organizations, we faced many hard lessons this year: How to pivot to new ways of working, how to fill budgets in an unstable financial climate, and how to adapt to meet shifting needs with even fewer resources and more constraints in the wake of a global pandemic. Standing here today, we’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish – we’re resilient, adaptive and agile, and these lessons have made us stronger and even better able to fulfill our missions.

However, with deep and earnest reflection, we also know there are lessons and hard truths our sector and society still must face. Our four organizations – RefuSHE, Educate!, Spark Microgrants, and Village Enterprise  – work internationally, but are registered in the United States as 501c3s, and receive a large portion of the funding to carry out our work from US-based donors and philanthropy. Importantly, all of our organizations were also founded by “Westerners” (non-local staff from the Global North), and (at least initially) with white US-based staff in top-level leadership positions. As we watched and participated in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US this year, we had to make sense of our unique position straddling contexts and ask ourselves hard questions. What role do we – as Westerners, particularly those of us who are white – play in perpetuating and upholding white supremacy in international development?

The Spark Uganda team

We are thankful to our partners at the Imago Dei Fund who do the work and encourage this kind of honest, critical reflection, and who held space for us to discuss this question. Immediately, we realized that it was essential to define what we were really talking about. Were we talking about the responsibilities that US 501c3s have to promote racial equity within their organizations? Issues of discrimination in hiring and compensation, organizational culture issues, and lack of representation? Or were we talking about the unique responsibility that internationally-focused 501c3s have for disrupting white supremacy in the international development space? Feeling that the former is extensively covered, we turned our focus to the latter, where it’s our observation that less is written and there’s more to unpack. We also feel this is where our organizations can offer unique value and perspective, as we have all been on a journey wrestling with these contradictions.

We admittedly all still have much to learn and much work to do. However, our shared experiences showed five critical strategies for US 501c3 international development organizations aiming to disrupt white supremacy in the sector:

1. Get honest and specific with your language

One of the first things we realized in our conversation was that we needed to agree on the terms we were using and what they meant. Ambiguity prevents honest dialogue and makes accountability impossible. We’ve observed far too many toothless statements of solidarity this year, and seen how attempts to say the “right” thing prevent anything meaningful from being said at all. That’s why a foundational first step for any organization aiming to examine its complicity in white supremacy is to find the most honest, accurate language to talk about it. For the purpose of this discussion, we used Challenging White Supremacy Workshop’s definition of white supremacy, as it encompasses a global perspective: a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, countries, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, to defend a system of wealth, power, and privilege.

Our group also discussed that antiracism – in our case – was a term more relevant to the US. We understand antiracism to refer to the active dismantling of white supremacy and its structures, and to recognize the particular history and harm of racist systems, policies, and biases in the US that have placed BIPOC communities at an inequitable position in our country. Decolonization seemed to fit this conversation better – efforts to reverse or remedy the historically extractive and oppressive practices and structures of colonialism within the global context. Upon further discussion, we realized perhaps that term didn’t go far enough. Jailan Adly at RefuSHE suggested a new term: de-imperialism. De-imperialism would encompass decolonization and refer to modern-day economic imperialism that continues to perpetuate unequal power structures and oppression across the globe. Without a doubt, these terms (and the reality they attempt to describe) are deeply interconnected, but getting specific can be a great starting point for a more in-depth conversation.

Terms and definitions might vary from organization to organization – the important thing is that the team aligns around shared meanings. It’s also important to decide which terms do not apply. For example, when working in an international context, something like racial diversity in recruitment might not resonate or be relevant. Shoehorning language where it doesn’t fit, just to check a box, is part of the problem; it centers the US and pulls energy away from solving real equity issues at play. If the real issue is a lack of representative leadership, don’t call it a “diversity” problem when it’s a power imbalance problem. Taddeo Muriuki at Village Enterprise further problematizes international development’s practice of “[hiding] behind words such as ‘expats’ and ‘donor relationships’ to silently perpetuate white superiority…and [avoiding] hiring senior-level local personnel under the guise of ‘lack of capacity,” in an Op-ed in the Standard Kenya, “Of International Development and White Supremacy.”

Once you have the language, really use it. It’s essential to be direct and explicit and not let a fear of saying the wrong thing in the wrong way prevent you from saying anything at all. We need to name that white supremacy exists in our sector, before we can even start to address it.

