How Philanthropic Investments Can Drive Progress toward Health and Racial Equity

Nineequa Blanding

“We know what works. We know what will center the humanity and dignity and ensure that Black folks are not just surviving but thriving . . . But we don’t fund it.

US Rep. Ayanna Pressley, MA-07

In this powerful quote, Rep. Ayanna Pressley is highlighting two important ways philanthropy and other sectors can drive meaningful change by:

1) Focusing on strategies that center humanity and explicitly address the disproportionate burden of inequities shouldered by Black and Brown people; and

2) Ensuring that investments support these strategies.

This work is urgent! The coronavirus pandemic continues to exacerbate longstanding injustices shouldered by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and other People of Color. One stark example are challenges related to housing. According to a recent report released by the National Council of State Housing Agencies, approximately 14.2M renter households are at risk for eviction with an estimated shortfall of $16.7B in rent. By January 2021, renters are projected to owe $34.3B in back rent. Among those at risk for eviction, Black households are disproportionately impacted, and housing is just one sector among many where these trends are evident. Furthermore, non-profits that provide critical resources to help mitigate these challenges are strained, with many at risk of closing. In MA, non-profits report an estimated $8.6B in lost revenue.

The challenges noted above, along with the disproportionate burden of inequities faced by Blacks and other People of Color, are largely a result of socio-political systems of domination and the accumulation of structured power. The intentional allocation of investments to tackle systemic racism – which is entrenched in white supremacy culture – is a way to drive progress in creating conditions in which everyone, across all forms of identity, can thrive. This is the path toward health and racial equity.

Dr. Camara Jones defines racism as a system of structuring opportunity that saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources. Our health is shaped by social determinants of health (SDOH), the social and environmental conditions in which we live, work, learn, play and age. Furthermore, our existing societal conditions do not enable everyone to thrive and attain their best health, resulting in health inequities. The disproportionate burden of health inequities experienced by People of Color, related to housing and other social determinants of health, are the result of policies and practices that perpetuate structural racism and other forms of oppression. The collective health of our society can be improved by investing in efforts to transform the actual policies and institutions that are at the root of these inequities.

So, how do we approach this work? HRiA’s organizational framework for operationalizing health and racial equity calls out three main levers that can be used to drive change within all sectors, including philanthropy:

  • Challenge assumptions and narratives about what promotes and hinders health. It is time we collectively transform our way of thinking as a field by developing a shared understanding of the impact of structural racism on societal health. Our health is shaped by more than just healthcare access. All of the systems and structures that shape our way of being – from housing, to education, to research, to healthcare, to public safety – were designed to promote and maintain a racial hierarchy through structural racism. The resulting culture and beliefs will continue to shape our health and well-being until we actively work to dismantle them and co-create more equitable policies, systems, and practices that benefit all people.

    Asking this question allows us to identify the problem, as well as reimagine and transform these policies and practices to ensure equity at their center. In philanthropy, several studies have shown racial bias persists in philanthropic funding decisions and it is evident in every aspect of the grantmaking process. Asking “how racism is operating here?” can be applied to practices related to how wealth and investments are dispersed, how decisions are made, who gets to decide, who is engaged, what gets funded, and whose narratives are either highlighted or left out. In addition to practices related to the grantmaking processes, this work demands a full and honest inventory and evaluation of our internal institutional practices (e.g. staff representation, board leadership, investment and procurement practices). This active work towards a collective transformation of consciousness and practice is needed within philanthropy which, given its influence as a field, can drive meaningful change across other sectors. 
  • Create and sustain authentic and diverse engagement by investing in leaders of color and adopting participatory grantmaking models. In order to equitably advance philanthropic missions, a focus on racial equity needs to be front and center. We need to authentically engage those with lived experience and ensure that these voices lead to direct the planning and implementation of investments. Trust building, active listening, and a willingness to take on a learning position are necessary guides for this work.
  • Strengthen capacity to correct power imbalances and address inequities by inspiring structural change across sectors, sharing decision-making power and influence among communities to develop solutions that refuse to accept the problem or issue, on any level. There is power in collective impact across institutions and community. Philanthropy can play a role in creating pathways for collaboration and inspiring a new way of thinking in what is accomplishable.

We must collectively examine these systems, while also interrogating our respective institutions’ policies and practices by continuously asking, as Dr. Jones suggests, “How is racism operating here?”

With racial equity as the desired outcome, it is the process that we take to get there that is most important. This work is a learning journey that requires a commitment to operationalizing health and racial equity at every decision point along the way, deep reflection, authentic engagement, and meaningful collaboration. At HRiA, we welcome the opportunity to learn, partner, and grow together to create conditions in which everyone, across all forms of identity, can thrive.

Several grantmaking projects at HRiA are working toward advancing health and racial equity while intentionally transforming policies and practices that perpetuate structural racism. Of these, include the MA Community Health and Healthy Aging Funds (The Funds; read the press release) and the Innovative Stable Housing Initiative (ISHI). For these initiatives, HRiA is responsible for facilitating the visioning, planning, and design of investment strategies that both center and operationalize equity. Our work exists within a constellation of global and longstanding social justice efforts across the globe. We are putting these concepts into action with existing clients and look forward to doing so with new partners. Through these collective efforts and by upholding the principles of health and racial equity through cross-sector collaboration and investment, we have the power to enact real, sustainable, structural changes that allows everyone to thrive.

For more information on HRiA’s grantmaking services and a description of our current projects to improve community health and medical research, contact Nineequa Blanding, Vice President of Grantmaking at or review our Investments in Health services page.