Funding for Racial Justice Work: Is it the same old game or could we create some bold new moves?

Yvonne Field

Founder and CEO, The Ubele Initiative

Two years ago, The Ubele Initiative (TUI), the African Diaspora led organisation which I founded in 2014, had no UK based funding. Our community wealth building agenda was rejected by national and regional funders early on. Excuses for rejection included lack of organisational track record even as we encountered newer, less experienced White led organisations whose founders’ social class, age, education and work experience were viewed as more acceptable than ours. Dismay eventually turned to anger, especially as the professional experience of Ubele’s original team of volunteers spanned more than 30 years each. We kept our distance from UK funders. We were unable to openly call out institutional racism without being perceived as an angry Black group who did not understand how their systems worked!

The devastating effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on Black and racially minoritised communities exposed deep social and economic inequalities across the UK. This was followed by the public murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. These cataclysmic global events collided within two months of each other, exposing a crack in the system so deep that it could not be ignored. But prior to this we had spent more than three decades denying the existence of institutional racism. The anti-racist stance adopted in the 1960s through to the early 1980s evaporated with a plethora of more palatable international and national perspectives including the pursuit of equal opportunities, diversity and equality, and more recently Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

Such well-meaning attempts to treat everyone the same have failed to recognise that to achieve real equality, people need to be treated differently. Racism is embedded in our socio-economic system with, for example, an over representation of members from Black and racially minoritised communities in underpaid and precarious employment. The extent of this exclusion comes into stark reality when examining a historical lack of access to grant funding and support for Black and racially minoritised community organisations and communities across the UK. The findings of our national research on the impact of Covid-19 on the BAME community and voluntary sector were launched in tandem with activist group campaigns such as #CharitySoWhite, calling for 20% of Covid emergency funding to be ringfenced for Black and racially minoritised communities. The noise we co-created at this critical moment reverberated across the wider funding system.

Grant-making was not part of Ubele’s original portfolio, so we had to embrace a very steep learning curve. We entered several national strategic partnerships distributing more than £14.5 million of funding during Covid. Partnerships included the COVID-19 Community-Led Organisations Recovery Scheme (CCLORS) with Power to Change and the Phoenix Fund with the National Lottery Community Fund (NLCF). These funds have led to more racially equitable outcomes, with between 58% and 100% of funding going directly to Black and racially minoritised communities. Furthermore, we partnered with London Community Response Fund and equity crew partners (other infrastructure organisations operating pan London) to support the design and distribution of almost £60 million.

In these ways, Covid-19 helped move some much needed funding into our sector. But perhaps even more importantly, it stimulated some funders do things differently. Grants have been made with more flexibility, including ring-fencing, providing additional preapplication support, pooled funds and re-granting through Black and Minority Ethnic intermediary organisations.

Despite this positive progress, however, much of this funding remains very short term. The Equally Ours report that focused on grant making between March and November 2020, recommended that this newfound flexibility should continue and identified a real need for much longer-term funding to support racial justice work. It also called for more collaborations and partnerships with Black and racially minoritised organisations if we want to see more effective funding approaches.

The Black Lives Matter movement also created the impetus for a shift in UK funding conversations: from racial equity to support for racial justice work. The two concepts are related but not the same. As the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity describes, racial equity work ‘focuses on the prevention of harm and the redistribution of benefits within existing systems’. Support for racial justice work ‘focuses on power building and transformative goals, explicitly seeking to generate enough power among disenfranchised people to change the fundamental rules of society’.

However, in 2018, the last year for which fully complete grants data are available, a report on US grant making found that 6% of philanthropic dollars supported racial equity work and only 1% supported racial justice work. While this is an improvement on previous funding levels, it reveals a disconnect between a call for racial justice work to fund grassroots organising and the reality of the low level of financial support being offered in this area. The report’s recommendations echo those of the Equally Ours report, including engaging Black and racially minoritised communities in strategy and funding decisions.

Ubele’s approach has always been one of listening to the needs of our sector and being flexible and responsive, intervening in areas where there are clear gaps. Our Booska Paper is one significant example of where we listened to our sector’s funding and support needs; we heard multiple experiences of how institutional racism continues to show up in funding design and decision-making. The Booska Paper set out a series of Calls to Action directed at UK funders. Some of our demands include: demonstratable and measurable anti-racist strategies and plans; active consideration of intersectionality to reach groups which experience multiple structural oppression; use of research drawn from decolonised approaches and perspectives; and adopting approaches that are driven by the sector itself. The Booska Paper is only the beginning of a concerted effort to do more than simply tinker around the edges or rearrange chairs. We want funders to listen to us, to acknowledge and end entrenched racist practices, and to commit to building more effective and racially just relationships with the sector.

Accountability is key. There are measures emerging through Giving Evidence, who announced that they will rate UK foundations on their diversity, transparency and accountability. Over the next three years, we will continue to support our sector’s collective strategy and voice as we pursue a transformational change agenda.

The Phoenix Way (TPW) emerged out of the successful Phoenix Fund as a new and unprecedented £50 million NLCF national investment partnership with national and regional community leaders to fund and support Black and racially minoritised communities. Still in its initial development phase, TPW aims to create a unique racial equity intervention, the broader purpose of which is to achieve the difficult task of long term transformational change.

We are also leading the Harakati Project and collaborating with partners to develop proposals which aim to support the UK’s first anti-racist national infrastructure organisation. Emerging findings suggest the need for differing types of support for larger, more organised groups and those who organise as individuals and/or within micro groupings.

Omicron, the new Covid-19 variant currently hitting the headlines, has seen the UK closing boarders to several African countries. This is despite growing evidence of it already being here. Although its impact on our communities is yet unclear, we know that there are still high levels of need for emergency support and post covid recovery funding. Out of deep adversity, lessons about how to create more equitable and racially just funding outcomes can be harnessed. We and our collaborators are willing partners in the next chapter of this unfolding story.