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We need to talk about racism in philanthropy

20 August 2020 at 8:33 am
Maggie Coggan
Structural racism is not a new issue in Australian philanthropy. But it’s not an issue that people like to openly talk about. Now, some want that to change.  

Maggie Coggan | 20 August 2020 at 8:33 am


We need to talk about racism in philanthropy
20 August 2020 at 8:33 am

Structural racism is not a new issue in Australian philanthropy. But it’s not an issue that people like to openly talk about. Now, some want that to change.  

Back in July, Prashan Paramanathan, the CEO of, made a post on his LinkedIn profile he knew would make many in the philanthropic sector uncomfortable.  

He posted screenshots of the boards of some of the nation’s largest philanthropic foundations. 

“Notice anything?” the post said. 

“Forty directors. Not a single person of colour… It’s time we had a conversation about what structural racism looks like in the nonprofit sector – and the effect it’s having in creating the problems that the sector is meant to be solving.” 

While it’s a conversation that’s been taking place behind closed doors and in private email chains for a number of years now, the topic is yet to be fully dealt with out in the open.

But in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter movement, Paramanathan and a number of others in the sector believe it’s an opportune time to make a move on the issue. 

The struggle for power and giving it up  

Paramanathan told Pro Bono News that while the purpose of the philanthropic sector was to advance social, gender and racial equality, the lack of culturally and ethnically diverse voices in positions of power meant that couldn’t happen.    

“The direct impact of this is that black and brown organisations are not getting the funding that white-led organisations get,” Paramanathan said.

Beyond this, he said that white philanthropy made funding choices that tried to optimise within the system rather than try to break this system and build a new one.

It has meant that issues that challenge the power of wealthy white individuals, such as wealth taxation, labour rights, or abolishing the prison system, aren’t even considered.       

“We can spend years figuring out a social impact bond to fund recidivism programs, but we don’t lobby for dismantling the system that incarcerates black people in the first place.” 

Sonia Sofat, the organising director for Democracy in Colour, said that throughout her career she’s often witnessed a “significant mismatch” between what an organisation wants to achieve versus what is actually going to benefit a community. 

“People on these boards tend not to be from the communities that are actually affected by the issues that organisations might be working on, or have strong relationships with the communities that they’re trying to advance and to advocate for, which is a really big concern,” Sofat told Pro Bono News.  

“How can you really create solutions that are going to be relevant to those communities, are going to be accepted by those communities, are going to be able to be rolled out in a way that actually works?”  

“I just think it’s quite limiting not having that knowledge and experience.”

The problem with quotas and ticking boxes

For much of John Harding’s career, he’s been the only Aboriginal person in an organisation. 

As the founder of Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong, Australia’s first and only Indigenous-led philanthropic fund, he told Pro Bono News that he is constantly reminded of the power imbalance that exists between the people at the top of philanthropy, and everyone else. 

“It’s white people at the top, who have no experience with a black person, and they feel forced to talk to you,” Harding said.  

“According to their guidelines and their charter, they should be talking to us, but that doesn’t mean they want to. 

“But I guess that’s what we expect when we walk into a country that’s been colonised and no treaty has been signed.” 

Sofat said that organisations often did the bare minimum in order to tick a diversity box.

“Putting one ethnically and culturally diverse person on your board isn’t necessarily going to change the culture of how you work or your approach,” Sofat said.  

“It’s about hiring many people of colour and paying them for their experiences, and respecting and acknowledging those different ways of working and the different approaches.” 

A balancing act 

According to Sarah Davies AM, the CEO of Philanthropy Australia, characteristics of philanthropic dollars such as untapped social capital, the freedom to take risks, and not being tied to any political agenda, meant they could achieve transformative change. 

But Davies told Pro Bono News that if these lighter aspects of philanthropy weren’t kept in check, the practice could easily become unstuck. 

“One of the freedoms of philanthropy is that it can go to the parts of the change system that no other dollar can go. But the shadow side of that is that it is unaccountable and in significant amounts it can, and does influence the design and operation of systems,” Davies said. 

“I do think it is incumbent upon philanthropy to not only acknowledge that there is a shadow side, but to behave in ways that as far as possible mitigate that shadow side,” she said.  

She said it wasn’t so much about dismantling those characteristics completely, but being aware of the negative impacts. 

“If you take away the characteristics, you then take away all the positives,” she said.  

“It’s about being aware and educated and reflective of these issues and having these conversations and discussions to evolve the practice. And inevitably, discussions about the shadow side are going to be uncomfortable.” 

These uncomfortable discussions are something that Paramanathan believes will be the hardest part of effecting change. 

“It’s very hard to tear down the system you benefit from. I think that takes a degree of self reflection and willingness to self-sacrifice to do that,” Paramanathan said. 

Honesty is the first step

Advocates believe the first step needs to be for the philanthropic sector to openly acknowledge and discuss the problem, no matter how uncomfortable it is. 

“I think the first step is actually just to have the conversation and acknowledge that this is a problem that has real effects and be okay about sitting in that discomfort,” Paramanathan said.  

“It’s also about having these conversations out in the open, because where this issue goes to die is in private email chains and quiet side conversations behind closed doors.”  

He did say however that rushing through any changes would be ineffective.  

“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and we have to do the work,” he said.  

 Davies agreed, saying she believed it wasn’t helpful to “jump from zero to 100”.  

“You’ve got to go through awareness and understanding and motivation before you see behaviour change,” she said. 

“The point of having these conversations is to evolve practice and create change.” 

Sofat noted however that this process of gradual change needs to be closely monitored.    

“Organisations need to start being creative, and thinking outside the box because they could end up with 10 working papers later and nothing has happened,” she said.  

“I have often seen boards and senior management create quick decisions and big changes in organisations when it is essential, whether that be a restructure or whether that be creating a new team. 

“So I think it’s important that they don’t just use the process as an excuse to not do the work.”

Holding out hope for the future 

While Paramanathan knows the road ahead is a long one, he is hopeful that the philanthropic and broader social sector is a place where women and people of colour are able to reach positions of power, and be taken seriously.

“I have a two-year-old daughter who will grow up to be a woman of colour, and maybe she’ll want to follow her dad into the social sector,” he said.  

“I just want her to be able to bring her experience to the table, be listened to, be taken seriously and not have to explain structural racism to every person.” 

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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  • Menaka says:

    I could not agree more with the comments made by Maggie Coggan and CEO Paramanathan. Black and brown Australia is being left or has been left behind in the race for the scarce philanthropy $. Most of all, is the low numbers of ethnic and Aboriginal people on corporate and philanthropy boards not to mention the talking heads on radio and TV. The same applies to all the knowledge gurus on Diversity and Inclusion sites and columns. As Harding puts it: It’s white people at the top, who have no experience with a black person’ who make decisions and pass opinions. Instead of consulting the black, brown, brindle people, they talk down instead of with people who are the concerned parties. I do despair!

  • A Quah says:

    BRAVO Prashan. We definitely need to talk about it in Australia. Not just in the not for profit sector, but in Australian society more broadly. But what better and more appropriate place to start than the sector whose work is largely focused on people who are less-privileged.


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