Black Philanthropy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Dr. Emmett Carson, a leading scholar of black philanthropy, challenges us to broaden the definition of philanthropy. Dr. Carson states, "One reason little has been written about black philanthropy is that the word philanthropy evokes images of large foundations and wealthy philanthropists, which are scarce in the black community. When one expands the concept to include giving money, goods, and time; blacks emerge as having a strong, substantial philanthropic tradition."

 and Luana G. Nissan


The term "philanthropy" is often used to mean large financial gifts given by wealthy individuals to organizations, institutions or individuals in need. Dr. Emmett Carson, a leading scholar of black philanthropy, made a call to broaden this definition. He challenged scholars to think about the limiting nature of this traditional use of the term. This challenge and recent recognition of the unique philanthropic culture of African-American giving have changed its use. In 1999, Dr. C. Erick Lincoln used the following definition in "At the Crossroads. . .The Proceedings of the First National Conference on Black Philanthropy:"

The voluntary transfer of significant values identified with the self, or an extension of the self to other entities perceived as wanting. These quantum of value may be intangible, as in the case of love, labor, services or support: or they may be concrete and tangible as in the case of money, works of art, clothing, shelter and the like.

Such a broadly inclusive definition takes into consideration the many and varied ways people give to others throughout our society's socio-economic, ethnic and racial groups.

More specifically, this definition allows the charitable activities of African-Americans to be viewed as philanthropic within and outside of their communities. As Dr. Carson stated, "One reason little has been written about black philanthropy is that the word philanthropy evokes images of large foundations and wealthy philanthropists, which are scarce in the black community. When one expands the concept to include giving money, goods, and time; blacks emerge as having a strong, substantial philanthropic tradition."

Historic Roots

Current day African-American philanthropy is complex because it had a distinct catalyst in the people's history of slavery, oppression and segregation. From the beginnings of African slavery in America, the church has been the "most powerful institution of racial self-help in the African American community" (Higginbotham, 1). In fact, in the most difficult years of discrimination and violence against blacks in the south, from 1880-1920, African-Americans turned to themselves to "educate the masses of their people, care for the needy, facilitate economic development, and address political concerns" largely through their churches (Ibid., 5). During this time, the Supreme Court announced a "separate but equal" status for blacks, which further emphasized the requirement of separate philanthropic vehicles to meet the needs of African American people.

In addition to their roles as church-goers, African-American citizens made enormous formal (through nonprofit organizations and associations) and informal contributions during the civil rights movement. Their philanthropic gifts were the heart of the movement, ranging from participating in boycotts to helping organize NAACP events to providing meals for Freedom Riders registering Southern voters to taking in children of lynching victims to marching on Washington to becoming the first to desegregate schools. Of course, the ultimate price of giving one's life to further the cause of civil rights was made by a number of people, including leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers.

From these historically brutal years through today, African-Americans have addressed needs through viewpoints and practices unlike those of other minority groups. A permeating tradition of loosely defined kinship is ever-present, originating with slaves brought over from the African continent (Hall-Russell and Kasberg, 5). This means that when a neighbor is in need, this person is, most often informally, given a home or food or support just as if she or he were a close relative; indeed, the neighbor is often treated as and addressed as "aunt," "uncle," "cousin," "daughter," "son," or by a similar relational title. Interestingly, "African-Americans consider much of their giving and serving to family, neighbors, and needy strangers as general obligation rather than philanthropy" (Ibid., 4). In other words, this philanthropy is seen as "giving back" because one is a part of the community and "it is the right thing to do;" it is not seen as generosity but as an African-American's obligation. As a result, many acts of philanthropy are personal and directly made to the individual in need, outside of the structure of a nonprofit organization; this informal philanthropy is a strong tradition among African-Americans.

An additional influence on black philanthropy is the variation found from one region to another. For example, in the North, during the period of migration after the Civil War, there was a focus by African-Americans on helping former slaves adjust to freedom. Meanwhile, in the South during the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of the historically black colleges were formed to meet new needs of blacks that wanted an education. A number of African-American women and men were key to promoting education and raising funds to start schools and colleges, these include Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune. In regard to regional differences in black philanthropy, some studies show southern African-Americans more likely than northerners to make contributions of time and money and to participate in associations (Hall-Russell and Kasberg, 4).


