A Nonprofit Funding System Built Out of Trust

Khayriyyah Muhammad Smith

The prompt for this manifesto has resonated profoundly and honestly surprised me. Throughout the past 12 years I have spent immersed in the philanthropy and nonprofit sectors, I haven’t been asked or seen others ask anyone to imagine anything. The sector is full of passionate people who have decided to dedicate their lives to social change and are trying to end massive issues like poverty, hunger, lack of quality education, gender injustice, and so much more. To try and tackle issues so systemic and ingrained in the fibers of our societal fabric, you would have to be a dreamer and willing to imagine what the world, society, and our communities could look like if we were able to place the most marginalized communities at the center of our work and support them holistically. 

Having worked on both sides of the nonprofit funding exchange, funders and beneficiary organizations are constrained by the notion that this work has to be measured in a numbers-driven, tangible way. We must prove change is happening through traditional ideas of data primarily to justify the funding decision was worth it. But that often means our nonprofits have to shift their approach to fit the requirements of funders, not the communities in need of service. 

So when I imagine what NYC would look like if Black leaders and communities were centered, supported, and resourced through the nonprofit sector, my mind immediately sees a system rooted in acknowledgment and trust:

  • Acknowledgment that the nonprofit system--and especially the funding system--as it currently exists is not built to let Black leaders and practitioners do their most impactful and innovative work.
  • Acknowledgment that this system rests within larger economic and social systems that perpetuate the need for nonprofits to try and remedy the effects.
  • Trust that our Black leaders have the capacity and ability to do the work they have always done for our community, often with no formal resources.
  • Trust that any entity which claims to work for the public and societal good actually does just that.

While the above claims should be rather easy to implement at both a personal and organizational level, I understand that change at a societal level takes time. In the meantime, I call upon the funding sector to start their genuine introspection on how they are funding our Black leaders and communities and taking action because it is incredibly difficult to make change without support or resources, and we need to stop forcing this situation on our Black leaders.

  • Do your approach and practice work towards achieving your mission?
  • What types of experiences and backgrounds sit on your staff? Do they reflect aspects of the communities your funding serves?
  • Are your funding parameters put in place to protect an idea of security for your funding or to empower your recipient organizations?
  • When developing your funding evaluation metrics, is that process done in conjunction with recipient organizations who have an opportunity to highlight how their programs are intended to create change?
  • Do you ask prospective recipients to share how they imagine their program or initiative being carried out if there were no restrictions on their funding?
  • How else can you support recipient organizations outside of funding? If you are invested in their success, what are the other change levers you can press to support them further?

I imagine an NYC nonprofit ecosystem that allows me and my peers to not only imagine the possibilities for change but not have to fight so hard to actually create those changes. Ultimately these systems and power dynamics will need to be upended, and a new approach will be recreated equitably. But if you are genuinely invested in creating change, then you need to invest in our leaders and our communities.

Khayriyyah Muhammad Smith, Advocate for Change

Khayriyyah is a passionate philanthropic professional focused on gender equity and the empowerment of Black and Brown girls and women across the globe. She believes change happens when funders work to create empowering, inclusive, and trust-based partnerships with organizations and communities. Khayriyyah has worked in philanthropy and the nonprofit sectors for the past 12 years, starting as a youth grantmaker in a participatory grantmaking program. She is also a privileged graduate of Goldsmiths, University of London where she earned her MA in Human Rights, Culture, and Social Justice.