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How ‘giving Black’ can close funding gaps for Black nonprofits

From left: Rachel D’Souza, Shelly Williams and MK Stallings.
Ulaa Kuziez/ St. Louis Public Radio
From left: Rachel D’Souza (founder & principal, Gladiator Consulting), Shelly Williams (executive director, Access Academies), and MK Stallings (founder, UrbArts; research and evaluation manager, Regional Arts Commission).

St. Louis enjoys a reputation for philanthropic generosity. Yet donors do not fund Black-led, Black-centered nonprofits at the same levels they do white-led organizations. Three St. Louisans with many years’ experience raising money for local, Black-serving nonprofits say that overcoming that gap requires a focus on deepening relationships, investing in shared vision and sustainability, and educating donors.

Rachel D’Souza, principal of Gladiator Consulting, founded her St. Louis firm in 2015 to bring nonprofits and donors together.

“I kept bumping up against these themes that what donors and funders felt passionate about supporting; and what community and organizations really needed to thrive weren't lining up,” she said. “I wanted to push those parties to start talking to each other; maybe taking some risks in terms of how we think about grant-making or donations, and get to a point where [nonprofits] aren't just scrapping resources together month-to-month, or budget year over budget year, but could really have resources to create lasting change.”

Subsistence fundraising is a struggle MK Stallings, research and evaluations manager at Regional Arts Commission, has faced since he founded UrbArts (formerly the Urban Artists Alliance) in 1989. In the case of the arts, discomfort with the art itself presents a particular challenge.

“The powers and monies that be don't necessarily want to support the sort of change we want manifested in the region. And there are people who define what's ‘good’ in a way that's different from how we [do]. That sort of disconnect creates problems in the funding space,” he said.

Stallings also cited a lack of shared experience, and common vision for change, as a major factor contributing to funding gaps. “Certain communities might be disconnected from the experiences of Black-led and Black-centered organizations, and don't view themselves in relationship, in solidarity [with those organizations]... that leads us to a situation where they don't even see the relevance” of conversation around change, he said.

As a Black woman leading a nonprofit that serves mostly Black students, Access Academies executive director Shelly Williams said her approach starts with educating donors.

“We ended up producing a 20-minute mini documentary to take a deeper dive into the lives of our kids. And we let our kids lead that process. Some donors really need those personal stories to help move them along the path to help them learn. You will get comments like, ‘Oh, they can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps…’ without really realizing there's a whole ton of systems that are literally designed to hold [kids] back,” Williams said.

Beyond coins in coffers, Williams says she’s focused on cultivating a new, more representative crop of donors and partners.

“Our traditional audience is now aging out, and we’re trying to find and bring in new supporters who also look like our children. That is something they can recognize as we do our events… a diverse board representing their thoughts, their ideas, their ambitions, and also empowering them.”

Rachel D’Souza gave a shout-out and reality check to St. Louis. She described its residents as “wildly generous,” but she also challenged local donors to make good on pledges to Black-led, Black-centered nonprofits. She also encouraged people who want to “Give Black” to find avenues of philanthropy that open them up to new connections.

“I think the key is educating yourself about what the philanthropic, nonprofit landscape looks like,” MK Stallings added, “and making a conscious decision about where you want your dollars to go to uplift groups that have historically not received an equitable share of what's out there.”

To hear more insights into what supports – and undermines – the success and sustainability of Black-led, Black-serving nonprofits, and to learn how to #GiveBlack meaningfully at all times of the year, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.

Black nonprofits face fundraising challenges. Giving Black can help.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Elaine Cha is the host/producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.