Black Philanthropy Month: An Interview with Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland

Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland of Black Philanthropy Month

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Black Philanthropy Month is a global campaign to document, celebrate and promote African-descent giving in all of its forms. We interviewed Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland, founder and CEO of Black Philanthropy Month and The WISE Fund to find out more. 

How did Black Philanthropy Month come about, and what is the purpose behind it?

Black Philanthropy Month started about 10 years ago. I lived in Minneapolis for 15 years, and we had the most diverse black population of any city in the U.S. I began serving as a pro bono consultant for women from all over the world who were starting their own nonprofits, creating community organizations and volunteering. It was really rich because we had the longstanding African American community, who were already active, serving with women who had come from Somalia, Liberia and Kenya and brought their volunteer cultures with them. It became a valuable way to celebrate our cultural heritage. 

In 2011 the United Nations created the International Year of People of African Descent, and highlighted that there were commonalities across countries like Brazil, the United States and the Republic of South Africa – where an abusive, toxic form of legalized racial exploitation had been in place. I knew we needed to address those issues at a systemic level.

I set up Black Philanthropy Month, which is officially recognized by the United Nations, to be celebrated every August. However, it has now become a year-round initiative that highlights the impact of generosity in Black communities.

Why is African-descent giving more important now than ever?

46% of small, Black-owned businesses have closed due to the pandemic. Many of our Black-led nonprofits – especially the small and medium ones that are most effective – are now closing. The impact is being felt by everyone, but especially communities of African descent. 

Only 2% to 10% of foundation philanthropy goes to black-led organizations, and only 1% of venture funding goes to black businesses. That same pattern is repeated wherever there are black communities in the world.

We want to empower people to give more and better. Also – in this time of COVID there has been and a new call for racial justice for many Americans and other oppressed people across the world. We want to further shine the light on the fact that there are huge funding disparities.

This year Black Philanthropy Month has moved beyond just philanthropy to other forms of funding. Unequal access to capital disempowers our communities and is an economic justice issue. We want to not only educate people on this disparity, but also inspire them to do something about it.

What is a misconception that people have about African-descent giving?

Many people believe that people of African descent are not as philanthropic. But that is simply not true. A study conducted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors found that Americans of African descent give away 25 percent more of their incomes than white donors.1 

I want to uplift that black portion of the human giving story because there’s no such thing as a group of human beings who are not philanthropic. Giving is a fundamental aspect of any African descent culture, yet we are often perceived as just the supplicants of philanthropy rather than the contributors. Dispelling that mainstream stereotype is another major impetus for having Black Philanthropy Month. 

We all think of philanthropists as major donors, but in what ways can we all be philanthropists?

We say that anybody can be a philanthropist because anyone can care. Everyone has at least time, some kind of talent and a voice, even if they don’t have treasure or money. We’re trying to encourage giving by any means necessary and everyone will be better off as a result.

I think the most important thing is to remember that giving time, talent, voice and treasure are just flip sides of the same coin. All communities volunteer. All communities give. It’s not about mainstream organizations teaching others how to give. It’s more of a learning exchange.

In what ways do you see that viewing philanthropy more holistically can bring about community transformation?

Every society has a particular culture of giving, and the U.S. has many cultures of giving within it. The mainstream culture sees philanthropy as the giving of money. Other cultures may not use the term philanthropy, but definitely have traditions of giving and volunteerism based on time, talent, treasure and voice.

It would benefit everyone to expand our notions of philanthropy – to be more inclusive of different ways of living and empower all of them. We should encourage people to give with their whole heart, mind and body. It’s not just about writing a check. Financial donations are always appreciated, but getting involved and creating a family tradition and expectation of giving for the next generation is even more important. If you are a giver and a philanthropist then you have empathy for your family, your neighbor – even the person in the grocery store. You want to help and protect them because you care. 

We have been having a lot of conversations around this topic of equity in volunteering. What are some practical ways that we can work toward creating a more equitable volunteer culture?

There’s an inherent hierarchy that I think is wrong. I’ve never understood the assumption that there are people who volunteer and people who need help. 

I was trained by this brilliant woman at the Philadelphia Foundation named Carrolle Fair Perry. She says that we are all healed when we become givers or volunteers. That mindset is what community is built upon. It all circles back to the transformative power of giving in any form to heal and empower the giver. This ethic of volunteerism is much more inclusive and equitable than the conventional “see the native” approach that is very insulting and dominates the field.

You recently created an organization to fund and empower women of color. Tell us a little bit about that.

Back in March I created an organization called the Women Invested to Save Earth (WISE) Fund, which is focused on women and environmental issues. The discrimination against women in tech means women only get 2% of venture funding for their tech ideas compared to men. For black and indigenous women, less than 1% receive funding. These women also tend to live in communities that are impacted first by climate change. These communities actually have lots of grassroots entrepreneurs and technologists with promising ideas and strategies that could help the world – but they can’t get funding. And so what I’m trying to do through the WISE Fund is to create economic opportunities for these entrepreneurial women in poor communities in Africa, Australia, Brazil and the United States.

Your efforts to help and empower others are truly inspiring. Do you have any final words of wisdom to share with us?

I would love to see us create a sustainable economy based on love of humanity and care for the planet. At the root of philanthropy is “philanthos,” which is the Greek word for love. Philanthropy is not about money. It’s about caring for the earth and for one another so we can all survive and thrive. 

We need to regenerate our vision and get back to our community roots. There’s no time to discriminate against anybody. We must build a new way of relating to each other and a new way of economic exchange. Perhaps then we can actually keep each other well.

1 Lou Carlozo, Black Americans Donate to Make a Difference, February 23, 2012. Accessed September 12, 2020.

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