How The Fund for Black Women Leaders in Nonprofits Came to Be
The History of an Idea
2020 was a tumultuous and life-changing year, to say the very least. COVID, of course, was the first shake-up to our nation that year. The murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020—and the racial reckoning that followed—would be the second. The impact of these twin events on Washington Women’s Foundation (WaWF), as with many other organizations and human beings on this planet, is still reverberating and has made permanent alterations to the way we function.
Like many other organizations, companies and individuals, WaWF confronted the stark inequities both COVID and the George Floyd murders laid bare in our society. Through our reflections, we determined a need to change our relationship with the Black community. Distrust had built over the years between WaWF and nonprofit leaders in the Black community. After all, in our 25-year history, only 3% of our funds had been granted to Black-led organizations. The question we wrestled with as an organization in the wake of Black Lives Matter was how to both acknowledge a past where we could have done better and look to a future where we sincerely wanted to act differently.
As a women’s organization, we felt that in our support for the Black community we should pay particular attention to Black women. We also work with nonprofits, and through that work we have come to understand that leaders in nonprofits—especially BIPOC leaders—struggle daily with being overburdened and under-resourced. To make a gesture that was true to us and meaningful to others, we felt compelled to narrow our focus to Black women in nonprofit leadership.
Our next question, then, was how could we support Black women leaders in nonprofits in a meaningful and impactful way? This was the question our board grappled with, even as they voted to create a $1,000,000 fund in support of Black Women Nonprofit Leaders. How these dollars would be spent was not yet decided, only that they would be spent to support this group of women.
Sharing Power and Operating at the Speed of Trust
Our board realized early on that the best way to know what Black women might want in a fund for Black women would be to ask Black women what they wanted! And this is exactly what happened.
Our staff conducted a series of interviews over several months, asking Black leaders in philanthropy and Black women in the community how they felt this fund should be spent. The answers were as varied as the people, but two dominant themes emerged:
- Black Women should make the decision about these funds and
- Washington Women’s Foundation was not fully trusted by the Black community. We would have to “move at the speed of trust” as we planned how to spend these dollars. No decision could be made without building trust with the women we hoped to honor with this fund.
From our interviews we heard frustration that too often foundations and institutions like WaWF made decisions about how to fund in the Black community without including the opinions or perspective of Black people. As one of our interviewees told us:
“I get pissed about people who want to bring me along at the back end. After decisions have been made, [you] want us to bless your decision-making. How do we bring the community into decision-making from the beginning?”
Our interviewees also bemoaned the lack of support Black women receive in proportion to their work:
“Black women are charged with doing so much for the community, but no organization invests in seeding us energy, information, or support.”
It is important to note that when we talk about the work Black women do for community, we are talking about ALL our community, not just Black people. A famous saying among Black women activists for over a century, from Mary Church Terrell to Angela Davis, is that Black women “Lift as we Climb”. And Black women lift up far more than just Black people as they rise.
With the Rest and Repair Award Washington Women’s Foundation honors the often unseen and unappreciated work Black women have done to make Washington State a more equitable place to live. By working to make Washington State a better place to live, these women have improved ALL our lives.
Several additional themes arose from our interviews, and these became guiding principles for the design and implementation of this new initiative:
- Be accountable to the communities we serve.
- Fund black women like we want them to win.
- Work from an abundance mindset, not a scarcity mindset
- Think beyond survival into wholeness.
- Fund the strengths of the community without looking for deficits. Fund Strength. Fund Resilience. Fund Joy.
- Constantly ask and, more importantly, be willing to truly listen to answers Black women give to the following question: “What does it look like to truly care for Black Women?”
Creating the Award
Following a sizeable staff change, the board authorized the staff to come up with solid options for the distribution of this grant. As before, it was clear that the people who needed to make the decision about how these dollars for Black women would be distributed had to be Black women. Given that, the staff recommended, and the board approved the following:
A cohort—nicknamed the Rest and Repair Cohort and made up of prominent Black women leaders in Washington State, along with any Black WaWF Members who wished to join—would be given the authority to decide how the $1M Fund for Black Women Leaders in Nonprofits would be spent. WaWF would share power and build trust with a community that we had historically under-resourced.
The Rest and Repair Cohort’s conversations around this fund centered on the fact that the work of Black women often goes under-appreciated and poorly compensated. We discussed the fact that many Black women leaders have come to their positions without the support structure of their white peers. We discussed the difficulty of being a Black woman leader and being able to truly take ease.
As our conversations grew deeper, the plan for these funds did a similar transformation. We’d begun thinking we’d give $100k to 10 organizations led by black women. But fundamental questions about this methodology arose, especially if our goal was to give black women space to breathe: Would black women leaders truly be able to take ease just because their organizations were given a large gift? If they left the organization, would the money follow them? What would prevent an organization from receiving those $100k funds and later laying off the black woman we had hoped to support?
At one point someone mentioned the MacArthur Genius Awards, which are given directly to individuals in recognition of their accomplishments. And despite some initial pause, the idea took root. We found ourselves returning to it again and again.
We realized that money, like it or not, provides time. It provides peace of mind. It provides a space for rest. Money was the medicine we had to give that could offer Black women ease. In the end, our decision was unanimous. We would trust Black women leaders. We would support them unconditionally. We would honor them directly for the services they had already done for us all. And we would ask no more of them than that.
The Rest and Repair Award: A Love Letter
Over the next two years WaWF will award ten $100,000 Rest & Repair Awards to 10 Black women who have made significant contributions to under-resourced communities through the nonprofit sector and who live in Washington State. Five awards will be publicly announced in 2023 and another five will be announced in 2024.
The Rest and Repair Awards are intended to give the Black women who receive them the resources to find ease and wellness, to rest and repair. We are investing in these women because we want them to win, and we honor what they have already accomplished. As a celebration of Black women’s joy, strength, and resilience, these awards are unrestricted gifts to individuals. It is up to the recipients to decide how best to use the funds they will be given.
For now, I want to tell you that with this award, Washington Women’s Foundation says to the Black Women Nonprofit Leaders of Washington State:
We See You, Black Women of Washington. We see your work. We see your grace. We see your strength. We see your good judgment. We want to give you the resources you need to find some ease and heal. To Rest and Repair. To win. We have ceded the decision-making around this grant to you because this is truly a grant for you – and thus it should be by you as well.
The Rest and Repair Award is a joyous celebration and a genuine love letter to Black women nonprofit leaders in Washington State who have worked tirelessly – and often without acknowledgment – to make our state a better place for us all to live.
Thank you. From all of us, to all of you.