2. Funder engagement to shift the hallmarks of white supremacy culture in philanthropy

This next step is usually more challenging. These conversations can’t stay internal – once you have the language, it’s critical to use it externally, in talking to your funders about how traditional philanthropy upholds the legacy of white supremacy and racial injustice. To paraphrase the brilliant Vu Le of Nonprofit AF: Nonprofits can no longer be the white moderate.

Our friends Geoffrey Thige and Jailan Adly at RefuSHE also deconstruct the contradictions and culture of dependency perpetuated at the funding level:

Decolonizing philanthropy, a term introduced by the gifted writer and activist Edgar Villaneuva, asks philanthropists to assess who they choose to give to and how it is perpetuating the very problems they aim to solve. Whether we look at philanthropy in the United States, or Kenya where RefuSHE operates, we see countless examples of well-intentioned donors pouring money into solutions they think should solve a problem without checking if this solution was created with input from the community most impacted…This modus operandi funnels money into short-lived solutions that feed a culture of dependency rather than sustainability. This approach is rooted in the imperialistic origins of the West’s approach to “international development.”

We have to recognize the power imbalances at play here – it’s true funders hold most of the cards. At the same time, there’s still much we can – and must – do as 501c3s to help move the needle within our funder networks. We need to be having courageous, even risky conversations. These include connecting the dots with our funding partners about the ways their funding both directly and indirectly upholds racist systems and structures. We also need to explicitly push for funders to: take stronger stances on key issues, channel more resources into social justice work, prioritize funding BIPOC-led organizations in the US and locally-led organizations abroad, design for less burdensome grant practices, provide multi-year general operating support, and place greater trust in grantee partners.

A Spark community meeting where members are making a decision about how to spend $8K

Today, we see all too often that funding is provided based on how funders view the “developing world” and what they perceive is most needed. Quite often these stereotypes do not allow for funding to go directly to communities, and the demand for immediate, measurable results can be not only unrealistic but actively detrimental to sustainable progress. Philanthropy tends to be reactive to a pitch, an application, or something a funder is proximate with, and the funders’ own (often under-informed) view of what’s needed. Instead, communities should be the ones deciding how resources are allocated and what projects or programs they want to invest in for themselves.

We have to be direct and we have to speak truth to power. We can’t let our funders off the hook for actions and comments that we wouldn’t tolerate from ourselves or others on the nonprofit side – we have to be willing to pass up on funding when it comes at the price of upholding or perpetuating harmful patterns within this sector. And we can collaborate with funders who are ready to work and learn alongside us in the pursuit of decolonization to leverage their power to influence other funders. It’s our responsibility as Westerners who have benefited from the status quo of philanthropy to leverage our privilege to make US philanthropy better – less prescriptive, less colonial, more community-driven, and more directed to BIPOC and locally-led organizations.

3. Prioritize local leadership and put the right people in the right roles

Our four organizations were founded by people from the US, many of whom are white with unearned privilege, and still have Westerners in many top-level leadership positions (although the exact structures differ). As such, we have an outsized responsibility to look critically at the ways this organizational structure upholds power imbalances that put Westerners, and particularly white Westerners, in positions of authority over local leaders.

Spark Uganda co-founder Allen Makabayi facilitating planning at a community meeting

It’s not just that we can better meet our missions and avoid unintentional harm when we have local buy-in on the challenges we’re working to address and the solutions we implement. Local leadership is essential to centering the dignity and assets of communities most impacted by systemic inequities and global crises. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we watched many organizations scrambling in the face of countrywide lockdowns to “evacuate” their international staff before airports shut down and borders closed. This added an element of chaos: How could nonprofits be focused on responding to the crisis at hand, when – for example – a US Country Director based in Nairobi was frantically trying to pack and book a flight back home to Ohio, be offline en route for 20+ hours, then quarantine, find a new place to live? It’s no surprise that many organizations lagged in their response. This contrasts with our experiences at Educate!, Spark, RefuSHE, and Village Enterprise, where our country leadership was already at home as the pandemic hit. There was no frantic travel or unusual logistics to manage, beyond making sure the teams were safe and immediately pivoting to look at ways to serve our communities in the pandemic. This let us move quickly. As the crisis went on, our teams were launching new ways of serving our communities and troubleshooting problems in real time without an 8-11 hour time difference, which was absolutely critical for our impact.

