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African American Philanthropy

By: Marybeth Gasman, 03/03/06


March 30, 2006

Myth: African Americans don't give to charitable causes. Fact: African American households give 25% more of their discretionary income to philanthropic activities than Whites (Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2003). The question is where do they give?

Black giving, and the organizations around which it is focused, are rooted in efforts to overcome oppression. The history of Black philanthropy shows that Blacks are motivated by those who are close to them -- efforts that make a difference in the daily lives of other African Americans. In many cases, their philanthropy has been a response to discrimination: slavery and segregation in the past; inequality in education and the workplace today.

The tradition of giving "tithes and offerings" began as early as the colonial period when free Blacks in the North established Black churches. Since its inception, the Black church has been the single most important institution involved in Black philanthropy. It has also been the chief beneficiary of the Black community's generosity as well. The majority of African Americans are taught from a young age that they have an obligation to give to the church. Often created as an arm of the church, mutual aid societies were also among the earliest organizations established by African Americans. These societies, which began in the North and were typically founded by free Blacks, were committed to healing social ills and contributing to the community.

African American "elites" (business and professional circles) have also created many social and service organizations for themselves. Because of the secretive nature of these organizations and the fact that their membership is exclusively Black, their philanthropic efforts often go unnoticed by non-Blacks, and they are frequently overlooked in mainstream discussions of African American philanthropy. Among them are women's groups such as the Links, the Girl Friends, and the Northeasterners. Men's organizations in this category include the Boulé, the Comus Club, and the Guardsmen. Giving within these elite organizations is not only an expectation, but a requirement of membership. The same kind of personal appeal that explains the success of giving in the Black church is also at work in Black "elite" organizations. If their friends belong to or are willing to give to a particular organization, African Americans are more likely to get involved.

Because so many successful African Americans required others' help to achieve social betterment, the collective good is held in high esteem. According to a 2004 report by the Twenty-First Century Foundation, an African American organization, "It took a community of people to help that one person arrive at such a level of success...African American individual donors feel compelled to do the same as they receive more." Donors tend to give in areas (such as education and religion) where they can trace a very personal impact on their own lives.

According to a study done by the Coalition for New Philanthropy in New York, African Americans born after 1964 (the year the Civil Rights Act was passed) are more likely to support philanthropic causes that benefit people of all races and ethnicities. On the other hand, African Americans born prior to the mid 1960s (those who lived through the horrors of Jim Crow), tend to support charitable causes that assist the Black community. And according to a 2001 report on Wealth and Wealth Transfer among African American Households conducted by John Havens and Paul Schervish, younger African Americans (< 41 years) had a slightly higher rate of wealth growth than older African Americans. This trend could make a difference in the future of African American giving. Given their commitment to philanthropy, as Blacks have more access to wealth, the amount of their giving may increase. According to the study's authors, it will be advantageous for fundraisers to "develop a longer-term strategy for the cohort of young wealthy African American professionals and business owners that may not at this time be affluent but will become very wealthy as their assets grow over the next two decades."

In fact, most giving trends in the Black community follow a similar pattern in the current day as in the past. For example, various studies have shown that donations to the church make up between 45% and 90% of all money given by African Americans (depending upon the segment of the population studied). Religion plays an enormous role in African American giving. In a recent study sponsored by the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta (2004), it was found that African Americans who attend church are 25% more likely to give than their peers who don't attend church services. Because African Americans tend to give to "faith-based" charities that coincide with their spiritual ideals, the church continues to be a major beneficiary of Black giving.

After the church, the next priority in African American philanthropy is social service organizations, especially those that are in the giver's neighborhood and focus on children and youth. Organizations that provide after school programs are of particular interest. African Americans give approximately 25% of their charitable donations to organizations that serve the public need (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, 2004).

In the area of medicine, some sectors of the Black community have been long-time givers to the research and treatment of sickle cell anemia and diabetes. More recently, African Americans have been supporting research and social service programs related to AIDS and cancer (especially, breast cancer). AIDS, in particular, has become a dire problem, with African Americans representing 49% of all new AIDS cases in the United States (Center for Disease Control, 2005). In fact, among Black women ages 25-34, AIDS is the number one cause of death. Perhaps because of the AIDS crisis, health issues now make up 13% of African American philanthropic dollars, a percentage that has increased significantly in recent years (Community Foundation of Atlanta, 2004). Some African American families that have been plagued by AIDS and other health care problems raise money through their annual family reunions to support health related facilities in their local neighborhoods.

Education is held in high esteem by the Black community and has historically been a way for African Americans to uplift themselves as individuals, but also their community as a whole. Much philanthropic giving is directed toward scholarships and educational institutions (especially historically Black colleges). Approximately 15% of African American philanthropic dollars fund educational causes (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, 2004). Education provides tangible results and the direct impact of giving in this area can be seen in the local community.

Although recent years have seen increased giving to arts and cultural organizations, this has generally been an untapped area with regard to African American giving. Just a little over 5% of Black philanthropic dollars are directed toward arts and culture (Twenty-first Century Foundation, 2004). And, according to research done at the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy as well as my own research on Black colleges, the most often reason cited for not giving by African Americans is not being asked. In many cities, museums and other cultural venues have neglected to ask Blacks to contribute. In order to garner more interest from the Black communities, museums and other cultural venues, which have traditionally catered to an upper class White population, will have to open their doors to a new constituency.

One potential area for African American giving that has seen some growth lately is technology related nonprofits. Lack of access to computers in schools, Black colleges, libraries in Black neighborhoods, and individual low-income Black families, has led to glaring inequities in computer knowledge. Many programs directed at youth and the elderly, which are focused on computer skills and technology in general, have become popular in inner city areas and have received some philanthropic support from the Black community. However, much more is needed in order to bridge the digital divide in the country.

Thus, the key to successfully garnering funds from African Americans is to make sure that this population can see results in their local communities. Research tells us that Blacks want to align themselves with organizations that have influence right around them. In many cases, they feel that local nonprofits, such as community centers and youth centers, can do a better job with their children than public, government-sponsored programs (W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2002). The fact that an appeal for funds is made, by a community leader, a friend, or a relative signals that the money will have local impact, and is therefore much more likely to succeed among African Americans.

Reprinted with permission of onPhilanthropy.

About The Author:

Marybeth Gasman is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of two award winning books, Uplifting a People: African American Philanthropy and Education (with Katherine Sedgwick) and Fund Raising from Black College Alumni: Successful Strategies for Supporting Alma Mater (with Sibby Anderson-Thompkins)

You may contact the author at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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