Foundations Must Redistribute their Power in Order to Drive Racial Equity

Only by shifting the current power structures that center and sustain whiteness in foundations will they begin to live up to their espoused values around racial equity and social justice.

Reviewed by Didier Dumerjean


In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a surge of attention to pervasive racial injustice in the United States, many areas of philanthropy made public commitments to promote racial equity and social justice. Many foundations, both large and small, committed publicly to shifting the foundation-nonprofit relationship to be more trust-based and reciprocal. Additionally, many statements claimed to create participatory grantmaking processes to give constituents power over resource allocation, while centering equity in the way they do their work. Those efforts however, continue to be undermined by the operational structures and processes that underpin foundations that center and sustain whiteness.

This article provides an analysis of the current state of the field of equity in philanthropy, and recommendations for a path forward to build more accountable practices of foundations. The authors propose three major strategies for transforming philanthropic power dynamics based on their professional experiences working with over 100 foundations and on efforts led by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and grassroots organizations.

Tanya Beer, MPA, is Associate Director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation, where she helps to lead the Center’s work with a particular focus in the areas of systems change and advocacy evaluation. Patricia Patrizi, MSS, provides strategy and evaluation consultation to foundations and non-profit organizations, and directs the Evaluation Roundtable. Julia Coffman, MS, is co-Executive Director and founder of the Center for Evaluation Innovation.

Methods and Findings

This article examines the historical and current realities of how foundations evade accountability to the people and communities they claim to serve. The authors characterize the limitations of accountability of funders, and the harm enacted through grantmaking in four domains of “capture”:

  • Grantees by Funders’ Interests – Through philanthropic processes of control, grantees often become beholden to the foundation’s own interests and terms of engagement.
  • Strategy – Strategies are typically designed around the foundation’s beliefs about how to solve a problem with little to no regard for the communities impacted and with a long history of organizing.
  • Evaluation – Evaluation practices of the field further serve to reify the strategic choices of the foundations without raising any questions about the validity of said choices.
  • Learning – Learning techniques are structured to support the original problem statements and strategies rather than complicating and informing these theories of change.

To overcome these traps, the authors advocate for a transformative approach to accountability in philanthropy that affords communities influence over foundations and a realization of their espoused values.

First, they recommend “flipping the principal-agent relationship,” by reversing principal-agent dynamics through which foundations currently demand one-directional accountability from grantees to funders. Instead, foundations should re-frame themselves as agents accountable to the communities they serve. To increase this direct accountability they must name their constituencies, make precise commitments, and create transparency and relational opportunities for evaluation and analysis of their work.

Second, they recommend that foundations shift their strategic approach to ensure that they develop channels for BIPOC -led and other grassroots organizations to meaningfully inform and challenge the foundations’ frames, assumptions, and actions. This would mean practically moving from strategies that center funders’ interests to those that are restorative and deeply informed by community needs. To do this, foundations will need to give up power, and shift control and decision-making of funding away from their own interests and towards the communities they support.

Third, the authors argue that for their first two recommendations to proceed as intended, the role of the evaluation and learning must also shift to ensure that foundations live up to their racial equity and social justice commitments. As such, the primary client of the evaluation would become the constituencies to whom the foundation is accountable. This approach would also enable critique to evaluate the foundations’ achievements and failures in a more robust way. “Boundary critique” is one exemplary tool for critical analysis of how strategies/systems look now and how they should aim to look from various constituency standpoints.


Foundations seeking to live out their espoused values of equity and justice must fundamentally reimagine extractive structures and processes to instead redistribute their power and agency to the communities they serve. To get there, it will require that foundations themselves be willing to give up their traditional ways of operating, turn the evaluation and accountability lens on themselves, and become conscious of how their processes, policies, and structures reinforce inequitable power dynamics. The authors acknowledge that this analysis is limited by their own identities as white women who have worked both in foundations, and as evaluators of foundations. By leveraging their experiences withinside these organizations, they hope to reinforce the messages that BIPOC leaders have been sharing for years about changes needed in philanthropy. As strategy evaluators, they also understand that their call for transformation is restricted by their role as external actors. Foundations must decide to make real change and make it possible for the innovators in-house to facilitate change, lest their espoused values continue to stand at a distance from their actual practices.


Thank you for visiting RRAPP

Please help us improve the site by answering three short questions.