Recognizing the contributions made by African-Americans to our nation's history and society is a step toward repairing tense race relations and socioeconomic class conflict. Black philanthropy was critical to the poor and played a key role in developing the first black schools, banks, and insurance companies; and it has been an essential component of virtually every black protest movement in history. The accomplishments of the civil rights movement have affected the lives of every other minority group in America and set the precedent for judging the claim to equal rights for these groups. Additionally, understanding black philanthropy as being both informal (through countless small and large acts) and formal (through volunteering at and giving to nonprofits like the church) can widen the use of a more inclusive definition of philanthropy. Educating students on all levels about informal and formal African-American giving helps to dispel the preconceived notion that blacks are not as generous as white Americans.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

In addition to helping our society, recognition of black philanthropy is vital to the nonprofit sector. Studies conducted by major foundations have revealed that a growing percentage of America's approximate $190 billion in annual contributions comes from philanthropists of color. Since the number one reason people make financial contributions or volunteer is because they are asked (Saxon-Harrold, 12), viewing African-Americans as philanthropic will promote more asking of them to give. Unfortunately, African-Americans are approached far less often than whites to volunteer in non-black organizations and to give to those same organizations; a more informative understanding can promote a professional and consistent approach by fundraisers. Fortunately, there currently exists within the African-American community a greater accumulation of wealth than ever before, and with a tradition of giving back to the community, how black philanthropists are approached will affect the nonprofit sector.

Interest in black philanthropy it is at an all time high. Some foundations, like the Cleveland Foundation, are establishing African-American advisory committees and designing marketing tactics targeting African-American donors. Other major foundations, like Lilly Endowment, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, sponsor research and events related to African-American philanthropy (such as The National Conference of Black Philanthropy). This attention and information resulting from these efforts has begun to help black institutions and wealthy African-Americans systematically develop their philanthropy, for example, black churches, individuals, and families are establishing endowment funds and donor advised funds.

Key Related Ideas

Black churches, Bloody Sunday, civil rights movement, Freedom Riders, free societies, giving back, informal philanthropy, kinship, Montgomery bus boycott, mutual aid, obligation, segregation, self-help, "separate but equal" or Jim Crow Laws, Underground Railroad.

Important People Related to the Topic

Ella Baker, Mary McLeod Bethune, Emmett D. Carson, W.E.B. DuBois, Medgar Evers, Jesse Jackson, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, Madam C.J. Walker, Booker T. Washington, and Ida Wells-Barnett.

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

INDEPENDENT SECTOR; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the Urban League; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The National Center for Black Philanthropy was incorporated in November 1999 "to promote and strengthen African American participation in philanthropy" ( Specifically, the Center's goals are to increase giving and volunteering, educate the public about the importance of black philanthropy, promote full participation by African-Americans in all aspects of philanthropy, strengthen and support institutions involved in black philanthropy, and conduct research into the contributions of black philanthropy to the social and economic well-being of all Americans. Most well-known of the Center's functions is the biennial event, the National Conference of Black Philanthropy, the premier forum and gathering place for those interested in African-American contributions to and participation in philanthropy.


Black Philanthropy, Quarterly Publication of the National Center for Black Philanthropy, Inc. Winter 2000.

Carson, Emmett D. (1987). The Evolution of Black Philanthropy: Patterns of Giving and Volunteerism. Paper presented at the National Conference of Black Political Scientist in Atlanta, GA.

"Communities of Color Are Sharing With Philanthropy," Non Profit Times, May 1, 2001.

Conference Brochure, The Third National Conference on Black Philanthropy, May 2001.

Hall-Russell, Cheryl and Robert H. Kasberg. (1997). African American Traditions of Giving and Serving: A Midwest Perspective. Indianapolis: The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. (1993). Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Interview with Dr. Adrienne Jones, Former Head of African American Studies, Oberlin College, June 2000.

Interview with Dr. David Hammack, Hiram C. Haydn Professor of History, Case Western Reserve University, June 2000.

Lincoln, C. Erick (1999). At the Crossroads ¦The Proceedings of the First National Conference on Black Philanthropy.

----- October 26, 2001. The National Center for Black Philanthropy, Inc.

Saxon-Harrold, Susan K.E., Ph.D., Arthur D. Kirsch, Ph.D., Aaron J. Heffron, Michael T. McCormack, and Murray S. Weitzman, Ph.D. Giving and Volunteering in the United States: Findings from a National Survey, 1999 Edition, Executive Summary. Washington, DC: INDEPENDENT SECTOR, 1999.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Case Western Reserve University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Case Western Reserve University.