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Use Your Head

Ebonie Johnson Cooper discusses how collaboration is essential to doing the most good.

Ebonie Johnson Cooper—founder of the Young, Black & Giving Back Institute—talks about tapping into the frequently neglected market of millennial donors and diversifying our own conceptions of philanthropy.

People shouldn’t get caught up in the word “philanthropy.” In the black community, giving is approached in nontraditional ways. While a lot of it may not be recognized in established ideas of philanthropy—which is typically thought of as old, white, and wealthy—we sure have ways that we impact our communities. Giving has a lot to do with our upbringing.


One of my mentors shared a story from Hurricane Katrina: At her church, the pastor asked, “Who has an extra home or room that’s vacant? Meet me after the service.” He asked each of them to put someone displaced by Katrina in their homes at no charge. At that time, money was pouring in from all over the country. People were praising the donors, but didn’t know that families on the ground and black churches in the communities were keeping survivors alive. Little things like that, particularly in times of need, are quite native to certain communities. You take what you learned growing up and apply it to your adult life—to what feels right in terms of solving problems in your community. For organizations, transparency is important when people are looking to invest, but they also have to start using people from the communities that look like the people that they serve. If you don’t see someone that looks like you reflected in the organization and its leadership, what does that say about it? Are they really committed to your community? It says a lot when an organization takes just as much time to hire staff with diversity in mind as they do to serve the people.

Collaboration is one of the most important things we emphasize. I always use this example from last year’s Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ report that highlighted the importance of diversity. A group of well-meaning women wanted to support new mothers in an adjacent community and sent money to buy car seats to a hospital. They were so excited, but when they arrived at the hospital, they were told, “Thank you, however they won’t be able to use these car seats because many of our mothers don’t drive.” They couldn’t afford cars. That example is key for demonstrating how important it is to engage the folks in the community that you’re trying to support. Why not have someone that represents that community serve as your advocate, making sure that your organization reflects the diversity and can make meaningful, lasting impact? You have to meet people where they are.

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