Most importantly, we understand that local communities already hold the solutions to the problems they’re aiming to solve. RefuSHE has taken the step of fully transitioning their CEO role to Kenya, hiring an experienced Kenyan business leader in Geoffrey Thige, and has seen huge gains in many areas of the organization as a result. Suppose we have US-based leadership, or really any international staff placed in our countries of operation. In that case, we need to be hyper clear on why we do and constantly work to ensure that local leaders are directing our work, often moving decisionmaking up the ladder toward full local control. Westerners can play a role in this sector, but we have to be vigilant about power and equity dynamics to ensure that local leaders are the key staff identifying challenges and solutions.

4. How you market and message in the US matters

An obvious role for US-based staff is working on communication, marketing, and branding in the US – particularly if most of our funding comes from US-based sources. Our organizations’ impact can be incredible, but if we’re communicating about that work in a way that upholds white supremacy and perpetuates harmful narratives about the populations we serve or the countries we work in, it deeply undermines any positive impact.

As Degan Ali and Marie-Rose Romain Murphy put it in their fantastic article Black Lives Matter is also a reckoning for foreign aid and international NGOs:

The first step is to immediately cease the marketing of people in the Global South as passive ’beneficiaries’ of aid who need ‘white saviors.’ This narrative is harmful and misleading since it continually feeds and supports a flawed and grossly imbalanced global framework of power and relationships. Reductive and romanticizing imagery must stop. Instead, INGOs’ fundraising should be based on amplifying the dynamic work our communities themselves are engaged in.

Educate!’s Rachael Miller Buck with mentor, George, collaborating on an impact story

We need to look critically at our language and make sure we are highlighting the root causes of the challenges we are working to address (i.e. the legacy of colonialism and present-day extractive economic imperialism). We also need to boycott “poverty porn” imagery and language, and make sure to tell impact stories in which local communities have agency and power.

5. Debunk competition mentality

One of the most powerful tactics colonial powers used was pitting people against each other – to create scarcity and turn one identity group against another in order to secure and consolidate power. Our final key is admitting that competition is an ugly reality of our sector, and recognizing that we need to be actively working against the mindset of scarcity and competition for resources that is both baked into philanthropy, as well as a classic hallmark of what bell hooks would describe as a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

What does this really mean? As fundraisers, we need to be willing to pass on funding opportunities when we know of another organization that is a better fit, or that has less access to funding – for example, linking a small family foundation’s grant opportunity with a perfectly-aligned grassroots organization, who could benefit significantly from a $10,000 grant and create more direct impact for the same amount of money than our organizations could.

There are other opportunities for collaboration too – some of us have found that providing capacity-building training (for example, training on grant-writing best practices or identifying funding prospects) to grassroots organizations to be mutually beneficial. There are many ways that US 501c3s – with all their access and resources – can be in strong partnership with grassroots organizations rather than in competition with them. We can make introductions, give feedback to our funders about their policies and practices that exclude local organizations they should look to partner with, and look for co-funding opportunities where we can bring in smaller, local organizations. Overall, we as a sector – funders and philanthropy too – should be moving in the direction of collaboration to really maximize impact. We want our funders to also collaborate with each other – to set up joint funding opportunities or designate funding for projects implemented by organizations in partnership.

Educate!’s team in Uganda at an annual holiday party

Our four organizations still have a long way to go, along with the rest of our sector. There is no one right way to undertake this work, however, we believe that it’s a failure on our part as US 501c3s working internationally if we approach social justice only from a US-centric lens – the perspective is simply too narrow to encompass the scope of the problem. These injustices and harmful practices have been deeply entrenched for decades if not centuries, and the need for “development” stems from the historical legacy of colonialism and white supremacy. Our organizations recognize that we are working toward a shared vision of equity that may take lifetimes to actualize, but addressing this reality is core to all of our missions. 2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges and stark realizations – particularly for those with power waking up to injustices they have long ignored. Our sector has desperately needed to wake up to the harmful practices we’re helping to perpetuate, and to continue to work to create better ways of being.